Scot Landry Offers Plan for Building Parish Excellence
How the COVID crisis prompted innovation for church outreach.
Catholic pastors committed to providing the sacraments and ministering to their flocks during a public-health crisis have pivoted quickly, responding with striking creativity, energy and courage during an unprecedented year.
Scot Landry, who has worked in executive roles for Catholic organizations for the past 15 years, including the Archdiocese of Boston, Dynamic Catholic and Catholic Vote, wanted to recognize their achievements in hopes of encouraging other parishes to adopt most effective practices. Last November, Landry formed a team of volunteers to launch the Parish Excellence Summit and the first-ever “Parish Excellence Awards.”
The five-day Parish Excellence Summit featured “actionable information from parish leaders and experts on parish revitalization. Four hundred parishes from 35 states were nominated for an award. Awards categories ranged from “Livestreaming Best Practices to Improve Broadcast Quality and Increase Participation” to “Offertory Recovery and Retention — Inspiring Generosity During Difficult Times.”
In an interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Landry discussed key takeaways from this important venture.
What inspired you to launch the Parish Excellence Awards?
I was observing the most mission-driven innovations in parish life that I had seen in my lifetime. But it wasn’t happening in every parish. Some pastors and parish leaders are gifted innovators; some are good at learning what is working and modifying it for their parish.
Parishes were trying things, and many ideas were working. But there was very little formal sharing going on, particularly beyond diocesan boundaries, and I wanted to facilitate that and shine a light on what was getting great results.
I also wanted to create a process where parishioners could give their hardworking priests and parish staff members recognition for all the additional hats they were wearing, many new, as parishes continued the sacred mission of the Church during this pandemic.
What practices did you want to call out?
We were looking for parishes that initiated mission-driven innovation to bring people to Mass, with a strong livestream and then in-person where permitted, and with a beautiful livestream.
We were looking for parishes that embraced the opportunity to utilize technology to bring parishioners closer together for things like small-group discussions. Because of a shift in our schedules and commitments, this was a chance to reach out to people who may not have been very active in the parish and now had an opportunity to get to know people via Zoom.
We were looking for parishes that updated their social-media platforms, upgraded their website, and enhanced their technology for the time. One specific aspect of leading parishes was how they moved their livestream to their website home page to make it easy for everyone to find each day.
We wanted to see how parishes identified new needs in their community, caused by the pandemic, and created new outreach ministries to satisfy them. Some started phone trees at the beginning of the pandemic. They called every parishioner, asking them how they were doing, whether the parish could pray for them, and whether they needed food or other assistance. The information they obtained from these calls led some parishes to recast their outreach.
We looked for parishes that understood people were at home and embraced the opportunity to add self-produced daily podcasts that shared the faith.
We wanted to recognize priests who inspired their parishioners to see the pandemic as an opportunity to advance the Church’s mission in a new way. For example, parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Boonton, New Jersey, worked with the pastor to hold outdoor Masses at a nearby Walmart parking lot, as the parish parking lot was too small. Mass was celebrated from a flatbed truck so everyone could see it from their cars many rows back. Innovation doesn’t always require technology.
What key practices should be widely adopted?
Embrace this time to be the Church in different ways. People’s lives have been upended, and that creates a great opportunity to be the “field hospital” that Pope Francis has called us all to be.
Make sure you have your parishioners’ emails and phone numbers. There are many ways to communicate today, but many of the parishes that did great things during the response to this pandemic started with an up-to-date list of emails and phone numbers to facilitate great communication with everyone in the parish. Strong parishes can “push” communication to all parishioners through emails and texts instead of simply relying on everyone to visit the parish website or social-media channel.
Invest in ways to broadcast from inside your church. Ask your parishioners for help, technically and financially. Many parishes raised the funds in one or two weeks of special collections for good broadcast technology. Some people still don’t feel comfortable going to church, so livestreamed Masses are a lifeline. Some parishes chose to have a 24-hour livestream so that people could “visit” Jesus in the tabernacle virtually.
Involve your parishioners in brainstorming sessions that ask: How can people hear about what we are doing? How can we make sure they have a warm experience of community? How can we help people learn more about the faith and our practices during this time when we are less busy outside of the house? How can we keep improving what we are doing?
If you are going to do broadcast Mass, think about how to do your announcements in a way that allows people from the parish to take a more active role. One parish had families take turns recording the announcements and general intercessions, prompting parishioners to tune in so they could see who was doing it that week and to see more of their fellow parishioners. Many other parishes recorded their announcements in fun ways and played them before the Mass began each Sunday.
Task the parish council with learning from other parishes, both national and local, to identify strong practices that can make the parish more effective and living its mission.
How can these innovations pay dividends after parish life returns to normal and outreach to those who stopped attending Mass begins in earnest?
The grace of this time is that parishes embraced video livestreaming and better ways to communicate with their communities. They also were asking the question, “How can we best live the parish’s work teaching, sanctifying and leading people to know, love and follow Jesus?” While all of us are awaiting the time we can be praying in a full church again and doing so much more on our parish campus together, I hope we don’t return to the normal of waiting for people simply to come to us at church. We have always been sent out to the world, and many parishes shined brightly in the past year at directly reaching out to those in their community and inviting them to participate in the life of the Church. I hope every parish in America embraces that new normal!