Americans are known for their propensity to “supersize” almost everything, and Catholic parishes are no exception.
A new study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has found that amid parish mergers and closures in recent years and shifts in the Catholic population, parish communities are growing, with more Masses, bigger budgets and larger staffs to serve expanded, ethnically diverse congregations.
“The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes” report, the first phase of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, found that one-third of Catholic parishes have more than 1,200 registered families, with an average of 3,277 individual parishioners — a 45 percent increase in the last decade. And in some parishes, the numbers are much higher.
The increase has put some Catholic parishes in the same league as Christian megachurches. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research defines a megachurch as having a regular weekly attendance of 2,000 or more individuals, and states there are 1,200 such churches in the United States. And although the institute doesn’t include Catholic parishes in those numbers, it does note that based on Mass attendance figures alone, roughly 3,000 Catholic communities would qualify as megaparishes.
CARA senior research associate Mark M. Gray, who led the study, told Our Sunday Visitor that the expanding parish sizes have been caused by both the current Catholic population migrating — particularly to the South and Southwest — and an influx of Catholic immigrants in those same areas.
“Now the Catholic population isn’t closely aligned with where parishes are, so that’s why you’ve had parish closures, and you haven’t had enough new parishes created in areas where there is growth in the Catholic population,” he said. “So what you end up with is larger parishes.”
With corporations moving their headquarters out of big cities, many Catholics have relocated to traditionally non-Catholic areas. Such is the case in Charlotte, N.C., where St. Matthew Parish has grown to an astounding 8,500 families in its short 25-year history. The 2,000-seat church is routinely filled on weekends, with additional Masses held in the parish gym and a nearby Episcopalian church to accommodate the large numbers of worshippers.
But bigger isn’t necessarily better, Gray said, citing statistics that larger parishes have smaller percentages of regular Mass attendance and lower financial giving per household.
“There is kind of a diminishing returns effect where larger parishes seem to be less active and less giving,” he said.
In St. Matthew Parish, coordinator of volunteers and communications Pat White finds that even with so many parishioners, it still can be difficult to get people involved.
“I think we have exactly the same challenges as small parishes have,” White told OSV. “We have 5,000 volunteers in our ministries, but proportionally, it is still the same 15 percent who do most everything.”
Today’s larger parishes also require more staff members to run the numerous ministries needed in a big community, and many of those leadership positions are held by laypeople. The CARA report finds that approximately 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers are now serving in parishes nationwide.
White said that at St. Matthew, the staff of more than 50 full- and part-time employees make it possible to offer a wide array of programs such as adult faith formation classes and small discussion groups.
Christopher Anderson, executive director of the National Association for Lay Ministry, one of five national ministry organizations involved in the Emerging Models project, told OSV that with fewer priests available, the numbers of laity who help to staff parishes will only continue to grow.
Anderson said that a major challenge for the Church will not simply be finding enough laypeople to serve parishes, but recruiting ministers from the ever-growing Hispanic community and more young adults.
“There is a general concern that our staffs don’t necessarily represent the diverseness of our parishes,” he said. “So there is a real [question] of how we can have a workforce that represents the folks that are being ministered to.”
Belonging is believing
For pastors, the challenges in running a megaparish are abundant, ranging from paying the bills to making sure that every segment of the population feels welcomed and included.
Father John Dolan, pastor of the 6,000-family St. Rose of Lima Parish in Chula Vista, Calif., knows these challenges all too well. His parish offers eight weekend Masses in two languages, draws a crowd of roughly 200 for confessions every Saturday and has approximately 50 active ministries that serve the diverse population.
“The parish is always running,” Father Dolan told OSV. “It is very vibrant.”
But in such a large parish, Father Dolan said there’s a concern that people will feel lost in the crowd. That’s why parish leaders attempt to ensure that there are enough opportunities for everyone to get involved.
“Because the church is so large, we really rely on our small groups and ministries and organizations to bring those people in so they take a little more ownership in the parish,” he said.
Doing so not only adds a personal touch, he said, but it also helps people to feel more connected to their faith.
“The adage is, ‘belonging leads to believing,’” he said. “And if they don’t feel like they belong, then they are not going to buy into the mission of the Church.”
Scott Alessi writes from Chicago.