A portrait of parish life in the United States is taking shape as data pours in from nationwide surveys of pastors, lay ministers and parishioners. 

parish leaders
A volunteer at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., prepares for a weekly food distribution. CNS photo

Findings from the most recent survey of parish ministerial leaders — conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University — were released Aug. 15, and posted on CARA’s research blog “1964.” 

The survey was commissioned by the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a collaboration of five national Catholic ministerial organizations that seek to understand how best to address the Church’s needs in the 21st century. 

“The organizations have been concerned about how we are going to meet the changing needs of tomorrow’s Church at the parish level,” said Neil A. Parent, director of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project. 

Parent told Our Sunday Visitor that the member organizations intend to analyze the data this fall to begin formulating remedies with the hope of reinvigorating parish life and engaging non-practicing Catholics back into the sacramental life of their local church. 

“We don’t want all this information to just go on the shelf somewhere,” Parent said. “We want to make sure these things are implemented.” 

Keeping parish life vital

The parish ministry leaders’ survey was the second such in CARA’s efforts to gauge Catholics’ perceptions of their parishes. In 2010, CARA surveyed pastors and parish life coordinators, who can be deacons, religious or lay leaders. CARA is currently compiling data from its parishioners’ survey. 

Encouraged to Lead
A majority of parish leaders reported being encouraged to enter parish ministry by a priest. Here are the main sources of encouragement: 
Priest: 53%
Fellow parishioner: 34%
Friend: 29%

The latest survey shows that parish ministry leaders, for the most part, are satisfied with their work, which they see as a calling, and believe that their individual parishes are meeting their communities’ spiritual needs. 

The survey also provides many insights into the people who keep parish life vital by organizing adult spiritual formation programs, religious education classes, liturgies, music and various community outreach and volunteer efforts. 

Eighty-five percent of the parish leaders who responded to the CARA survey were laypeople, excluding men and women religious. 

“Laypeople, more and more, are assuming the ministerial duties of the parish,” Parent said. “This goes along well with Pope Benedict XVI’s call for the laity to have an active role in, and share responsibility in, the Church.” 

Parish ministry leaders also tend to be highly educated. Nine in 10 have attended college. Two-thirds have undergraduate degrees, and more than one-third have graduate-level degrees. 

Gender makeup

About 57 percent of all parish leaders are women — lay and religious — according to the survey. 

Mark Gray, a research associate at CARA, told OSV that the data confirms a longtime trend of women being active in, and leading, parish ministries. 

“Parish ministers have almost always been mainly female,” Gray said. “I don’t think that means that men are losing a desire to be engaged in the Church.” 

Parent added that while the phenomenon shows that women actually are often filling important leadership positions in ministry, it also underscores the need for men’s involvement. 

“It’s important to have a male presence if we want to attract young men who want to be fully participating members of the faith community,” said Parent. “We have to take steps to assure that we have more balance in lay ecclesial ministerial positions.” 

One factor that may discourage men from working in full-time parish ministry is the relatively low average salary, which is around $31,000, according to the CARA survey. 

“There may be many young men who feel that they have to be the main provider for the family, and that they can’t make it on a church salary,” Parent said. “That’s something we’re going to have to take a look at.” 

Appealing to youth

Another thing to note from the survey is that the average age of parish leaders is 59. 

“That was one thing that caught my attention,” Parent said. “That’s quite high if we want vitality and energy in the parishes. It’s very important that we try to make sure we have young people interested in ministry, to have leadership positions within the parish.” 

Still, young people, especially those of the millenial generation, defined as being born in 1982 or later, are seeking out volunteer and leadership positions in their parishes. The millennials report being 16 years old on average when they first feel the call to enter ministry or service. The average age, overall, for parish leaders first sensing that call to serve is 29. 

Gray said millennials often return to an active life in the parish as they get married and have children. Also, the sluggish economy may be prompting younger people to consider careers in ministry. Parent suggested that ministries geared to youths and young adults may also be helping to develop the call to ministry among the millenial set. 

The millennials — as well as parish leaders of Hispanic descent — are also less likely than their older counterparts to think their parishes do a good job of fostering hospitality and a sense of welcome. 

Better diversity, outreach

Almost nine in 10 parish leaders self-identify their race and ethnicity as non-Hispanic white, though some figures suggest that 40 percent of Catholics in the United States today are Hispanic. 

“We have far more non-white ethnicity in our parishes than are reflected in our lay ecclesial ministers, and that’s not good,” Parent said. “We need a greater balance among our ecclesial ministers to better help serve the parishes. The same thing holds true for Catholic young adults. They need to see people in their age range in the pews and in leadership positions.” 

Gray added that most of the diversity in the American Church is found in the younger generation, which is also often a driving force in their parishes’ use of social media and new technology. 

“If the parishes are using new media, it’s probably because the millennials are making it happen,” Gray said. 

More than three in four parish leaders surveyed agreed “somewhat” or “very much” that their parish uses new technology and media effectively. Ninety-four percent of respondents said their parish has a website, and that half of the parish leaders provide online content. The leaders in larger parishes were more likely to say that they used emerging technologies and social media. 

However, despite their parishes’ online presence, millennials and older parish leaders were less likely to provide a “good” or “excellent” evaluation when asked about parishes’ efforts to spread the Gospel. 

“Evangelization and outreach is going to have to become a priority for us,” Parent said. “Heretofore, we haven’t been of the mindset other Christians have that we should be more active in spreading our faith. But if we deeply believe that we have real value in the Church in helping people with their spiritual lives, then we ought to be more enthusiastic about reaching out to those who shared the faith with us at one point, but are no longer doing so.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.