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The Parish of the Future

August 8, 2020

In July, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy issued an instruction on the “pastoral conversion” of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church. While the focus of the document was clearly on evangelization, it also made a number of important points regarding the reality of parish life moving forward. Here are three:

1) The Parish of the Future Will not Be Limited by Geography

My own parish, which was launched in 1968, like others of that era, introduced facilities not previously known in most parishes: ample parking, restrooms, handicapped accessibility, a “cry room,” and fellowship space immediately adjacent to the sanctuary. Parish leaders at the time wisely anticipated that how people would experience church in the future would change. And it did.

The parish of the future will approach the Internet in the same way. As the document notes, mobility now means not just geographic movement but also increased fluidity in every context and environment where people live and work, and in all their various forms of communication.  If our people are living some significant portion of their lives online then the parish should be there, too. Parish “boundaries” might remain a canonical and administration consideration, but practically, in the age of the Internet, they will become increasingly irrelevant.

If our people are living some significant portion of their lives online then the parish should be there, too. Parish “boundaries” might remain a canonical and administration consideration, but practically, in the age of the Internet, they will become increasingly irrelevant.

Online church will never be a replacement for the Sacraments, but it will be the parish’s new front door, where everyone begins. And parishes of the future will be creative in how they transition newcomers to physical attendance and participation in the Sacraments.

These parishes will design everything – even church sanctuaries – to reflect this opportunity. Investments in audio, visual, and networking technology will be paramount in budgets and evangelization strategies. Staffing will be driven by it. And quality will count more than ever because competition will be increasingly competitive.

Online church will never be a replacement for the Sacraments, but it will be the parish’s new front door, where everyone begins. Parishes of the future will be creative in how they transition newcomers to physical attendance and participation in the Sacraments.

2) The Parish of the Future Will Look Much Different

The document acknowledges a scary but very real reality that the parish of the future may look very different than it does today. The COVID-19 crisis has acted as an accelerator of the trends of declining attendance, engagement, and finances that parishes across our country have been facing for decades. This will have consequences.

As in business, it might be true for parishes that the ‘middle’ will shrink. In the future, there may be fewer mid-size parishes (150-400 in weekend attendance). Small, boutique parishes, which serve a particular demographic, musical or liturgical style, or ecclesiology will continue to carve out a niche for themselves. But it will be the larger, well-resourced parishes, which benefit from economies of scale, where the great majority of people will find themselves. Staffing, technology, as well as new ways of being church together, like adult small groups, will certainly emerge as very important considerations for these churches.

3) The Parish of the Future Will Require Strong Leadership

The document reflects at length on the nuances of parish governance given the challenge of priest shortages and parish consolidations in many parts of the world. In these situations, the right relationship in governance must be struck between clergy and laity.

This debate has been going on for years, and will likely continue as the shortage of clergy becomes even more acute. 

But what will not be debated is the emerging reality that in the fast-changing world that increasingly is churchworld, leadership matters. Everything in a parish rises or falls based on getting leadership, at every level, right. The good news is that leadership is a skill and can be strengthened by practice, education, and coaching. 

The parish of the future will survive and thrive because of bold, visionary, creative, and dynamic leadership.


What do you think the parish of the future will look like? Join the debate in the comments below.

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