The Problem With Parishes: They do Too much

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One of the frequent problems with parishes is not that they don’t do enough, it’s that they try to do too much.

If your ministry fair has more than 10 tables set up, perhaps you’re trying to do too much. Sure, it’s nice to offer something for everybody, but that something often ends up being good for almost nobody.

What I mean is that a parish has very limited resources. It can choose to be excellent at a finite, limited amount of things, or it can be disorganized and ineffective at many more. If you are just starting up ministries at the whim of every volunteer that feels inspired to start one, I think you’re going about it all wrong. That’s how you end up with 100 ministries that hardly anybody knows about and that even less actually participate in. None of which can get enough support to grow and thrive.

This kind of thing happens at parishes that lack a clear vision - a vision that includes tangible, quantifiable goals. Any responsible organization starts with such a vision. And any effective leader knows how to communicate it to others. Maybe pick the top 5 needs at the parish and then let the staff work to meet those needs with programs that are top-notch, successful, well-attended, well-staffed and supported by the parish. If leadership does not invest in a program or ministry, why would a parishioner (much less a new visitor) invest in it?

Taking this approach means saying no to things that do not contribute toward the clear goals of the parish (or at least fitting those things into the goals in a constructive, organized way). It means inspiring the person who wants to start a book club to volunteer for the bible study program instead. It means making goals that fit the charisms and resources available at your parish, and then going for it.

Fine restaurants are not successful because they offer a huge menu of so-so dishes. They are successful because they are the best at what they do decide to offer. It is this commitment to excellence that inspires people. It is this elegance that makes it easy to say yes. And it is this execution that perpetuates success on many other levels.

Maybe it’s just me. But I think most people would be more likely to get involved walking into a parish ministry fair if they saw five huge booths with thriving programs, each with a clear purpose and mission, and each packed with lots of passionate and involved volunteers. People desire to be a part of things that are going places - things that are excellent. They like to invite their friends and family to them. They enjoy giving their money to support them.

I love to play basketball. I really don’t enjoy playing soccer that much. But I would rather be in an outstanding soccer league than a struggling basketball league. Unfortunately, many parishes are more likely to instead have a struggling soccer league, a rinky-dink basketball league and half of a flag football team.

Obviously this concept doesn’t just apply to sports, but to the many other much more important ministries we find in our parish. It even applies within ministries. For instance, do you have very limited resources for your struggling youth program? Perhaps you should drop the camping trip, the bible study night, the regular nursing home visits and the pro-life rally (all good things). And instead, focus on creating one weekly, totally amazing youth night that builds community, gives the youth something they can depend on, can invite their friends to and actually works. Do one thing well. Then add something else. Otherwise you might get stuck doing a lot of things poorly.

We are Catholic. And we feel guilty if we don’t say yes to every good opportunity that passes in front of us. But God also gave us limits. We simply can’t say yes to everything.

You, individually, can not be everything to everyone. Your ministry can not be everything to everyone. Your parish can not be everything to everyone. And if you try to be, you will not be as good of a something to somebody as you could be.

But that’s what’s so great about all being one Church. Together, we can, in a sense, be everything to everyone. We are the universal Church. But you and your parish are just one, small part of that. We need you to be that part. And be excellent at it.

What do you all think? Do you agree? What have you learned from your experience in your own parish?