Consider you are part of a parish. And you desire to see growth in the faith community. So now, you are about to read eleven such indicators that can turn your parish into a flourishing congregation – or at least give you a sense of where to look for critical insights. Flourishing Congregations? What is that? I don’t often think to ask: is my parish flourishing?
First time I heard about the Idea
I heard about flourishing congregations while I was doing my annual Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan clergy retreat in September 2019. One evening, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas CSsR invited the pastors to participate in the national survey to measure flourishing congregations. There was something intrinsically appealing about it. Any parish could take part in it. It did not matter whether your parish was large or small, rural or urban, and flourishing or not. The survey was free with a promise that a participating parish would receive a report about their parish. It would lead to data-informed decisions to make an intervention in the parish community.
Flourishing Congregation Conducted a National Survey
Flourishing Congregation Institute started in 2015 at Ambrose University, Calgary, to develop tools and resources to help congregations grow in a data-driven world. The Flourishing Congregations Institute envisions to bring together academics and practitioners to research factors surrounding flourishing communities. The multi-phase research project started with interviews and focus groups with over 100 church and denominational leaders across Canada. The point of departure was a simple question: what comes to mind when you think of a flourishing congregation?
What comes to mind when you think of a flourishing congregation?
The Construct of Flourishing Congregation
Although the construct is far from perfect in every case scenario, it provides a valuable framework for parish life from both the leaders and the congregation’s perspectives. The construct does not have a hierarchy nor suggests numerical growth to assess flourishing communities. The eleven-dimension construct provides a parameter to see how your parish looks like on a flourishing congregation construct. It gives valuable insights.
The construct is divided into three broader segments: Organizational Ethos, Internal and External Factors. Organizational Ethos includes four dimensions: Self-identity, Leadership, Innovation, and Structure & Process. Internal Factors have four dimensions: Discipleship, Engaged Laity, Hospitable Community, and Diversity. There are three dimensions as External factors: Neighbourhood Involvement, Evangelism, and Partnerships. My parish did participate in the survey, and we received a detailed report on each of the above metrics.
Many dimensions will validate your perception of what it means to be a flourishing congregation. A few elements may even surprise you into the unexpected area of growth. The construct is based on perceptions and experiences – which can change with time. Stay alert to notice the overarching narrative – what does it tell you? What’s the story of your parish? But as a caution: No quick judgment or hasty decision. Relax a bit, as you are going to explore each dimension in detail.
Is your Parish Flourishing? 11 Things to Know
1. Organizational Ethos: Self-Identity
Self-Identity involves clarity, communication, practice, and direction of your parish community. Every parish has core values and priorities. Are these communicated with the parishioners? Are people clear on essential things like who they are, where they have come from, where they are today, and where they are going? It is people’s perceptions and experiences about clarity and direction of congregational values. Do parish activities align with the parish’s core values and religious teachings? Take a guess, be optimistic. Even I sometimes take these things for granted or spot the negative quickly.
2. Organizational Ethos: Leadership
There is a leader-follower dynamics. There is a process to equip and empower leaders within the parish. Do you see traits with the current leadership, like conflict resolution capabilities? How to find out? Your pastor takes the advice and ideas from the people. You notice your pastor delegating tasks to others. You see new people taking leadership roles in your faith community. Your current leadership displays a level of confidence to lead the parish.
How do people perceive leaders in your parish? There are six most cited responses: Leaders who are faithful to the church, task-oriented leaders, charismatic leaders, servant leaders, spirit-led leaders, and approachable leaders. What is the type of leadership in your parish? It may be a mix of the above six.
3. Organizational Ethos: Innovation
It’s clear – flourishing congregations are open to new ideas, experimentation, and not afraid to fail. Can you say my parish shows openness to change? Imagine you return to your parish after three years – will you notice a change? There are different types of parishes: parishes that resist change, reluctant to change, willing to change, and resilient in change. What would you say about your parish? There are six areas you will notice innovation in your parish – homily/preaching, worship service, personnel/staffing, music, eucharist, and programs for kids, youth, and seniors.
4. Organizational Ethos: Structure & Process
You know your parish organizational structure. If you want to get anything done in your parish, you know the process – or at least it is easy to follow the procedure to get things done. I did not think this would be an essential factor.
