Beyond the numbers game


Desmond Ryan is at present director of health care education research in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Dundee. He has also done research into English parish life which has been published in The Catholic Parish. Here he draws on that research to point to the factors which are likely to make for successful parishes in the future.

What are the criteria of a 'successful' parish? How can a priest judge 'how well he is doing'? Is a successful parish evidence that it is the priest who is doing well? Is there any relationship between how a parish priest carries out his role and the number of people in his pews on a particular Sunday in October? This last is one sub-variant of the rich but complex question, 'What makes for a successful parish?' It was the question which lay behind the research the Archbishop of Birmingham commissioned me to do in 1990-91. The book which formed itself from that research 1 goes beyond the sub-question in an attempt to do justice to the rich complexity of the data in the one hundred or so interviews in the archdiocese. The implicit question behind the book was: 'What is the life ol parishes in the diocese, as seen by their parish priests?' The question behind this article is more limited, but none the less important: 'What is thc relationship between the two questions: that of numbers, and that of life?'

There is an ambiguity in the term 'success'. The commonsense notion of a 'successful parish' includes both numbers and life; each entails the other. The problem for clergy (i.e. those who have the organisational power to do anything about the issue) is that, whatever their espoused theological vision of the parish might be, their data-collection system perpetuates a pernicious version of the commonsense notion. It is pernicious because it is one-sided, because, in fact, it lacks the ambiguity of the commonsense notion, and leaves out what is important. Having indicators for numbers but not for life constructs the idea of 'a successful parish' on the lines of other successful modern enterprises: a successful parish has more customers. The numbers can be taken as the indicator of the life.


First let us get some perspective on the validity of numbers as measures of priestly performance. Authoritative researchers have suggested that less than half the long-term variance in church group membership can be attributed to institutional factors (i.e. those under the control of the churches), the greater part being attributable to contextual factors. Put differently, over half of those who come to or lapse from religious belonging do so for reasons to do with the general social context, and not from anything to do with their experience of a particular parish.

Church policy ... does therefore seem to be only one, and perhaps not the most significant, factor in church growth [in Great Britain and Ireland 1700-1970]. 2

One of the editors of a comprehensive study of American Protestants concluded after later research on Catholics that:

over half the explanation for the downturn was outside the institutional church in the surrounding society. This conclusion was correct but unwelcome in church circles. First, it introduced vague sociological concepts such as youth culture, individualism, and life-style, which were hard to handle. Second, explanations based on social forces in the context of the churches left leaders without a plan of action. If the church declines are due to the deterioration of preaching, then the job to be done is clear.

But if the declines are due to a youth culture demanding more freedom in life-style, the job is not so clear. A bias toward preference for institutional theories seems to characterise church leaders... In this, Catholic and Protestant church leaders are similar.' 3

On this view, church/parish leaders should not blame (or congratulate) themselves for the effects on their numbers of causes over which they have no control, whether at denominational level or at local level. Hence, on my understanding, thriving parishes are not necessarily growing numerically, and vice versa.

I now believe, by extension, that what is annually trumpeted by the media as church 'decline' is an artefact of the Church's own data-collection system. This system inflates churchgoing to be an indicator of Christian life as a whole. Since it was developed for other purposes in another age, I would recommend dropping it altogether, not even carrying out the counts. Not only would this improve morale by allowing people to look ahead to the parish they want to create rather than over their shoulder at the parish which created them, it would also require church leaders to formulate / negotiate parish evaluation instruments more in keeping with the Church's overall understanding of itself. The understanding which seemed to have most influence on the practice of the priests I interviewed was the Second Vatican Council's model of the People of God: priests and people together. So it is here that one should be evaluating. And in fact it was putting together what they shared with me as the ideal and what they described as actually achieved which led me to construct the 'spiral-vortex model'. In the book it serves as an aid to explanation. Perhaps it could also function as a first step in parish evaluation.

A qualitative model incorporating a theory of parish development

1. Priest and parish in relationship

I shall try to keep this simple. To start with there are two factors: priest and parish. There is mutual influence between the two. It is expected that the priest should influence the parish. But how much does the parish influence the priest? We rarely think about this. Parishes receive no episcopal visitations to confirm that parishioners have demonstrated an appropriate Christian maturity in their dealings with their pastor: there is no book of discipline, no Rule of St Benedict for the parish. Hence the frustration and lack of personal recognition which a committed priest may feel in a certain kind of parish: where of the people nothing is required, of the pastor everything may be unrequited.

