When the pandemic first hit, Fr Philip Conner, a parish priest in Lancashire, confessed to feeling terrified, unable to face what would be required of him to lead his parish through the crisis. Yet, three months into lockdown in 2020, he reflected on his experience of parish life under Covid: “We probably moved forward more in the last 3 months, than we have in the last 5 years before Covid. The sense of community involvement, the sense of mission, the attitude of discipleship... These were just things in my head but to hear normal everyday parishioners speaking about these things... It is totally inspiring. I never thought I would see this in parish life.”
During 2020, his parish saw the number of non-churchgoing attendees at Alpha online more than double; 60 people made a commitment to follow Jesus at Pentecost; and 26% of St Joseph’s parishioners served in online ministries throughout the year.
The fruits borne at this one parish are impressive and perhaps not so common. Hundreds of other parishes did not fare so well. The pandemic did not create issues for parishes: rather, it brutally and starkly exposed realities already present. Remarkably, in the case of St Joseph’s parish, it revealed their capacity and readiness for mission.
What other realities did the pandemic reveal? There are many realities we could draw on, but here are two prominent ones. One concerns the reality of our disciple-making, and the other leadership.
First, the pandemic starkly revealed that presence does not equate to discipleship, attendance is not the same as engagement. We knew this before, but the pandemic displayed it before our eyes. Many of those who were loosely connected or attending through habit are likely to have fallen away. While it is too early to have definitive figures, we are noticing in dioceses world wide where re-opening is further along, that reaching pre-pandemic attendance figures again is highly improbable. Early signs from the US-based Unstuck Group survey indicate that most churches are experiencing 40-70% return rate of pre-pandemic attendance. Given higher secularisation levels in the UK, we might guess our turn rate closer to 40-50%.
When we consider that pre-2020 disaffiliation rates were soaring without the help of a global pandemic (for every 1 Catholic convert pre-Covid, there were 10 cradle Catholics who no longer regard themselves to be Catholic), our attendance rates have suddenly plummeted into free fall.
And yet – there is good news and here is just one piece of good news – the number of engaged people in your parish is likely to remain the same. In other words, your parish will have a higher ratio of engaged to disengaged parishioners. This fact alone greatly increases potential in your parish.
Second, what realities did the pandemic reveal about leadership? Over the last 18 months, parish priests have endured a white-knuckle ride of change that none would have expected in their priestly ministry. Constant change is the opposite of what parish priests signed up to and few were prepared or equipped. The story of St Joseph’s parish led by Fr Philip indicates that parish priests with natural leadership gifts were equipped to lead well and maximise the opportunities of the pandemic. Pivoting into digital and online ministries is how St Joseph’s Alpha online doubled its number of non-churchgoing attendees. Hybrid church, for these parishes, is not a temporary mid-pandemic sticking plaster: it is a central component of parish evangelisation going forward.
Many parish priests, however, were understandably knocked for six by the permanent ‘whitewater’ of Covid. This is not the world they were ordained for and few will see the evangelistic opportunities, preferring to hanker for a return to February 2020 parish normality.
Yet here is precisely the crux of the problem: February 2020 parish normality was not working. It led to a situation where parishes did not know how to continue the mission once their buildings were closed, where priests were left feeling bewildered and paralysed, and where thousands could walk away from Mass attendance with barely a backwards glance.
The biggest revelation the pandemic has brought is that we are in a world of constant change. When change is not necessary, management will do just fine, maintaining the status quo is perfectly adequate. But when constant change is at play – and it is and will be for the foreseeable future – leadership is needed.
The environment in our parishes, left in the pandemic’s wake, is begging for leadership. Covid has created a ‘burning platform’. Winston Churchill’s words, “Never waste a good crisis,” refer to leveraging the crisis as a burning platform to bring about deep, transformational, organisational change.
Professor Stephen Bullivant recently wrote: “we’re unlikely to know exactly what the “new normal” will look like in terms of sacramental practice, community activity, Mass-going rates, conversions, vocations, or charitable giving—all of which will have further knock-on effects for pastoral planning—for some years. What is certain, however, is that the Church must not simply see itself as a passive recipient of whatever status quo will eventually emerge. Rather, we must, right now, see ourselves as being in the business of shaping it. The Church’s pastoral and evangelistic “new normal” will, at least in part, be what we make of it.”
As restrictions ease, the risks are enormous. Where innovation is lacking and where we are wired to return to February 2020, we are likely to try to solve the right problem with the wrong strategies: doubling down on methods of evangelisation that no longer work. In the words of Stephen Covey, “if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.”
Yet, if we are bold enough to let old methods die a quiet death, the opportunities that lie ahead for our parishes are greater than ever before. It is precisely the institutional pruning and structural scaling back that could enable more agile and creative outreach. Where parish priests and lay leaders can embrace and equip themselves for leadership and innovation, the missionary potential for their parishes is immense. The pandemic could truly catalyse explosive missional growth, through small, passionate communities of disciples.
When we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, the future brims with possibility. In the words of Monsignor Shea:
“An apostolic age, especially one now emerging from the ruins of a Christendom culture, needs to be clear about the sources of the Church’s strength in the battles she faces. From its first appearance, the Church has been a massive surprise; in every age its existence is a standing miracle. The Church will regularly appear to be the underdog when an assessment of her fortunes looks only at the visible world of politics, economics, cultural clout, and numbers. But when the Church is seen truly, as a divine society transcending space and time, filled with the presence and strength of God, …bringing all the authority of heaven to bear on the world’s affairs, the picture looks quite different.”
Hannah Vaughan-Spruce is Executive Director of Divine Renovation UK, a ministry that inspires, connects and equips parishes like StJoseph’s Lancaster to become missional (see www.divinerenovation.org). She has a PhD on parish culture and evangelisation.
 A cross-denominational survey of 175 US churches (https://go.theunstuckgroup.com/ucr).
 Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales, Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society
 Bullivant: 2021, vi: Catholicism after Coronavirus: APost-Covid Guide for Catholics and Parishes
 Shea, Monsignor James P. From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age. University of MaryPress
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