5. Internal Factor: Discipleship
There are visible elements that impact spiritual growth in the parish. Do you see a focus on spiritual formation and growth both at the individual and congregational level? Spiritual formation happens through sermons, liturgy, faith sharing, music, volunteering in the congregation. The parish makes it a priority to have a meaningful mass/worship service. The parish focuses on women and men’s programs providing Christian education for adults and faith formation for children. A flourishing parish will help you to grow spiritually, give priority to Bible study, and become a safe place to explore the Christian faith. Do you see your parish engage in evangelism, building a sense of community, and serving the needy? The parish has a straightforward discipleship process for people who wish to grow in faith. Discipleship makes you grow both as an individual and as a community.
6. Internal Factor: Engaged Laity
Parishes thrive when people have active involvement in the life of the faith community. Parishioners display a sense of belongingness, attend services regularly, and volunteer. Parishioners connect after worship services, church social gatherings, or prayer groups. Parishioners are willing to volunteer as readers during mass, music ministry, Sunday school, and ushers/greeters. Your parish recognizes the skill and good work of volunteers. You will see these elements to discover the presence of an engaged laity.
7. Internal Factor: Hospitable Community
When your parish is hospitable, people want to join or be part of any group. A flourishing parish will integrate newcomers and provide care within the congregation. Do you find it easy to make friends in the parish? Parish is a forgiving community, extends care to one another, and does a great job of integrating newcomers. If your friend came to the parish for mass, will s/he experience the community’s hospitality? Don’t beat yourself; there are always some areas a parish can do better.
8. Internal Factor: Diversity
How diverse is your parish? A diverse congregation will include race, people of color, and socio-economic background. It is just the opposite of a homogenous community – closing door for those who don’t fit in. What surprised me is diversity as a metric for flourishing congregations. Diversity is deeply embedded in Christian teachings. The parish community is more inclusive towards newcomers.
9: Outward Factor: Neighbourhood Involvement
A flourishing parish will have an active presence in the broader community. Parishioners volunteer in activities that reach out to the neighborhood. How do parishioners perceive parish support and involvement beyond the walls of your congregation? Is your parish supporting missionaries? Does my parish actively engage with prominent groups like seniors, poor, imprisoned, students, kids, and families? Parish reaches out to those vulnerable in the community. Yes, your parish is flourishing when you notice the neighborhood engagement of your parish community.
10. Outward Factor: Evangelism
Parishioners, verbally, or through their actions, share faith with others. Parish invites people who do not believe in the congregation. You notice effective strategies to proclaim the Gospel: invitation for the sermon, peer-to-peer evangelism, and church groups. People also express barriers to evangelism like lack of confidence, antagonism to Christian values, lack of training, fear of rejection, and no suitable congregational program. It’s not about increasing numbers but sharing faith with others – irrespective of faith affiliations.
11. Outward Factor: Partnerships
You know your parish partners with other social, ecumenical, and parish groups. Parishioners benefit from the talents and treasures of other groups. Parish also supports groups that align with its core values.
Flourishing Congregations Check List
How can you quickly tell whether a parish is flourishing or not? Answer the question below:
- Is clear on its values
- Has effective leaders
- Is open to trying new things
- Has a clear and effective discipleship process
- Has members who are involved in the ministries of the parish
- Is hospitable to those it encounters
- Is comprised of people from diverse backgrounds (age, race, socio-economic status)
- Is involved in its neighborhood and community
- Practices evangelism
- Partners with others (parishes, denominations, or social service agencies)
End Notes and Activity Suggestions
I received a copy of the findings for our parish. I agree some of it is eye-opening material. You will find some robust dimensions than others. You can look at the circumplex below with concentric circles within the figure – beginning from the center and moving outward.
I like what the Flourishing Congregation team suggests: shade-in the extent to which you sense your parish exhibits strength for each dimension, the outer circle being the highest. You know your parish well, but it’s a subjective activity. Nevertheless, as you shade all the dimensions, a larger picture will reveal your parish community’s strengths. You see patterns and connections within domains (organizational ethos, internal and external) and dimensions.
Once again, don’t rush to conclusions and point out weaknesses. Take your time to discern and intentionally implement activities that align with the parish’s core purpose. As Flourishing Congregation Institute claims, this is just a beginning; call it version 1.0 of sharing research in ways that will benefit local congregations. I am hopeful that the things mentioned above will draw greater attention, moving forward to achieve goals in your parish.
I owe credits to the study team of Flourishing Congregation Insititute for guiding us in something so fundamental to your growth as a parish. May your work grow to engage people as a faith community.
For more information, kindly visit Flourishing Congregation Institute
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