Similarly, it has long been an expectation that the priest should influence the priest, i.e. that he should take care to grow in prayer, self-discipline and good works the better to be Christ-like in his community. But it has not yet become the general expectation that the parish should influence thc parish i.e. that the members of the parish should he Christ-like for each other.

Where priest and parish are matched consistently on their expectations, both sides are happy. Both sides are unhappy with either of the two kinds of possible mismatch: a) a priest who expects to do it all and parishioners who also want to be seriously involved; or b) a priest who expects people to take responsibility for building them selves up as the body of Christ, and parishioners who expect to be led and decided for in matters of the faith.

This means we have to go beyond our simple two-factor mode: to the priest and the parish we have to add a third factor: the relationship between the two. The key finding from my interviews was that what appeared to be most significant in the dynamics of the parish was this relationship: not the priest as such, and not the parish as such, but the whole composed of the relationship between the two: priest and people together. I call it a finding because it was possible to see this priest-in-parish pattern the more clearly because of the great clarity with which the old pattern emerged by contrast with it in the interviews: the priest above his parish, ruling it, laying down the law, deciding everything, pre-empting any chance of parishioners taking any responsibility.

2. a place over time

The priest-parish relationship has a further very important feature: time. Young priests get older, retire, die; parishes act founded, acquire buildings, societies, schools, cultures; local communities may expand because of industry, then the communities become de-industrialised and young people move out, or become commuters to more thriving centres elsewhere. The historical process is interlaced with the cycles of growth and decline of individuals, families and generations.

The individual priest's cycle is fairly easy to understand. Usually it is the developmental arch of the life cycle. Everybody has their developmental pathway, and research on vocational behaviour / career development suggests that people are both most productive and feel most rewarded (and therefore maintain energy and task commitment) when their challenges are matched to the developmental needs of their point on the pathway; mismatches can turn a vocation into sheer toil, set off or exacerbate inner conflicts and lead into a downward spiral of avoidance behaviour, addictions, mental or physical illness and even death.

Parishes, too, are living things, but more complex than priests, because each parish has its own social background and historical experience. One key factor in that historical experience up to now has been the succession of priests who have served there, the quality of fit between man and parish, and the stages of the life cycle priests were at when they came and when they left. In very few cases would it be fair to attribute the major part of the quality of life in the parish to the vigour or lack of it of the priest currently in charge. Successful Parish would appear to be a kind of relay run, with the outcome significantly affected by the local terrain and the quality of the succession of runners, not just the one who happens to be holding the baton at the moment.

3.The spiral-vortex model

Where the priest is willing and able and working in a parish which has the personnel and material resources, such a priest-in-parish could be called a spiral parish. The priest leads, but does not monopolise or dominate. In those areas where the laity are capable of taking responsibility, he encourages them to. Conceptualised in time and space, a diving parish is an ascending and (perhaps) widening spiral. It ascends because typically it is only after delegating the low-level parish tasks that a priest can be sure to be available for those who need the service he was specially 'formed' and then ordained to give. It can widen because as the number of activities and the availability of priest-in-parish increase, more people may be drawn into the parish, attracted to live the life of the parish as a community and to witness to the goodness of God's love. But - let us not forget our authorities: this last will depend on it being a generally desirable thing for people of that time and place to want to do. If people have no feeling for community, or feel God's love more underlying what happens to them in Marks and Spencers than in a parish, then clearly numbers will not increase, however elevated the priest-parish relationship.

The converse priest-in-parish process may be called a vortex. For whatever reason, a priest may find himself in a situation where the parish organisations have an increasingly elderly membership, or fade away altogether; where there are few initiatives that come from the people; where initiatives that are tried do not 'take': where he interacts with an ever-decreasing number of parishioners, often getting on in years, perhaps like himself; and so forth. Prolonged to its extreme, such a parish shuts down all non-essential functions and goes into a quasi-hibernating state, viz. 'When I arrived here the only thing going on was daily Mass.' Note that I am not saying that a vortex parish is symptomatic of a failing priest. Not only does it happen that background factors condition the potential for development, it also happens that a developing priest can come to a vortiginous parish and yet find no way of putting his hand on the resources with which to mobilise those particular people. Note. too, that good priestly leadership does not guarantee a spiral; it is necessary but not sufficient for success.

