We live in a changing religious landscape. Areas that once featured a Catholic Church on every block now find themselves unable to support the infrastructure while suburban parishes boom and expand. New immigrant arrivals mean ethnically and linguistically diverse parishes. Newly ordained priests don’t always replace the numbers who retire.
In many dioceses, this means adaptability and collaboration on the part of the average parish. These collaborations often bring tensions between staff and parishioners, even perhaps the fear that one day a beloved parish will close or lose it’s unique identity.
The Changing Religious Landscape
The truth is, the religious landscape has always been changing. From its origins, the Church faced a collaborative identity crisis. The original Apostles were Jewish, but Christianity received coverts from the Gentiles. Did they need to become Jewish first – and follow Jewish law – in order to become Christian?
As the Apostles spread out as missionaries, St. Paul points out that some unique Christian communities began identifying with the Apostles who had evangelized them. “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Peter” became a distraction. Perhaps today’s version would be “I belong to St. John the Evangelist” or “I belong to Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
How did the early Church overcome these obstacles? The task of the early Church was to forge a common identity united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” one body in Christ (c.f. Ephesians 4:5). The world “Catholic” means “of the whole.” As Catholics, we recognize we are stronger when we are unified in one mission. We are stronger when we’re telling one story.
Of course, this doesn’t wipe out diversity or unique parish histories. The Body of Christ has many members! But when parishes are asked to cluster, to collaborate, or even to combine, this unity is essential. A unified mission to engage more people for Christ and his Church has eternal significance, and is far more powerful than the geography or history that once separated us.
Finding Your Common Story
“Branding” can seem like something more at home in the business world than in the Church, but it can be an asset to your parish. There is already a perception of your parish and your impending collaboration within the community. Do they know the story you want told? If you don’t establish a brand for your parish collaboration, someone else will!
At the heart of brand is the “why.” Taken at face value, the “why” of your collaboration might seem difficult to explain to parishioners in a compelling way. Here’s one way to explain it: “Our faith formation programs are combining because we don’t have enough money.” An alternative is to go deeper to why your faith formation program exists at all: “It is absolutely essential for our children to really know Jesus, to grow in faith, and to understand how to love those around them. We want our faith formation program to be as strong and dynamic as possible, so we’re joining forces.”
Which one sounds more compelling?
A great brand zeroes in on the essentials, builds trust, invites interest, and creates belonging. At the beginning of a new collaboration, these are the exact things in tension. Work can seem more cluttered, it’s difficult to trust the new plan, parishioners are unsure if they should care, and it will take time for everyone to feel like they belong.
There are a lot of mental and emotional barriers to collaborations in parishes. As a staff, you need to dig down into how your collaborative efforts will serve the greater “why” for which your parish exists – to help people grow in a life of vibrant faith and discipleship.
Creativity & Consistency Matters
Once you can articulate your common story, you can develop a common visual identity for your parish collaboration. When 93% of our communication is nonverbal and we process visuals 60,000x faster than text, having an attractive, consistent presentation of your collaborative effort is essential. A brand combines your common story with a distinct visual identity. This means making clear decisions at the outset about imagery, font, colors, and even the words used to describe your collaborative effort.
This may seem unnecessary. ”Does a merged faith formation program really need a new name and ‘look’? Can’t we type up a new schedule in Times New Roman font and email it out?” This is an option, but not necessarily the one your parish should select. In our information-saturated age, how you communicate is as just as important as what you communicate. A plain page may deliver the bare bones facts, but it’s missing the heart of your collaborative effort. If all your communications lack an attractive visual identity, it will influence the way your parishioners see the new programs.
The Apostles did what they could with what they had, but they didn’t settle for the minimum viable product. The early Church wrestled with key questions, but they knew the story that united them. As your parish collaborates with others, it’s possible to preserve your unique identity while sharing the common “why” uniting your merging programming. Like the Apostles, we too are invited to be bold, consistent, and joyful in our proclamation of Jesus Christ, whatever structural form it takes.