success stories

The Secret Behind Successful Parishes

Eugene Hemrick

When we think of successful parishes, there immediately comes to mind stories of innovative programs tailored to the particular needs of parishioners, staffs working together harmoniously, and a thriving community. As stirring as are these stories, it is even more inspiring to unearth the very roots of their success, and to discover their bottom line. On October 11, Washington Theological Union [WTU] in Washington, DC, hosted the seminar “Involving the Laity: Lessons from Parishes of Excellence” aimed at accomplishing this.

The seminar revolved around four parishes that are praised for their excellence in: Excellent Catholic Parishes [Paul Wilkes, Paulist Press, Mawah, NJ, 2001].

Throughout the seminar, one indispensable principle continuously rang out: “The moral fiber of people supercedes innovative programs in creating successful parishes.”

So often when we think of successful parishes, our focus is on the design of programs, their uniqueness and appeal. This centers our attention on the results of successful endeavors. But to unearth their essence, our conversation needs to go beyond programs to people and the unique virtues they possess.

Although it wasn’t mentioned by name in the seminar, the virtue of kindness was often implied as a central ingredient for success. A main attribute of kindness is empowering others, and allowing them to be themselves. The antithesis to empowerment is a superiority attitude that leads to micro managing and closing off the space of others.

One pastor of a successful parish emphasized that encouraging staff to use their unique talents and gifts to the maximum is imperative to success. He was quick to point out that his entire parish operation is modeled on this Vatican II principle.

Gratitude is yet another vital virtue for parish success, and simply translates into remembering and rewarding those responsible for it. A word closely associated with gratitude is recognition, which reassures co-workers: “We know what it took to achieve what you did; we are deeply appreciative; we can’t thank you enough; you are a gift to us!”

To add to the meaningfulness of gratitude, several participants at the WTU seminar stressed the importance of creating opportunities for public recognition at award dinners, and also within the context of the liturgy. This, they pointed out, adds weight to recognition by creating a collective, community force behind it.

Although prudence was not mentioned as such in the seminar, it was definitely implied. One of the principle attributes of prudence is docility. Applied to parishes, it counsels them to study their demographics, and the various attitudes and practices of parishioners through the eyes of research. When they neglect research, they leave themselves open to ignorance, substituting hearsay for the truth, poor decision-making, and loss of credibility.

On this point, one pastor recalled how his parishioners were accustomed to thinking of people from impoverished cultures as poor parish supporters. A survey he conducted revealed just the opposite. This finding allowed him to give credit where credit was due, and also to prod wealthier people to follow the example of the poor.

It goes without saying that there is not a parish today that doesn’t yearn for success. If it is to be truly achieved, parishes need to employ highly skilled people whose greatest ability is practicing virtue par excellence. This is the bottom line to parish success.