William E. SIMON Jr. Great Catholic Parishes: A Living Mosaic – How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press. 2016. pp. 202. $17.95 pb. ISBN-13 978-1-59471-417-7. Reviewed by Jonathon L. WIGGINS, CARA at Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20007.
A successful businessman before founding Parish Catalyst, William Simon Jr. uses his business acumen to identify best practices among U.S. parishes in his book Great Catholic Parishes: A Living Mosaic – How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive.
Like Paul Wilkes’ 2001 book Excellent Catholic Parishes, the author and his staff came to the same obstacle as others researching best practices among churches: how to locate the successful ones to survey. Wanting to be methodologically rigorous, Simon identified the first 100 parishes through calls to diocesan personnel, ministry leaders and pastoral professionals. After he and his staff interviewed the pastors at each of these parishes, using an interview schedule developed in concert with Leadership Network, he let those pastors recommend additional excellent parishes. Through this “snowballing” technique, Simon secured 244 interviews altogether, with 80% of the second group responding.
The resulting book has for the most part met its goal of being helpful for parishes looking for ideas about how to improve. Sifting through the interview data, Simon and his research team found four practices that characterize the parishes they studied, each making good, intuitive sense.
The first is that leadership at these parishes is shared, with 80% of pastors in an open-ended question identifying their shared leadership style among their parishes’ greatest assets. The chapter summarizing the findings is perhaps the book’s weakest, however, as it soon becomes very confusing to the reader under what circumstances in parish work the three styles of shared leadership (collaborative, delegate, and consulter) should be employed. The chapter summarizing the leadership challenges the pastors face is more successful, with practical stories about pastors grappling with problems in the areas of staff harmony, financial issues, and finding and retaining qualified staff for what is often low pay.
Second, some 90% of pastors mention the active fostering of spiritual maturity and planning for discipleship among their parishes’ greatest assets. To succeed in this area, parishes need to set spiritual maturity as a goal and offer both entry-level and in-depth formation programs. On a practical level, Simon lists the already-established formation programs that his successful parishes use, such as Alpha and the Catholic Leadership Institute. He is not as successful in describing the challenges to achieving spiritual maturity among members, as they are described in a cursory fashion for the most part.
That great parishes excel on Sundays is the third essential practice, with 70% of pastors mentioning this among their parishes’ major assets. Weekend worship services must be planned well and made a high priority of the parish (with the music and homilies given extra special focus). Pastors must do whatever is necessary, including changing staff members who are not performing up to par.
Fourth, Simon found that these great parishes evangelize well. Only half of responding parishes say their parishes do so, with more than half saying they need to get better at it. The evangelizing must be intentional and built into every aspect of parish life, with community service programs, social events, or funeral services seen as opportunities to be good witnesses to the faith. The need for good communication, especially the social media used by Millennials, is also stressed.
None of these findings are controversial and for the most part will ring true for the pastors, staff, council members, and volunteers to which the book is targeted. Perhaps most useful to them will be the voices of the pastors interviewed as well as the many examples provided in the book, even if none are fleshed out adequately. As such, Great Catholic Parishes is recommended for those looking for ideas with which to experiment. Academics and those looking for practical how-to guides, however, will find it less useful.