Multiplication Center

How Parish Catalyst Is Igniting the Catholic Church

October 28, 2014

By Warren Bird

photos from california

The first cohort of the Parish Catalyst Leadership Community met at the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, CA.

Parish Catalyst certainly has no issue with shooting for the stars. This innovative cohort is identifying growth trends and best practices in the North American Catholic Church and spreading them to parishes around the country.

“We want to share with the whole Church the great success stories already happening across the U.S. and Canada in the Catholic Church,” says Parish Catalyst Executive Director Dr. Claire Henning, “There is enough vitality and energy in some of these parishes to light up several major cities.”

Parish Catalyst is the brainchild of founder Bill Simon, a long-time friend of Bob Buford who co-founded Leadership Network and Halftime Institute. Two years ago, Bill Simon and Claire Henning began identifying Catholic parishes around the country where “there’s activity, there’s innovation, and people are drawn to them.”

Parish Catalyst has discovered thriving parishes in varied locations throughout the U.S.—in suburbs, inner cities, universities and resort vacation spots. Some of the pastors lead more than one parish, and most run at least an elementary school, with others leading up to the high school level.

After video-recording insights from more than 250 thriving Catholic churches, Parish Catalyst launched its first cohort, or small group gathering of Catholic priests and staff or lay leaders, to begin learning from each other.

“When we bring successful pastors together, we not only want to increase their effectiveness within their church,” Claire says. “We want what they’re learning to spread to other churches that may not have the kind of leadership potential we’ve seen in these pastors, so they can also experience the growth and innovation these parishes are experiencing.”

Building “Destination Churches”

Many of the growing parishes are large, between 1,500 and 5,000 in attendance, with six to eight masses every weekend. Most are what Parish Catalyst refers to as “destination churches.”

In the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, parishes are placed in a diocese, and each diocese has a “parish imprint.” Catholics generally belong to parishes within their geographic boundary, but these booming Catholic churches are seeing something different.

Parish teams work on exercises that help them think and communicate in different ways as they create a visual representation of their parish’s current reality. Visuals are then presented to the other participating teams to help them understand more about one another.

st peter template

“They are drawing people from far and wide,” says Claire, who is a lay ecclesial minister that is referred to as a pastoral associate. “People are crossing boundaries to be there. Most of these churches, without even trying, are drawing people from all over.”

“We’re really learning from our evangelical brothers and sisters,” Claire says. “Personal Bible study and small group – something that have been a natural in the evangelical church – have found their way into the mainstream of these Catholic Churches. This emphasis on personal spiritual development has been growing in the Catholic Church since the Vatican II decrees in the 1960s.

Emerging Trends in Growing Catholic Churches

Insights gained from hundreds of hours of interviewing successful parish pastors has been surprising and groundbreaking in the sometimes ultra-traditional Catholic context, Claire says. For starters, all the pastors are open to talking about the success of their parishes, and they reflect a similar leadership style.

“We’ve been surprised with how willing they are to speak with us; these pastors have an openness and a frankness about them,” Claire says.  “They are heartfelt and honest. They see themselves has highly collaborative and hold their very involved professional staffs in great esteem.”

Nobody Is a Lone Ranger

Claire says the most successful parish priests also seem to do a good job of “self care.” They have an active, personal spiritual life. They try to exercise, take days off and have friends outside of the ministry that are supporting them.

“Surprisingly, when we ask them, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ most of them say, ‘We sleep pretty well.’ They are able to hand the ministry over to God because of their spirituality. That’s the kind of leader we’re finding.”

tim facilitation

Leadership Network Director of Facilitation Tim Nations (right) leads a discussion about the teams’ shared issues. The topics raised by the parishes led to the emergence of future key critical success factors.

Assembling the Catholic Catalysts

The 11 pastors of the inaugural cohort and their leadership teams met around the topic of “Dynamic Discipleship” in Malibu and in Dallas on two occasions, and utilized Leadership Network’s facilitation teams to draw out insights and learnings on the broad topic of “how to be and grow disciples to get out of the pew and serve the world.”

All of the pastors and teams went away with a bigger vision to share what God might want to do in their midst. Many were experiencing technical or space issues, and most were considering some type of staff changes or redesigns.

“When we got together the second time, they were so excited to be together again,” Claire says. “The cohort gave them just what they needed—a further push toward leadership development and discipleship to help build faith in their people that is dynamic and serves the world.”

After the first gathering, one pastor gave credit to the cohort and to Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren’s address to the group for giving him the insight and strength to continue in the role of pastor.  He had been thinking of going into another form of ministry. “He wrote us about his decision to stay on as a pastor after our first cohort,” Claire says.

The Good News for a New Generation

Parish Catalyst is planning its second cohort, this one on the bold topic of “Millennial Discipleship” and reaching young adults. “All of our priests across the country wonder where the younger generation is, and why aren’t they in the church? We want to learn from each other how to speak the good news in their language,” Claire says.


The teams celebrates Mass together in Leadership Network’s collaboration space in Dallas.

For that pursuit, Parish Catalyst will again borrow from the facilitation methods it learned at Leadership Network. But Claire hopes the group can tap into something much deeper that she sees in evangelical churches as she visits around the country.

“When I’m in growing evangelical churches and I look around, I’m amazed at how young everyone is,” Claire says. “The evangelical community is drawing young people, and is very capable of speaking the message of Jesus in their language.

“We need to learn that kind of preaching that inspires young people to move their personal relationship with Jesus from private to public. We’re finding that our pastors are hungry to learn everything they can from our evangelical brothers and sisters and from each other.”

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