Some thoughts on how to grow a parish

20190609_105738Growing our communities in the ordinariates for Catholics of Anglican tradition is an ongoing preoccupation of mine, especially after the talk Bishop Steven Lopes gave at the Anglican Tradition in the Catholic Church conference in Toronto last November.

He spoke then of the fragility of our communities and at the same time exhorted us to use that fragility as a way to draw closer to God, to rely on Him more closely.

Recently, Stephen Lybrand has been posting on Facebook some of his ideas for parish growth.  I asked him to send his comments along to me for posting here because they are worth considering and discussing.

Stephen Lybrand and his wife Dawn came into full communion with the Catholic Church on Pentecost 2016 at the Ordinariate Parish St. John the Baptist in Bridgeport Pennsylvania. He currently serves on the Pastoral Team of the Sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) at their American Province Mother House and retirement center in Rosemont Pennsylvania. SHCJ was founded by Cornelia Connelly another Episcopalian who came into full communion with the Catholic Church (December 8, 1835).

Here are Parts 1-3 of what he posted on Facebook.  I will comment on them in future posts and add future posts of Stephen’s in the future.  Here is the first segment for your consideration.

Suggestions for growing a parish: Introduction

I am writing a few posts to share my thoughts based on several years of experience in growing churches and many years in stagnant or declining churches. These ideas are offered only as suggestions based on my experience. They may or may not be of interest to any of you that’s ok. I have felt called to share them for a while and finally putting them down. I have about 8 so far and will plan on sharing them daily or every other day.

As way of background I am a Catholic layman, former non-denominational Pastor on staff at a growing contemporary megachurch, and Anglican Priest with experience taking a dying Anglo-Catholic parish and breathing new life into it, in addition to helping with a new church plant. My time at the megachurch was a two year anomaly in a lifetime of Anglicanism both as an Episcopalian and later the Anglican Church of North America before coming into full communion with the Holy Father Through the Ordinariate Chair of St Peter in 2016.

A note to lay people who read these suggestions and find themselves in a parish where the leadership is not ready to grow nor open to new ideas. DO NOT FORCE THESE IDEAS AT YOUR PARISH OR PRESSURE YOUR PRIEST IF HE IS NOT READY. God has placed your Priest to lead that parish and a) his job is hard enough without parishioners making his life difficult, b) you don’t know God’s plan for him and the parish. Trust enough that if folks are hesitant it is because it is not the right time.  And of course pray for your Priest (do that anyway 😊).

 

Suggestions for growing a parish: Part 1

  1. The parish and leadership need to want the parish to grow.

I know this seems antithetical to begin a discussion on growing a parish by stating that the parish needs to want to grow. Over the last 5 decades I have spoken to very few Priests who say they don’t want their parish to grow, but I’ve found far fewer willing to enact the changes to allow the growth to happen. There is a huge difference between wanting more people to worship with you and growing a church. It’s similar to someone saying they want to be wealthy, and becoming wealthy. Many people “want” more money but either don’t know what to do to obtain it or are unwilling to make the changes to get the stated results.

Just as building solid financial habits can be easier with someone starting in the workforce, growing a community can be easier with a new group or community than an already established parish. There are two tenets having to do with attitude which lay the foundation for growth to happen.

  1. First is that the parish is getting what it’s getting because it’s doing what it is doing. The people who show up on Sunday are showing up because the parish is what it is. The opposite is true as well; those who visit and don’t come back, or those who stop coming, are doing so because the parish is doing what it is doing. TO CHANGE YOUR RESULTS YOU NEED TO CHANGE WHAT YOU ARE DOING. This is particularly difficult for those parishes which have had a tough time over the last decade coming into the Ordinariate. What has allowed them to survive is sticking to their guns and driving on through difficult times. Someone coming in with new ideas often (unintentionally) shakes things up a bit.
  2. Secondly, to get a different result you need to do things differently. Now these may not be big changes, they are often just small changes which help put things in a new light or make the parish more “user friendly” to the newcomer.

Everything begins with the parish Priest and members of influence in the parish. Organizations reflect the leadership. The parish as it is reflects the vision and actions of those in charge. If the leaders are satisfied with where the parish is, it will be difficult to institute growth/change. In the worst cases they will sabotage the successes.

Perhaps the hardest part of this is saying good-bye to some long time members who can’t stay due to the changes. I had a couple who couple left their last parish 10 years before because the parish insisted on shaking hands at the Peace (yes really). This couple were also Masons. Having not yet learned this, one day I preached that Masonry was not compatible with Christianity. They were upset with me, said all the usual that I was close minded, not knowledgeable, etc. They vociferously argued they previous Priest and Bishop both knew they were Masons and were fine with it. After all, Masons believed in Jesus in addition to all the other Gods so it had to be compatible with Christianity (yes, they really said that…..) They determined shaking hands wasn’t that bad and so went back to the old parish while we continued to attract those of orthodox belief. But there were repercussions. One of the other long term members (and person of influence) were upset this couple had left and I wasn’t changing the teaching to bring them back.

The pruning process can be hard and if you implement changes in order to grow the parish you need to be aware up front that doing things differently will cause a few ruffled feathers in those who are coming to your parish for what it currently offers. I hold no animosity towards those who make the choice that their current norm is good enough.

Let me reiterate something I wrote in the introduction; if the Priest / people of influence are not willing to implement growth techniques, I suggest not pushing him/them. There are a variety of factors going into changing a parish or maintaining the status quo.

