As I walked into the Church I had no idea what to expect. I had just moved to a new city a few months before, and I still mourned the loss of our parish back home. I did a quick assessment of the architecture and seating arrangements, glanced at my wife, and began to lead my family towards the front of the Church.
As we sat in a pew towards the front, my eyes darted around me. I searched for signs of life: men my age and young couples with families. Any sign that this was a place my family would fit in and belong.
I had called the parish a few days before. The secretary was incredibly kind and welcoming to the new community. I asked her a question that was quite simple (in my mind), but it left her dumbstruck.
“Who goes to your Church?”
I just wanted to know if I would fit in. I just wanted to know if the community would fit my family. I didn’t think it was a difficult question. But I could tell her mind was racing for the right things to say. It was like no one had ever asked her before, and it had never occurred to her to think about it. After a few quick attempts at an explanation she passed me along to the Pastoral Associate.
I’ll spare you the details, but know this: he didn’t do much better.
One of the major challenges for Catholic parishes is our lack of knowledge about who is coming to our Church. Where does the typical parish get their information?
the parish database (which may or may not be accurate),
assumptions based on the group of parishioners who are most the most active in the parish,
institutional knowledge about the parish,
and cultural information about it’s surrounding area.
None of this is bad information, but it paints a poor picture. It might seem like we know our people very well, when in fact we only know very little. It’s like the police trying to conduct a manhunt with Picasso as the sketch artist.
If we don’t know who is coming to Church, we can’t help them grow. And if we can’t help them grow, our Church will never grow.
Here are 5 ways you can figure out who is really coming to your Church.
1. Be obsessed with information
Most Catholic parishes use a rudimentary database to keep parishioner information. Some track information, but it’s poorly used.
At the very least you should know:
Sunday Mass attendance broken down by mass time,
children’s liturgy of the word attendance numbers,
average household income in your area,
average household size in your area,
number of cars in the parking lot broken down by mass time,
number of school families,
number of school families who are registered with the parish,
number of families within your parish boundaries,
number of families within a walking distance to Church (what qualifies as walking distance will vary by location),
number of Catholics in your parish boundaries,
and the registered membership and service attendance numbers of the three largest protestant Churches near you.
To be honest, this is just a start. Becoming obsessed with information. Talk about this kind of information on a monthly basis. Distill the information as much as possible. If you do this, your decision making will improve dramatically.
2. Define your members
Most parishes don’t distinguish between all the different people who come to their Church. They are all just ‘members’ of the parish. But some of them attend daily mass and others never come to mass, some of them tithe and some don’t, some send their kids to the school, some are involved in leading ministries, some are volunteers, some never show up to anything, and some moved to Florida years ago.
You need to define what it means to be a member of your parish. And you need to define different levels of parish membership.
When you define what it means to be a member, it will allow you to distinguish between who is a member, who is just showing up, and who is not actually a part of your parish.
I once had a pastor tell me that while his official database said they had 2,300 families at his parish, he would guess that given how people move away and never take their name out of the database, how families wanting baptism for their kids register and then never show up again, how school families register and never attend again after their kids graduate, how they registered all their confirmation kids even though they went off to college, and in general how many people just never actually showed up – he guessed his actual membership was somewhere around 1,000 families. And he thought he was being generous.
3. Discover your crowd
When you accomplish 1 and 2, you will discover something. There is a crowd of people who are either hearing your message and are not a part of your membership, OR there are members of your community who are not hearing your message. This is valuable information you can work with.
If you want your parish to grow, you have to reach the crowd. Crowds followed Jesus everywhere. It’s how he developed disciples. All parishes have crowds around them. Some of them big, some of them small. If you want to grow, you have to discover your crowd.
4. Collect your local census data to create a parishioner profile
Sit down with the people who lead your parish and come up with a profile of the typical person in your area. Answer questions like:
how much do they make?
are they married or single?
how old are they?
do they have kids?
what level of education do they have?
how much money do they make?
how much debt do they carry?
what kind of music do they listen to?
what hobbies do they have?
what are their political affiliations?
If you want to make better decisions about how to help your parish grow, get really clear on who it is you are trying to reach.
5. Give people a chance to respond
I love this one. It’s my favorite.
Create a method for the people in the pews to respond to you. It’s such a simple investment, and yet few parishes give the people in the pew this method of communication. And that matters because many of the people in the pews will never go on the social media pages or website, and they are unlikely to call in. You have one moment to capture their attention, and it’s when they are in the pew. If you want to hear who is really going to your Church, you need to give them a chance to speak to you from the pew.
Try creating a Welcome card. It can be super simple:
Ask for the persons name, phone number, and email address.
Leave space for them to write a prayer request
Leave space for them to ask a question
Then give them three boxes and ask them to check one: first time visitor, regular visitor, parish member
The Welcome card can be left in the pew and you can encourage people to fill them out and put them in the collection basket or give them to the ushers as they leave the Church.
Emphasize the cards at every Mass every weekend, and make sure you tell people that you read every card (and then, of course, do that!). Always add the Welcome card info to your updated database. Remember, you are obsessed with this information.
Ask yourself as you work through every card:
Who is writing this card? What are they asking? Are they members? Where do they live? How have we reached out to them in the past? What should our next step be?
When you give people a chance to respond, it will help you reach the new people, the visitors, and the crowd.
If you take these 5 steps, the next time someone calls your parish and asks who goes to your Church, you are going to know exactly what to say. You will serve your community better, because you will know them better. You will reach your crowd better because you will finally be able to see them. Your membership will be strengthened because it will actually mean something. And as the identity of your community is strengthened, so will your parish.
Thanks for reading! Please comment below or shoot me an email if you have any questions.
My name is Dominick Albano and I'm an author, speaker, and consultant.