Increasing Parishioner Engagement & Mass Attendance

By Scot Landry

Much effort is underway in the Catholic Church across the United States and within the Archdiocese of Boston to welcome home so many of our Catholic brothers and sisters to the regular practice of our great faith.  On an average weekend, only about one in six Catholics attend Mass, so there is much work to do.    

For us to be successful in this effort, Catholics that are currently participating in their parishes will need to be the primary inviters of their neighbors, friends and family members that have stepped away.  What will lead them to be excited about extending this invitation?  They are the same factors that will make those who return to our parishes choose to stay: Engagement.   

Everyone wants to be part of parishes that are thriving spiritually and are growing as a faith community.  This has been shown through recent research by the Gallup organization.  Many of us know Gallup for their political polls but they also have an active “faith” division that studies many aspects of religion in America. 

Albert Winseman, a lead researcher for Gallup, contends in his book “Growing an Engaged Church” that our parishes are focused on the wrong measures to assess parish health and vitality.  We have often tracked total registration, mass attendance, and giving/stewardship as key outcomes.  Instead of registration and mass attendance, Winseman’s research indicated that life satisfaction, serving and inviting should join giving as the 4 most relevant outcomes with which to measure a parish’s spiritual vitality.  

  • Life Satisfaction – Percentage that say they are “extremely satisfied with the way things are going” in their lives. 
  • Serving – Hours per week given to help and serve others in my community.
  • Inviting – In the last month, percentage of parishioners that have invited someone to participate in their parish
  • Giving – Percentage of income and actual dollars given to support the parish and time given in service.

So, if parishes focus on helping parishioners in all four of these outcomes, the parish will increase its spiritual health?  Not so, according to Winseman, because these outcomes are the results of causes.  Winseman suggests that we focus on the cause that will lead to these outcomes of spiritual vitality.  He identifies parishioner “engagement” as the driving force behind all 4 outcomes and the main factor behind the spiritual health of a parish. 

He points out that engagement isn’t the same as involvement.  Involvement is what we “do” in our parishes.  Engagement is how we “feel” about our parishes.  If we figure out how to engage our parishioners, we will rediscover how to be the Church. 

His research suggests twelve items, divided into four dimensions, which most effectively measure parishioner engagement in our parishes.  Each of these items can be measured and tracked for improvement. 

Dimension: What do I get?

1. As a member of my parish, I know what is expected of me.

2. In my parish my spiritual needs are met.

Dimension: What do I give?

3. In my parish, I regularly have opportunities to contribute/do what I do best.

4. In the last month, I have received recognition or praise from someone in my parish.

5. The spiritual leaders in my parish seem to care about me as a person.

6. There is someone in my parish who encourages my spiritual development.

Dimension: Do I belong?

7. As a member of my parish, my opinions seem to count.

8. The mission or purpose of my parish makes me feel that participation is important.

9. The other members of my parish are committed to spiritual growth.

10. Aside from family members, I have a best friend in my parish.

Dimension: How can we grow?

11. In the last six months, someone in my parish has talked to me about the progress of my spiritual growth.

12. In my parish, I have opportunities to learn and grow.

Gallup’s research interviewed thousands of Americans and, as a result of their answers to Gallup’s questions, it classified parishioners into three different levels of engagement (engaged, not engaged, actively disengaged) and measured the four outcomes above for each group (life satisfaction, serving, inviting, giving).  Here are his definitions of the three levels:

  • Engaged (16% of Catholics) – These parishioners are loyal and have a strong psychological connection to their parish.  They are more spiritually committed, more likely to invite friends, family members and co-workers to parish events, and give more both financially and in commitment of time.  Parishes need to develop more of these individuals.
  • Not Engaged (49% of Catholics) – These parishioners may attend regularly, but they are not psychologically connected to their parish.  Their connection to the parish is more social than spiritual.  They give moderately but not sacrificially, and they may do a minimal amount of volunteering in the community. They are less likely to invite others and more likely to leave.
  • Actively Disengaged (35% of Catholics) – These parishioners usually show up only once or twice a year, if at all.  They are on registered for the parish, and can tell you what parish they belong to – but may not be able to name the pastor.  However, some may also be regular in their attendance.  If that’s the case, they are physically present but psychologically not connected.  They are unhappy with their parish and insist on sharing that unhappiness with just about everyone. 

Winseman’s research, then not surprisingly, shows huge differences in life satisfaction, serving, inviting and giving for those that are engaged in their parishes versus those that are not engaged and actively disengaged.  I encourage you to read the book for the large amount of data to support these points and to indicate what a difference it would make in the average parish if we were able to increase the number of those that are engaged.

So what should parishes do to increase engagement?  Plan activities that they believe will help increase the percentage of parishioners answering “yes” to the twelve questions above.  Many of the activities that would lead to “yes” on those questions will not cost much in the parish budget. 

A key question for me is number 10: “Aside from family members, I have a best friend in my parish.”  Are we doing enough before Mass, during Mass, after Mass and during the week to encourage parish families to get together to grow in friendship?  Several others of the 12 questions involve the idea of someone caring about them in an individual way, from the pastor to the staff to their fellow parishioners.  At the basic level, we need to know our fellow parishioners’ names and then we can learn more about them.  The more frequently parishioners gather to pray, to share meals, to participate in spiritual enrichment activities and to simply hang out, the stronger the parish will likely become.  What can your parish do to foster these types of opportunities?

The ARISE program that is being implemented in more than half of our parishes is a great start.  If your parish is enrolled in ARISE, we suggest you do as much as you can to invite more families (active or not in the parish) to participate.  If your parish is not currently enrolled in ARISE, we invite you to discuss it with your pastor and perhaps volunteer to help organize it with the help of the ARISE office at the Pastoral Center. 

In summary, parishes in our Archdiocese will thrive and grow when their parishioners are engaged.  We all can make a difference by getting to know our fellow parishioners, taking an interest in them, challenging them to go deeper in their spiritual lives, and collectively creating a warm environment.  Let’s make all our parishes places to welcome home our fellow Catholics so that together we can journey in hope to the heavenly destiny to which Christ calls us. 

Scot Landry is Secretary for Institutional Advancement at the Archdiocese of Boston.  Many of his writings on stewardship and parish fundraising are published on www.ParishFundraisingBlog.com. 

This article originally appeared in a special “Parish Stewardship & Fundraising” section of The Pilot on September 18, 2009

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