In every parish there is both a formal and informal power structure and growing the parish can be seen as a threat to those who have had long term influence. Some leaders are happy with their current situation. They have their congregation, enough money is coming in to pay the bills, and they know changing things may upset some of their long time parishioners / friends. Often it’s best not to disrupt the status quo until the leadership is ready to move on.

Finally, your Priest needs your support. If his vision is different from yours it’s ok. If it really bothers you I would suggest finding a new place to worship. Your Priest needs parishioners who back the mission (or at least attend without badmouthing the direction of the parish). If you can’t be supportive, find another parish.

  1. Look through a newcomers eye.
  2. People come back to a church when they feel comfortable, not lost. For a parish to both save souls and to grow, it needs to attract newcomers. In fact, parishes which grow are aggressively focused on the newcomer experience.

This is incredibly hard for many Traditional Anglican parishes to understand. Current members attend for the richness and beauty of what an Anglican Mass provides, and they’ve been doing it so long they can’t remember having to look for instructions or guidance to make it through a Mass. The higher the better for most. Candles, vestments and Hymnals-Great! Sung Mass-Even Better! And it is. But for a newcomer or visitor walking into a sung Mass with Hymnals, Hymn Boards and Multiple Genuflections during the Mass the first visit is akin to visiting a foreign country.  A parish needs a simple way to translate what they do into a way the newcomer can absorb it.

  1. A parish does well to walk people through the Mass by giving simple instructions. “We continue on page 345 in the blue hymnal”. “Please join us for the Nicene Creed on page 3 of your booklet”. And if new people are visiting have the Priest or designated person come out before Mass and explain what the newcomer can expect. I know this is difficult for many who take great pride in knowing the intricacies of Anglican high liturgy and think basic instruction takes away from the experience.

That’s fine, just understand the lack of clarity for the newcomer is causing a number of them to not come back. This reflects back to point 1 about desire to grow. Does the congregation want to grow enough that they are willing to change a small thing in the liturgy if it means more people joining the parish?

My personal feeling is a parish shouldn’t have an “experienced member Mass” until they are large enough to have a second Mass. I understand this is a minority view, but my feeling is we have an obligation to those not yet in the Church, both for their salvation and our fulfilling the great commission. Otherwise we are fighting a war of attrition of as we count fewer gray heads each year.

  1. Another newcomer friendly characteristic which makes a big difference is having the Mass last about an hour. If they are coming from a Protestant church they are used to going about an hour. If they are coming from a Novus Ordo parish, they are probably used to 45-50 minutes. If you want people to come back, have your Mass last about an hour.
  2. I almost didn’t put this in, but I recalled seeing a couple of parishes doing this. DO NOT EVER, EVER, ASK A NEW PERSON OR FAMILY TO STAND UP, OR POINT THEM OUT IN ANY SPECIAL PUBLIC WAY. NEVER, EVER, EVER! You would do better just telling them you don’t want them there, which would have a more beneficial result because someone would come back again just to spite you. Unlike a family you make stand up who will never darken your door again. Is that clear enough?

The flip side of that is to make sure people welcome the new faces privately after Mass. But this shouldn’t need to be stated either….right?

  1. Don’t talk about money from the pulpit except in a tangential way or if the daily lesson about tithing. Even in that case, don’t ask for money or set an expectation of giving from the pulpit. When the Priest teaches members to be disciples they will give. Plain and simple. If/when you need to speak about money do it in mail, email or at the coffee hour following Mass. And do it in such a way that those who are just getting by don’t have an inkling of guilt upon hearing the message. 80% of your giving comes from 20% of your parishioners anyway. Why chance alienating the other 80%?

A neat technique I practiced when I ran a parish was, whenever I saw new faces, at the collection, to ask first time visitors not to give today and just pass the plate to the next person. I can’t tell you how many times new families told me that one line played a part in their returning. It took pressure off and allowed them to be more comfortable.

 

  1. Focus on families.
    A. The growth engine of any parish is families of childbearing age. Make them feel welcome and make it easy for them to experience the Mass with their children if possible, and alone if not. Anglican worship is sensual; hearing & singing music, smelling incense, speaking prayers, seeing the beauty of vestments and adornments, and tasting Christs Body and Blood. Parents are coming to experience all these wonderful qualities of the Mass. Causing them to miss out on this experience will make it easier for them to not come back.

While everyone knows families with young children sometimes have noisy children, do your best to minimize the inconvenience and possible embarrassment of a noisy child. Hire a college student to babysit the kids and free the parents to have an hour a week to enjoy themselves. I assure you, this will go a long way to having them come back.

  1. The large non-denominational church where I was on staff had 2 major growth engines. Most effective was personal invitations which I will cover in another post. The second was focusing on the children’s ministries. Whether dynamic children’s programs on Sunday or the huge Summer Camp, they would get dozens of new families every year from high quality, age appropriate and dynamic children’s programs. They would not charge the families for attendance and they would give each child a t-shirt. The only catch was the child could pick up the t-shirt at church the Sunday following kid’s camp. Obviously it would expose the parents to the church, the kid’s would have fun at the children’s programs with their new friends and would want to come back.
  2. Just because you are small doesn’t mean you can’t have quality kids programs. Find a teacher in your congregation or go consult with the children’s minister of a local megachurch to get ideas. They will be happy to discuss their successes and give you ideas. Hire a couple of early childhood education college kids for $25 a week each.
  3. Families of child-bearing age have friends of child-bearing age. Set a culture of invitation and you will begin to find singles showing up as well. Singles looking for a spouse go to where there are more singles….you get the idea.

Part 4 is here.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on how to grow a parish

  1. Pingback: More thoughts on how to grow a parish | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

  2. Pingback: Ordinariate parishes as schools of prayer | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

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