Why must parishes change? A Q&A with a national expert on Families of Parishes

Catholics attend Mass at Sacred Heart Parish in Dearborn. As the Archdiocese of Detroit begins a new governance model for its parishes July 1, Detroit Catholic asked Dan Cellucci, CEO of the Philadelphia-based Catholic Leadership Institute, about similar changes taking place in dioceses across the country. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

As the Archdiocese of Detroit transitions to a new model of parish governance in Families of Parishes on July 1, Detroit Catholic caught up with Dan Cellucci, CEO of the Philadelphia-based Catholic Leadership Institute, to talk about how demographics and trends are driving changes in dioceses across the country — and how Catholics can respond in faith.

Dan Cellucci

Detroit Catholic: Tell me a little about your background and qualifications?

Dan Cellucci: I’ve been blessed to serve the mission of Catholic Leadership Institute for the past 16 years and as CEO for the last five years. I began working for the apostolate in our fundraising efforts when it was only a full-time staff of three. After five years, I took responsibility for all of our programs and services, including our well-known ongoing leadership formation program for priests, Good Leaders, Good Shepherds as well as directing some of our largest consulting projects, including the Second General Synod of the Archdiocese of Miami, the Archdiocese of Boston’s “Disciples in Mission” initiative helping parishes move into collaboratives, and “On Mission for the Church Alive!” in Pittsburgh. 

I’ve also been privileged to lead CLI’s Disciple Maker Index, one of the largest studies on parish life with more than 300,000 parishioners responding in 1,500-plus parishes, 14 different languages, and 40-plus different dioceses.

In July, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit will get their first look at Families of Parishes, which are intended to help parishes remain focused on their missionary identity amid changing demographics. Detroit isn’t the only diocese undergoing changes like this. What have you noticed from a national perspective? 

You are absolutely right. Detroit is not unlike Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or any diocese in the Northeast or Midwest. As we saw in the initial findings of the 2020 Census, the population in the United States is changing, and particularly in our part of the country. The European (and largely Catholic) immigration that spurred the founding of so many parishes in the Northeast and Midwest has not been replaced by positive birthrates nor other migration. Migration to places like North Carolina, Texas, and Florida has also contributed to these shifts. 

I think it’s important to note that every other part of the country, while not experiencing an overall population decline, is facing some challenges like Detroit, most especially an aging presbyterate, diaconate, and pool of lay professional staff. So while the overall Catholic population is growing in these areas, we are not engaging nearly all the people we could be. For example, in one southern diocese, the population grew 20% over five years, but the Mass attendance has been steadily declining 2% each year.

Can the current model of parish life be sustained over the long term? Why can’t parishes just keep ministering the same way they always have? 

Depending on how we understand the “current model,” I think the answer is yes, we can sustain parish life over the long term, but it will require making some bold choices and letting go of some “stuff” — both the material and the emotional. 

Particularly in the Northeast/Midwest, our infrastructure is increasingly a burden and a distraction. Our leaders are spending lots of energy and focus trying to keep buildings open versus keeping them full. We have very few parishioners who are focused and comfortable in evangelization. In many places, we have many more parishes than we need and not enough people to lead or serve them, and so we end up in a cycle that continues to have temporal demands consume more and more of our energy. 

At its core, a parish is a community of people led by a pastor. That model works if the infrastructure and leadership (lay and clergy) are proportional and able to prioritize the most important things.

It’s well documented that the U.S. Church is facing a shortage of priests in the coming decades, and that the number of practicing Catholic households is declining. Can you put those trends into perspective? 

The practicing Catholics trendline is actually more acute. We often tend to lead off with the lack of priests, but if the sacramental declines that we are seeing among the lay faithful continue at the current rate, we won’t have a priest shortage when you put it in the context of their care for Mass-going Catholics. Each year, we are replacing about a third of the priests we are losing. In some dioceses, vocations to the priesthood are actually up slightly. 

Just in the natural shift as Baby Boomers get older and Generation X takes their place as the folks who will be some of the key volunteers in our parishes, we can project a net loss of about 8 million Catholics nationwide a year. While subsequent generations such as Millennials and Gen Z are larger from an overall size, their rates of practice are more in alignment with the declines seen in Generation X.

Though we don’t like to talk about it, fewer priests and fewer parishioners naturally means fewer financial resources. Is there a difference in how different generations (Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, etc.) respond in their financial support of the Church? How will this impact the Church in the decades ahead? 

We may not like to talk about it, but we need to talk about it. We are used to lot of things that our parishes provide, but from my experience, we have little understanding as to what they actually cost or require to be able to provide. One of the common suggestions I get from parishioners is, “Just hire a qualified lay person to run the parish.” From a financial perspective alone, in many cases we wouldn’t be able to afford to pay them a just wage. 

Likewise, if we think about the necessary deferred maintenance to keep our churches in great shape, the subsidies and scholarships that keep our Catholic schools within reach for many families, or even the little financial investments we make in evangelization currently, all of these things are dependent upon our support as parishioners. 

Our research of Mass-going Catholics would align with larger philanthropic trendlines across generations. Parishioners under age 45 are much more likely to be occasional and less deliberate about their giving to the parish. In other words, they may put something in the collection basket when they are at Mass, but they are less likely to be making a monthly or annual intentional contribution. Compared to those over age 45, for whom 50% or more might be making regular contributions, under 45 is closer to 25-30%. Some of this might be a factor of phase of life, but larger philanthropic giving trends across all industries would suggest that the Millennial generation will continue this type of giving pattern. Most of our parishes’ offertory is coming from 5-7% of parishioners, and those are primarily Baby Boomers.

