How to Increase Mass Attendance/Grow a Parish?

I’m curious to everyone’s thoughts on how to increase Mass attendance and ultimately grow a parish?

After over 20 years we received a new pastor. The mandate from the bishop was clear – increase Mass attendance and grow the parish. A team of laypersons was formed to assist the new pastor and we came out of the gates running hard.

We arranged for the local newspaper to do a big front page story on our new pastor and on our parish (perhaps the first one ever in its history.) We followed this up with six weeks worth of ads in our local newspaper in the Saturday religious section. We greatly improved our weekly bulletin, we improved the signage at our parish so people know who we are when they drive bye, etc. We now have a sign-in book for visitors with a space to put their e-mail and we immediately add them to our weekly e-mailed bulletin list.

Our on-line presence exploded in a quality manner within a month. We upgraded our website, we now take advantage of every free advertising means (from the local paper to craigslist to Wikipedia) that meets our quality standards. When something worthwhile at our parish happens we now issue formal press releases. Type our city’s name and “Catholic” into Google and our parish shows up before any other Catholic parish including the older and larger ones.

All of this has been a lot of difficult and grinding work for the last 4 months or so and you can certainly see a large number of visitors on Sundays but I don’t think it’s going to last. Few parishioners seem to want to get involved with maintaining the efforts necessary to grow Mass attendance and ultimately the parish. Even though they have been kept abreast of the efforts (and have been asked to get involved from the very beginning) they seem reluctant to really get involved.

If I ever hear “I don’t know how some Protestant churches attract such lage numbers” I think I will burst. More and more it seems like they simply out-work us and they out-work us for the long term. Their commitment to evangelization seem far stronger than our own. The weekly ad in the newspaper is dignified and costs $30.00/week and it was effective. I noticed that EVERY Protestant parish that’s growing locally has the same ad yet my pastor pulled it without explanation.

Now the people (pretty much the entire parish) who were gung-ho when others were doing the work now focus on excuses for not growing. That Catholicism is “too hard” for most. That trying to build the parish is undignified – even though all efforts have been in the best of taste. It seems to me they are afraid of commiting to work on a long term basis and/or opening their wallets (even slightly) to support evangelization efforts.

Have any of you had experiences along there lines? Thanks.

That’s a great start. :slight_smile: Now, give them something to stay for.

Make sure you have greeters at the door to welcome newcomers. Make sure that your non-Catholic visitors are made comfortable (without compromising the teachings of the Church, of course), by making sure there are resources available that explain what’s going on at Mass (your regulars will also appreciate these) and friendly welcoming people who are willing and able to answer their questions. You could even advertise your RCIA Inquiry program with a tag line like, “Ever wondered about the Catholic Church?”

Even one person at each Mass who enthusiastically greets everyone at the door with a smile will make a huge difference.

One thing that happens, even in Protestant churches (shsh, don’t tell anyone) is that the old regulars feel threatened by the newcomers. “Are they going to wreck my ministry?” “Are my friends going to like them better than me?” These are natural fears. If someone is feeling defensive, put him or her in charge of something. That will reassure them that they are still valued - that no one is trying to replace them.

Change - even positive change - is stressful. You have to take into account not only the needs of the newcomers, but also the needs of the old regulars. One reason the old regulars might be pulling back is that they see too much change happening too quickly. Try to make it so that they don’t feel like they are being pushed out of their own church, while at the same time opening up opportunities for the newcomers to start participating in various ministries. For example, if you’ve only had one Sacristan, and she has been doing it for forty years, make her the Head of Sacristans and give her a staff of new parishioners to train (even if there is only enough work for one person), rather than asking her to step down and replacing her. Just an example.

According to friend of mine who is a pastor, whom I will quote by paraphrasing the realtors: Reverence, reverence, reverence. Always, and in every way, live as if you believe the Gospel is real. Reverent Masses, generosity to the poor, defense of the vulnerable, a contagious joy in the love of God…

He figures if everybody in the parishes lives more and more as if what the Church teaches is true, that is what builds a parish, and, as he paraphrases Bob Dylan: those parishes not busy being born are busy dying.

I think he’s right.

Besides, that solution is like treating your bad back with a whirlpool and massage. Even if it didn’t treat the problem you’re trying to treat, even if you got run over by a bus and killed the next day, it would still be worth doing!

So listen to Steven Covey: Begin with the end in mind, and put most of your effort into your most wildly important goals before anything else: that is, not bodies in the pews, but souls into heaven. Which, by the way, is what the best Protestant churches do, too. The rest are just making God into a consumer comodity, and I don’t care how many names they have on their mailing list or how much money they bring in.

My parish is 21 years old. I have seen some major changes in the level of involvement with parish life. In the beginning just about everyone was involved and doing something. But as the the parish has grown older, the steady attendance at Mass has dropped. However the weekly giving stayed pretty much the same until the recent financial problems in this country.