I offer the spiral-vortex model as a means for assessing the success of an English parish today. It has its limitations, but also some strong points:

* it is not just a matrix or a classification, but a dynamic model, and does justice to changes over time;

* it signals clearly that there has been a metamorphosis in the nature of the relationship between priest and people, from hierarchy to partnership;

* it gives central importance to the quality of the relationship between priests and parishes, which makes constructive reflection (rather than blaming) the appropriate behaviour for those seeking improvement;

* it emphasises qualitative factors which can be easily assessed (e.g. What am I spending my time on? What evidence is there of new life in this parish?).

'Success': making local the wholeness of Christian life

Getting beyond numbers requires that we redefine the meaning of 'success'. On my definition, a parish can be 'working well' and still its Mass attendance may be going down. So what does 'working well' mean to me? I see good work as historically appropriate work, work where the signs of the times have been read, and where 'the difficult good' that is achievable now is what is pursued. It is clear that today's is no longer the world of the Second Vatican Council: the world is going into hyperspeed in its transitions; impermanence has become the norm: further fragmentation is inevitable. Hence creative interpretation must replace literal enactment. One can only question the future viability of an institution like the parish, built around pre-modern presumptions of continuity. The disintegration of modern life strengthens its emotional appeal, but, on the other hand, it constantly undermines its practical feasibility. We struggle to make the parish adapted to today — so how are we going to adapt it to tomorrow'?

I have space only for two suggestions, both 'recoveries' of mighty strengths which the Catholic local tradition has lost over the centuries, but which themselves are now looking somewhat reduced from their days of greatness.

Recovery no. 1

Those religious strengths lost from local Christian communities to the religious orders as they became the specialists of the Church's self-understanding, expansion and diversification: theology, spirituality, community, liturgy, evangelisation, service; all have been reduced as marks of the parish because they became so strongly marks of religious orders. I was stunned to be told that parish priests could not be expected to satisfy people's growing desire for spiritual direction because it had not formed part of their training. I was surprised that, in the decade of evangelisation, only one priest I interviewed was attempting to evangelise outside his own parish members. But now I think I can see how it has happened: every strong religious disposition emerging in a parishioner was seen as echoing the call from an already existing order of consecrated religious life after hundreds of years of this, small wonder that the parish became a kind of residual institution, creamed of its great souls, the home of the lukewarm, the partially educated, the simply pious, the dowry-less, with priests acting as local talent scouts for the transnational competition. Now we see the religious orders for the most part are fading, numerically; at the same time the laity (is there a category more absurdly residual?) are bursting with theology, spirituality, healing, visions, voices, peace, justice, service, not all of which seems yet to have found a harmonious home in parish life. Will great artists of the possible arise to provide genial form for a reintegration of the spiritually outstanding into the local?

Recovery no. 2

Those religious strengths lost to the Reformed churches at the Reformation or developed by them since as Catholicism moves in from the periphery of English life, as it shakes off its fearful deference to clerical authority, it appears to me culturally both shy and shallow. Politically, too, it seems to me that English Catholics have as yet nothing to say, oblivious to the fact that the issue of issues for the foreseeable future is in what form and to what degree the Christian inheritance of Europe as a potential entity will be institutionally worked out, and whether it will be a generous and inclusive identity (as was, for the most part, the idea of Britain in its world-forming function), or mean and defensive. Now we see the Anglicans and the other reformed denominations are fading, numerically; but their discipline and traditions lie at the heart of what must be accounted the most successful model of public life to have evolved in the nation state. English Catholics urgently need to ask themselves whether Europe should be deprived of this great resource of humane reasonableness, even whether the future Church as a more public and accountable institution might not benefit from some checks and balances of the kind so creatively fashioned by English Protestants. Ecumenism was surely intended to make us co-heirs of everything that is good in Christian life - did we ever acknowledge how much good there was that we had had no part in?

If place remains important after globalisation, there will still be parish. But I suspect that 'successful' parishes will all be different, and no example will last longer than the generation that built it. This mature generation, priests and people, stretches from the parish of the 1950's to that indistinct future. Less nostalgia for the 1950's could give us more chance of being ready for what is coming.

1. Ryan, D. (1996) The Catholic Parish, institutional discipline, tribal identity and religious development in the English Church, London: Sheed & Ward.
2. Currie, R., Gilbert, A. and Horsley, L. (1977) Churches and Churchgoers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.98.
3. Hoge, D.R. (1986) 'Interpreting change in American Catholicism: the river and the floodgate', Review of Religious Research 27 (4) p.296-7.

See also
Hoge, D.R. and Roozen, D.A. (editors)(1979) Understanding Church Growth and Decline 1950-1978, New York: Pilgrim Press.

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