Rethinking Data to Grow Our Parishes

May 9, 2019  •   Amy Taylor

rethinking data

We hear the word “data” thrown around all the time — in the news, in our place of business depending on where you work, in school classrooms, and now, in our parishes. The world is changing, and what worked 30 years ago, just doesn’t have the same effect as it used to. We need to be intentional with our efforts to grow our church, and that includes gathering data to see if we can work with the trends we discover.

We need to move out of the “hoping, dreaming, and wishing” mindset, and instead focus on who — and most importantly, who is not — coming to our parish. Read on for the types of data that can easily be gathered by your parish staff, and how to use it to grow your parish in multiple ways.


Understand What You Have

It’s well-documented that the average parishioner will connect with most areas of your parish office and information about their family structure, church involvement, and giving habits will be recorded. Taken individually and together, this parishioner data tells a story:

  • Family relationships, birthdays, and contact information
  • Attendance at parish events
  • Involvement in ministry groups, councils, and volunteer opportunities
  • Religious education registration history
  • Giving patterns and history
  • Sacramental records, safe environment status, and certifications

Now the question is, how can your parish utilize all this data to grow your parish? One way of doing so is looking at who is not attending your parish, giving on a weekly or monthly basis, or simply not showing up on a regular or semi-regular basis.

Once a year, parishes are asked by their dioceses to send them specific information about their parish, such as number of registered households, baptisms, marriages, confirmations and other easy to gather statistics. However, in order to figure out is people are truly getting fed spiritually in the parish, it’s better to look at who is not attending.


When the Silence Is Deafening

For example, Baptism, first Communion and Confirmation are staples in the sacramental life of the church. No matter where some families might be in their faith journey, it’s usually a given that they will send their children to take part in these sacraments. But what does it say when the first Communion class is 30 children, but the religious education class for 4th grade is five kids? Parish leaders need to ask themselves where those kids went.

And what about looking to see who is receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation each week? Are there lines full of people or just a few “regulars”? If it’s the latter, it’s time for the parish to ask why. Is it the time of day/day of the week that is causing low attendance? Is it that the parish isn’t communicating the importance of this particular sacrament? Then, it’s time to test out the theories and see if attendance can be brought back up.


Data Results in Action

During Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2016, parishes around the world were asked to place a special emphasis on the sacrament of Reconciliation. Although St. Rita’s Catholic Church held regular confessions on Saturday mornings, they rarely had a lot of people come. Using this “Year of Mercy” as the catalyst for change, they decided to find out exactly why they had such low attendance and see if there was anything they could do to change that.

First, the pastor used his homily to focus on the importance of Confession and the spiritual benefits to receiving those graces. The parish then announced that for the next couple of weeks, they would be adding new times for people to receive it. In addition to Saturday mornings, they would also be adding an hour before 10 a.m. Sunday Mass. The results? Overwhelming.

By the time 9 a.m. rolled around, cars were starting to pull into the parking lot, and lines were forming. Some families took it upon themselves to help one another with childcare as parents took turns in the confessional. Listening to the choir warm up as people examined their consciences’ helped in the reflection process.

It was a little unorganized as people visited, children played, and wayward Catholics found their way home, but it was authentic. Rather than parishioners making time in their day for Confession, the church scheduled Confession times around that of their parishioners.

And so it’s these types of results that data collection should produce and that parishes should strive for. It isn’t all just Mass attendance and growing the financial bottom line (although, for a parish to truly thrive, those do need to be affected). But there are so many ways to help your parishioners grow their in relationship with Jesus Christ … we just need to collect, document, and act until we find the solution.

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