The one thing I think made a big difference in the beginning of our parish was that the pastor set up a series of home meetings in various neighborhoods within the parish boundaries. That enabled the parishioners to get acquainted with the pastor in a more intimate setting and allowed both parishioners and pastor to share ideas and concerns. This pastor would then issue personal invitations to some people to get involved in some specific activity. (It didn’t hurt that this pastor was good at delivering motivating homilies and other speeches.)

Eventually the first pastor’s terms ended and we got a new pastor. This pastor was less of a people person. He liked people but was naturally more private than his predecessor. He was not the type to directly ask people to volunteer. He preferred to delegate that role to others.

While there are still plenty of active people in our parish we are just not getting as many of the new parishioners to contribute time or money. I think part of it is that people are less likely to feel needed by an already existing organization. (I’ve seen the same thing in new schools versus older schools.) But I honestly think that direct in-person invitations are the best way to get people to help, whether with time or money. It’s best if such invitations come from the pastor but they could also come from an associate, a deacon, or a well-known parish staff member.

I agree with the poster who said that you’ve done a great job bringing new people in. Now you need a “follow-up plan.”

  1. Make sure you have greeters at the entrance of the church who greet everyone who comes in, especially those who seem new.

  2. Put on some social activities open to the entire parish, and be sure to personally and warmly invite the new folks. Make sure you have some of your extroverted parishoners lined up to gravitate to the new folks who come so that they have someone to talk to and sit with and who can introduce them to others. Some social activities we’ve had are an ice cream social, bingo (no betting but bingo winners receive a small inexpensive wrapped gift), square dance (in our region at least, a square dance is so unusual that people found it to be a novelty and had a great time!)

  3. Presumably the newcomers are there because of the Catholic faith. Offer them some Catholic education. My pastor gives an 8-week (one day a week for 8 weeks) adult catechesis class each summer on a topic, and it’s open to anyone. This past summer the topic was Mary. Last year it was the Mass. Prior to that it was Apologetics. Maybe your pastor or deacon or other *qualified *person can put on something similar. My pastor is also has a Bible study class also open to anyone (one Sunday evening a month for 8 months from fall through spring). Then of course there is RCIA. Even if they are not sure they want to convert, they can still attend to learn about the faith. Advertise these these offerings to your newcomers and personally and warmly invite them to come.

  4. After 20 years of status quo, you have to expect some drag from the regulars. But don’t let them kill the effort. Keep going in spite of them. You had a great plan and the energy needed for the “lift-off.” Now you need a plan and energy replenishment (i.e., a system of rotating leadership and workers) for the ongoing “orbit.” Sit down as a group and evaluate what you’ve done so far and develop what the on-going activites should be and how to make sure they can be maintained.

  5. Pray! Be sure to include your efforts in the Sunday Mass intentions. (“For our efforts to spread the faith so that all may come to know the saving grace of the Eucharist.” or some such petition.)

May your efforts come to great fruition.

Something that might help.

ALWAYS have coffee hour after the Liturgy.

How else can the people get to know each other?

I heard a talk by one of the Fathers of Mercy. He mentioned how the Fathers of Mercy had become an aging community of priests, with very few vocations. The order had died off in France where it began, and the American remnant was waning. They began having a daily hour of Eucharistic Adoration, and suddenly the community began to grow with new vocations and demand for parish missions led by the Fathers of Mercy increased.

Perhaps instead of focusing on marketing and social activities, increase the focus on Christ through Eucharistic Adoration at your parish, and then let the Holy Spirit draw people in.

Nice work–thank you for sharing-
Thanks so much for this. I appreciate the effort. It really helps a lot.

We do have a great coffee social following every Sunday Mass. That’s a long standing tradition and it’s one of our strengths.

On the negative, it’s so frenetic it tends to scare-off visitors (some tend to over-greet) and our new pastor is very poor at schmoozing.

We have greeters although they are not always the most skilled and we do have a hand-out (this is new too) welcoming people to the parish.

I think you might be right about the fear of change. When the bishop gave the order, people accepted it and were genuinely greatful for the team that started to make things happen. As the number of visitors skyrocketed, that might well have been what made them shift into slow/negative mode.

Thank you for the insight.

The increased attention on marketing and social activities has certainly NOT come at the cost of lessoning our focus on Jesus Christ. Quite the opposite.

In addition to the changes I mentioned, we now have more Masses and benedictions each week so more people can attend given their schedules. The church is now open 7-5 each day for prayer when it used to be locked.

There is no more powerful form of eucharistic adoration than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and benediction.

This isn’t aimed specifically at Mass attendance or growing a parish, but more at energizing the volunteerism which I think helps both.

