The Four Types of Parishes (Dying, Declining, Swelling, Growing)

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How is the health and vitality of your parish? Will it be around in twenty years?

Through my work at L’Alto Catholic Institute, I have come to realize that every parish in the United States can be put into one of four buckets.

  1. Dying

  2. Declining

  3. Swelling

  4. Growing (Healthy)

1) Dying parishes are on their last legs. A great example is my dad’s childhood parish. When he was growing up, there were three Catholic parishes within a few blocks. When all of the Polish people who had originally settled in the neighborhood had kids who moved out, however, they were not necessarily replaced by people who were Catholic. At a certain point, harsh as it sounds, a parish hits a tipping point where there is just not enough practically to be able to sustain a community. Revitalization becomes difficult, if not impossible. The best scenario for this parish is actually for it to combine with other communities to create a solid base from which to bring renewal.

2) Declining parishes are the majority of parishes in the United States. The scary thing about a declining parish is that it might not even recognize yet that it is declining! There may be a veneer of health. Overall attendance has stayed about the same, offertory is about where it was 20 years ago, maybe a dip of 10% or so, but underneath the surface, there are cracks. RE classes are much smaller than they were 20 years ago. There are fewer young families in the pews, leading to a higher average age. Fewer people are engaged in the life of the parish.

Here is the harsh reality. In our current context, if a parish is in “maintenance mode,” it is actually already declining. Though the facade of health is still there, and the parish might even have a lot of ministries, the failure to form disciples across multiple generations means that this parish will eventually hit a demographic cliff if something does not change. These parishes need to commit to revitalization today before they hit a point where it will become much more difficult, if not impossible.

The upside is, it is not too late! A declining parish can still turn things around by committing to becoming a Growing parish. This is a great scenario from which to drive renewal because if this parish commits to forming disciples, the people and the resources are there to actually move the needle!

3) Swelling parishes are usually parishes in areas where there has been a huge population growth in recent memory. Maybe the suburban sprawl reached what used to be a more rural community and new developments led to a huge influx of families. These are typically those parishes where you see numbers of families in the 5000+ ballpark. The diocese has yet to build a lot of parishes in the area to meet the growing need, so one lucky parish boomed seemingly overnight. The issue here is that the growth in numbers can be mistaken for overall health. Activity can be seen as vitality. If the mission of the Church is to form disciples, though, these parishes have to scratch beneath the surface to see if they are really accomplishing that mission. Just because attendance and offertory is up does not mean the Church is necessarily forming disciples. It is even often the case that, if you look at the statistics, the parish is not growing at the same rate as the surrounding area.

4) Growing and healthy parishes are those who are growing for one reason only: formation of disciples. These parishes feel different. The Adoration chapel is full. Confession lines are long. They have dynamic outreach to the community both in terms of social justice and evangelization. Members of the parish are routinely living out the mission of spreading the Gospel in their own lives. They take personal ownership for the mission of the Church, feeling deeply the call to missionary discipleship. This parish is seeing reasonable growth in attendance and offertory and it is more sustainable because it is replicating across multiple generations. Even if the parish is in an area seeing overall population decline, the numbers of families in the parish is actually holding steady or even growing.  Dozens are baptized at the Easter Vigil every year and people are having life-changing encounters with Jesus on a regular basis. This is the parish you want to be and it is also the parish Jesus wants you to be.

Without becoming a missional, Growing parish, Swelling parishes eventually become Declining parishes, and Declining parishes eventually become Dying parishes. We have already seen this happen in many communities over the last few generations.

So, how, then, do you become a Growing parish?

If I have to summarize the hallmarks of a healthy, growing parish in as simple language as possible it would be that every Growing parish is characterized by these two realities:

1) Everyone in the parish understands that the mission of the parish is to form disciples both of those in the pews and non-members.

2) Everyone has an abundantly clear understanding of the process whereby disciples are formed in the parish and how their unique gifts play a role in that process.

Growing parishes know that their mission is to form disciples, they have a clear understanding for how that actually happens in their context, and they have been faithfully carrying out that mission for a decade, leading to culture change over time.

That is it. It is really that simple. Instilling these two hallmarks can be easier said than done though!

This is adopting Christ’s own vision for the parish as your own. By making the mission to form disciples central to everything that happens, at your parish, you are living out the heart of the Great Commission. The difference maker, though, is not to allow that mission to just be a statement on a website somewhere but to also become extremely strategic as far as how that actually happens in your community.

After you have set this vision and the strategy, everything else becomes just tactics. What programs, initiatives, events, groups, etc. you use can be unique to your parish setting, as long as they are serving a clear discipleship pathway that reflects the catechumenal model and discipleship thresholds. This provides incredible flexibility as far as the actual plan as long as it all just comes back to making sure that everything that happens in your parish serves those two hallmarks. just

Tim Glemkowski