What has become undeniably clear over the last months, and especially the last weeks, is that a return to pre-COVID church attendance is not happening anytime soon. We’ve discussed possible reasons why in previous posts.
But what we didn’t completely anticipate was how the re-opening process would happen in fits and starts. In many places, parishes and dioceses, wanting to get back to normal, had big plans for the fall. But, as it approached, rising COVID cases, brought about by the Delta variant, meant that most of the planned events had to go virtual, if they weren’t canceled altogether.
This could become a pattern in the months ahead and it’s demoralizing and confusing for parishioners and staff every time it happens. Over time, changing expectations create a culture where only church insiders know what’s going on, and outsiders and newcomers are left guessing. And it doesn’t inspire confidence in the parish or diocesan leadership.
So what? Do we just keep setting ourselves up for failure? Do we just concede the ground lost and muddle along with a new, significantly compromised, normal? Do we just hope (and pray) that lack of attendance doesn’t translate into lack of engagement in other ways, like giving?
Throughout the COVID crisis, I have said that our response should be driven by our mission, rather than simply by a desire to return to pre-COVID conditions at all costs. In turn, the decision to intentionally lead from our mission has informed the decision at our parish to value slow & steady progress out of the crisis.
What do we mean by slow, steady progress? We want to be focused on the future and very much all about welcoming more and more parishioners back into full and active engagement, modestly and progressively. Little by little, but more and more each week, week after week, we can recognize positive signs of re-engagement, fresh vitality, and growth in discipleship.
So many considerations could go into mapping out a successful approach. Here are just three we’re focused on:
1) Consider Your Schedule
Pre-COVID our weekend Mass schedule included 5 Masses, our current schedule is just 3. The number one question I’m currently getting is “When will we bring back the old schedule?” The short answer is: when our current Masses fill up. But there’s also a longer answer.
Our mission to reach the lost in our community is best served when our weekend experience is engaging and welcoming. To make that happen (in our setting) we need talented musicians, multiple layers of hospitality ministers, technical ministers for online broadcasts, and thoughtful liturgical planning. Each of these requires resources, both human and financial, and a time commitment from our staff and volunteers. Adding weekend Masses that we don’t currently need stretches these resources, which we’ve been building back up since COVID.
On the other hand, we recently made a big push for ministry, getting parishioners up out of the pews and serving. Slow steady progress means very carefully, strategically adding back programs and services.
2) Invest in Your Online Broadcast
Slow, steady progress also means a continued commitment to our online presence. In fact, it means continued investment in technology. Why? As we’ve discussed before, online is your “front door” for visitors and newcomers, and your “side door” for parishioners who aren’t currently attending, or taking time off.
Use your online platform to bring people back to physical attendance through a positive, upbeat presentation and engaging music and message. A good online broadcast can be attractional and will bring people back to in-person attendance and full participation in the Eucharist.
3) Approach the Year Seasonally
Don’t try to tackle the whole of 2021-2022. Break up the year into sections or seasons (fall/winter/spring, Advent/Lent/Easter) and, as you prepare for the next season, consider what you can safely, reliably introduce to attract more people. What is going to be different about this new season: music, message, ministry programs?
Slowly, steadily, keep looking ahead to bring more people back.