In another thread I posted about a parish I used to be a member of when I lived in Virginia. They never lacked for volunteers on anything (seemed like that, anyway). What they did was every few weeks at the coffee & donuts after Mass, one of the people in charge of a various group or ministry would put on a short presentation about what they were doing, introduce the people involved, and describe how their ministry/group benefitted the parish if it wasn’t obvious. They also describe opportunities how others can help. “If you only have a couple hours on Tuesday nights, we can use help with…”

Other parishes I’ve been in where they always were begging for help never did this. All you got was the name of the ministry and a point of contact/phone number in the bulletin. So many didn’t know what was involved, and you know how that goes. People think it’s more work or involves more time than they might want to give. By “teaching” people what each group does and mentioning things like it only takes a few hours on a weeknight or Sat morning or whatever, it helps people see opportunities where they might help. People see something like “parish website” and don’t know what to think… maybe you have to be a computer guru or be network certified… when maybe they could help out by just shooting and submitting a few pictures, something that might take an hour a week.

So educate as well as ask for help. I think you will find it makes a big difference.

Thanks for the wonderful ideas/feedback.

Still, I think the #1 reason for my parish not embracing evangelization is that it’s plain old hard (and often tedious) work that never ends and it costs – certainly in one’s time and talents and often in their treasure as well.

Very good point. Thanks.

"The Parish Management Handbook" gives a list of “Ten Ways to Increase Parish Giving.” Here they are:

  1. Get the pastor actively on board.
  2. Make the connection between spirituality and giving.
  3. Emphasize the mission of the parish rather than the budget.
  4. Stewardship formation and education needs to touch all parishioners.
  5. Give equal emphasis to time, talent, and treasure.
  6. Encourage proportionate giving (rather than tithing).
  7. Encourage pledging.
  8. Support U.S. bishops-approved special (“second”) collections as a part of stewardship.
  9. Be transparent and accountable in all parish financial matters.
  10. Remind parishioners that contributing through estate planning is good stewardship.

**Sorry, guys, but these ten things are insufficient. They have been tried and found wanting. Let me propose two sure-fire techniques that should be added to the list:

  1. Teach the faith clearly and completely from the pulpit, not avoiding any of the hard issues.
  2. Celebrate Mass in a reverential, “vertical” manner, with absolute fidelity to the rubrics.**
    I guarantee the result will be not just larger donations but more people at Mass to give those larger
    Karl Keating
    President – Catholic Answers

This wouldn’t work in every parish but if yours has one of those older, beautiful churches with good acoustics you could offer it as a venue to local music groups like college or community choirs. Even if it’s not an activity that’s directly church related it increases visibility for your parish and gets people in your church who might never walk in there. Even if it’s not one of those older churches but is still a good size with good acoustics, groups could still use it as a venue.

Does your are have one of those free, alternative, weekly newspapers? Advertise in there (even if it doesn’t seem church-friendly). You might attract the curious. You could advertise Adoration next to the Zen meditation groups and New Age stuff and attract the more mystically inclined.

How about community access television? Film your Masses, produce your own shows or film your activities and show it to your neighboors. It could be the kind of big project that attracts volunteers.

Do you have a parish festival? You could advertise it to the whole community and have an information booth for visitors. Maybe you could advertise some of your existing activities to visitors.

You probably already do this but have plenty of literature in the vestibule with fliers and brochures. Your shy visitors might stay away from the greeters but they might be happy to take home a brochure. You could put welcome brochures in the pews next to the missalettes (replenished each weekend) with a welcome and basic information, maybe an offer of a free welcome mug (if you have the budget for that).

You could also try some door-to-door visits on a small scale. Just focus on a 1 or 2 block radius immediately surrounding the church with short introductions and invitiations to your church, or an offer of your prayers if they decline. Make people feel like your church is the neighborhood church.

#12 seems misplaced. I’m not even sure it’s possible given the widely varying interpretations of the official rubrics not only on these forums or in the USA but across the entire world. What might be “absolutely fidelic” to one person (and to his/her bishop) might not be absolutely fidelic to another.

In fact some of the tiresome arguments about Mass rubrics at our coffee socials have proven to be a huge turn-off to a fairly large number of people. Sometimes our own personal interpretations are not as “absolutely valid” as some would like.

I really appreciate the wonderful ideas but again, the drive to do such things is absent from my parish and I’m not sure why.

Look for groups in the community that are traditionally Catholic but are not being well-served at the present time. Our parish felt that Hispanics felt excluded and that even parishes that were nominally Hispanic weren’t meeting their needs. We added a Mass in Spanish, allowed the booking of quincineras, and initiated some formation programs to a lot of people who considered themselves “Catholic” but realy didn’t know their faith. Our pastor put it this way about their knowledge of Catholic prayer, “they might know the Sign of the Cross if you don’t press them on the words.” Despite a shortage of priests, our pastor persuaded the bishop to send an Hispanic priest who had been rather difficult to place. By that, I mean that he is a good and holy priest, just not a good administrator of a parish. All he does is minister (to all parishioners - even though his English is pretty bad). As a consequence, we’ve seen the parish grow a lot and many people are being reached for Christ who were languishing in ignorance. If you can identify such a need in your area, you’d be doing everyone a favor by reaching out to them.

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