We’ve talked about a lot of gloomy statistics so far, but there must be some reason for optimism, right? 

Amen! One of the best parts of my job is getting to watch parishes that are flourishing despite all of these daunting statistics. Parishes can be fruitful. They are being fruitful, but it requires leadership, sacrifice, courage, and humility on the part of the entire community. There is no shortage of yearning in this world for what a life in Christ provides. We have this treasure in our parishes; we just have to make sure our focus is on sharing it with others.

Is there any research about what does attract people to a parish? 

As we have studied the parishes that are bucking all these trends, there are four factors that seem to be at play, regardless of where the parish is located. 

First, the parish has a targeted or segmented plan for the spiritual growth of their people. The parish recognizes that people are all at a different place of their Catholic journey, and they have strategies, programs and outreach for people all along that spectrum of faith — from those who are in the initial phases of seeking to those who are ready to be sent out on mission. 

Secondly, they have a strong and healthy culture of shared leadership. The pastor does his job well, but everyone else from the councils to the staff to the volunteers see themselves as a critical component of building culture. They have a plan for the future and growth. They hold each other accountable. They offer feedback regularly and constructively. They measure their effectiveness. 

The third factor is the quality of Sunday worship. We know it’s where we will meet 90% of our active parishioners, so the parishes that are thriving really invest in making sure worship is as intentional, prayerful and participatory as possible. In our research, there is not one style of worship that seems to be more prevalent among these parishes, simply worship done well. 

Lastly, and probably most difficult for us, is that these parishes really embrace a “missionary impulse,” as Pope Francis has said. They understand the larger community in which they are located, and their activities, strategies, hospitality — their primary focus — is on building relationships with all the souls in their territory.

Under the current parish model, a lot of pressure is placed upon the priest, who often is asked to care for more than one parish community. How do these pressures manifest themselves, and how can the laity — especially in alternative parish models like Families of Parishes — help? 

Even in the “normal” model, this is not how it should be. Both priests and the lay faithful really need to work to make sure we don’t contribute to placing all of the responsibility on Father. 

What often happens is that a parishioner or council suggests a new idea or raises a concern that they want addressed. Many of us might offer feedback or ideas, but fewer of us will commit to help fulfill the idea. That work has to go somewhere, and there is only so much time that the pastor and the staff have. 

Additionally, a lot of times we feel the need to get the pastor’s approval or endorsement on lots of decisions. Some of these are appropriate, but some of these are not. Clear decision-making processes will be important, especially in Families of Parishes, to reduce a bottleneck around a pastor who is trying to lead multiple communities. Of course, sometimes the challenge works the other way, where a pastor likes to micro-manage and thus takes a lot of responsibility or oversight for things he doesn’t need to because he has a particular way in which he wants it done. The ability to delegate responsibly is an important skill for any leader. It will be especially important for any pastors in Families of Parishes.

It’s been recently documented by the Pew Research Center, CARA and others that even among Mass-going Catholics, belief in certain key tenets of the faith, such as Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist, is lacking. We see this reflected in infrequent participation in the sacraments. How can our parishes be better positioned to tackle these challenges? 

The biggest thing we can do is no longer make assumptions. We all need to be willing to engage in conversations around beliefs and practices — not from an exhortation standpoint, but from a grace-filled perspective. 

We shouldn’t tell people they need to go to confession as much as we tell people the grace and peace that we have experienced from availing ourselves of the sacrament. We shouldn’t tell people to pray as much as we should offer to pray with them. People will be attracted to our witness, and then can come to understand the responsibilities and deeper truths that are such a rich part of our tradition. That initial witness and relationship of trust is essential for people to open their hearts to all that the Church has to offer. Evangelization needs to precede catechesis, and evangelization is best when it is one-on-one and flows from an authentic witness of one’s discipleship that attracts others to want to discover more.

We talk a lot about the need for becoming a “missionary” church, but the idea of evangelization is scary for many Catholics. In your opinion, what is the simplest thing an individual Catholic can do to take ownership of their parish’s future? 

It is scary! But nothing in life that is worthwhile comes easy. Our model of success is a crucifix. The simplest thing we can all do as individual Catholics is to ask ourselves one simple question: “How comfortable do I feel in my faith?” If the answer is “very,” I think we have some work to do. 

Perhaps our discomfort lies in our understanding of Church teaching or some practice of faith, and that is our first step. Perhaps we feel pretty confident about our own practice, but we are uncomfortable in discussing faith with others, and that’s our next step in growth. Imagine if each of us set as a goal to be someone’s sponsor for RCIA one day. Just one person throughout the course of our entire life. That journey begins with looking at our own heart, how comfortable or uncomfortable we are today, and how willing we are to take whatever the next step is in our journey faith to get us closer to the cross and to Christ.

St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “God doesn’t call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.” How can this advice guide our thinking as we face a changing landscape? 

We believe the victory has already been won. The mission of our lives is to give glory to God through our witness and through inviting others to rejoice in that victory. We can look at our changing landscape and lament what we feel like we are losing and continue to ask why. That is normal and understandable. It’s just not very productive. 

Or, we can ask the better question: “Lord, where are you in all of this?” If we listen to His answer and continue to seek His guidance, despite all the changes and challenges we might face, we can never lose.