The marks of vibrant, healthy parishes

Mary Dell Flattery
St. Mary Parish in Tipton hosted a Mardi Gras fundraiser earlier this month in the parish hall. Guests watched a dueling pianos performance (shown), participated in silent and live auctions and ate dinner together.

By Marti Jewell and Dan Ebener
For The Catholic Messenger

What would you say if someone asked you to name the most important thing needed for a vibrant parish?  Think about it. What would that be? We asked this question of more than 500 people from the 40 different parishes whom we interviewed for the Catholic Leadership Institute’s vitality and diversity study. We looked at their answers overall and then by cultural group. 

As you may expect, people want a parish with good liturgy, music, formation, service and, of course, a good pastor. However, the four most frequent responses to our question about the marks of a vibrant parish all related to a hunger for community.  In today’s world, we want a home, a sanctuary, a place where we can be ourselves. The lost connection with our parish families during the pandemic led people to realize the value and importance of being a part of an active community.

The most frequently cited mark of a healthy parish was “parishioner engagement.” In every part of the country, our interviewees called for parishes where parishioners are active, whether in parish leadership, on parish councils and committees, or as part of the many small faith groups that make up parish life. 


The second most frequently named indicator was having “lots of activities!” While it may be tempting to focus on one group or another, a variety of activities makes participation accessible to everyone. 

The third most frequently named indicator was “being a welcoming community,” where people have a sense of belonging. This is especially important to our more diverse, multicultural parishes. Hispanic and Vietnamese parishioners, especially, reminded us of the importance of cultural sensitivity and the richness of diversity. 

The fourth most frequently named indicator in our study was “the presence of happy people.” As we listened to what people had to say, it seemed to us that when people are happy, they have a sense of belonging, of acceptance and engagement. Their spiritual needs are being met.

Young adults are one group whose needs are not being met in today’s parishes. The desire to see young adults active in our parishes tied for first place in our study of signs of a vibrant community. Their absence is of great concern and merits its own mention.

We all know that young women and men in their 20s and 30s are not very active in our parishes. Pastoral leaders everywhere wonder what to do, frequently asking if we had heard any good ideas. We did find parishes that are doing some very creative things. Some focus on young families and Catholic schools. Some build wedding venues. And, it appears, some young adults are more likely to attend church functions when they are held outside the church buildings, such as in homes, restaurants, bars or coffee shops. 

Ensuring our parishes are vibrant communities takes intentionality, listening and creativity. It takes all of us: young and old, long-timers and recent arrivals, city and rural. It is about using our imagination to build a bigger tent. Keep smiling! It’s a sign of a healthy parish.

(Marti Jewell, associate professor emerita, is a professor, author and researcher of pastoral leadership. Dan Ebener is a leadership professor for the Master of Organizational Leadership (MOL) program at St. Ambrose University in Davenport and director of Parish Planning for the Diocese of Davenport. )

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