Presently I live in a development that contains a 27-hole golf course. We as homeowners do not own the course, which has been under outside ownership and management since its construction. Last year the owner announced that due to economic difficulties he was closing the course. This is not surprising; if you read financial publications you already know that golf is bad business; here in Central Florida alone a number of courses have gone belly-up, due to excessive building and the changing recreational habits of millennials. Ours now sits vacant, and Mother Nature is taking ownership, creating a landscape apropos of a low budget Western cowboy film.
We have a neighborhood blog which has the virtues of many blogs: individuals writing in the heat of passion, sometimes after a few Manhattans, making accusations and preposterous proposals. A few weeks ago our HOA scheduled a meeting for the homeowners and the mayor. About two hours in I was thinking of a scene from a truly funny movie, “Zorro the Gay Blade,” where a solemn Spanish official steps into the village square and declares: “Return to your homes; we’ve heard enough idiots for one day.”
There is a certain inevitability to how this will play out. The course owner will work something out with city officials to rezone the course and then sell to new developers, and we will get townhouses where sand traps once ruined a peaceful walk. But the process of getting there is sloppy, and for our purposes today probably a good lesson in how not to conduct parish business.
There are some things in church life over which we have no control. We do not elect our bishops and pastors (though there is nothing expressly forbidding this in Canon Law; many a bishop and pope took their offices by popular acclaim.) We do not have control of demographics, which is why many dioceses must maintain inner city churches after their members have moved to the suburbs. We do not control the economy. As much as we work to reform our culture, we do not control it (and in fact have a rather poor historical track record when we do control the secular world.)
Those in ministry and/or advisory boards such as parish finance boards (mandated by Canon Law) and parish councils (permitted by Canon Law) must have a healthy sense of realism and balance in advising policies and practices. I believe that one qualification for board service is something akin to or the same as catechetical training, to grasp some measure of the mission of the Church. I also believe that appointments to such boards are too critical for “popular elections” as I will explain below. As a pastor, particularly in later years, I factored stewardship into my considerations: a generous supporter was often a faithful adherent who had achieved success in other areas and was able to give me highly competent advice. In addition, they had remained faithful through periods of incredible parish stress.
But I also feel that it is important to get a pulse of the whole parish to the degree possible. Pollsters say that doing credible statistics in Catholic populations is extremely difficult because researchers do not know how to correctly classify membership—only 24% of Catholics attend weekly Mass, according to CARA. How far down the spectrum do you go, as a researcher, until you say that the input of a particular person is not statistically credible? Believe it or not, the reverse is also true: the input of someone who is too closely connected to the parish—in an almost neurotic sense—is also skewed through a loss of objectivity.
I must tip my hat to one diocese in the northern reaches of New York State, Ogdensburg, which adopted a program this year of visiting every household regardless of religious affiliation. Actually Canon Law does state that a Catholic pastor has a responsibility for the spiritual welfare of all persons in the community, not just professed Roman Catholics. As described in this article from National Catholic Register, the purpose of this visitation is spiritual in nature, a major step in the diocese’s evangelization program. However, I strongly believe this program will provide the diocese and its parishes with valuable information about the churches’ effectiveness in that great expanse that includes the Adirondack Park and the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
There are some forms of parish dialogue that quite frankly are a waste of time. Town meetings generally attract those with specific issues or axes to grind. A similar case can be made for mailed surveys, which sometimes come back in the form of poison pen letters. But what are some helpful ways to receive good feedback? When my wife was principal of a Catholic school, she sponsored numerous “coffee with the principal” socials which allowed for low keyed but significant discussion; in addition, these would give my wife the opportunity to explain policies and procedures that might not be fully understood. This model would work well, it seems to me, for DRE’s or faith formation directors in collaboration with parents and guardians.
Parish (and diocesan) finances are always a source of interest. But it is staggering to me how little is known about the cost of running a parish. In my beloved Buffalo hometown a large number of old Catholic parishes were closed or were announced to close. There was great hue and cry from former members now living in the suburbs (and the bishop at the time got punched in the nose, as I understand it.) But an enterprising reporter for one of Buffalo’s media outlets attended the prime Sunday Mass in several of these parishes, and found that attendance ranged from 60 to 16. (16?!) The next time you see a weekly “Sunday offering” figure in a Church bulletin, multiply it X52 and draw your own conclusions.
I know that diocesan procedures differ around the country, but in general I believe a full parish audit should be done minimally every three years by an independent firm and made available to parishioners for inspection on property. The report should also offer a general estimate of future trends, liabilities and the like, so that closures and consolidations that will continue will not fall like a ton of bricks. I think that were I invested in a parish in any way—and particularly as a professional with a family—this is information I would like to have for my own ministerial planning.