Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Catholic Mega-Parishes

The phrase "mega-church" has been around a while now, but the definition of a mega-church does not include Catholic parishes.  A mega-church is not only about size, but also about the culture and characteristics that surround them. Thus, the official demographics on mega-churches do not include Catholic parishes. This means that we currently have very little research on Catholic mega-parishes. One statement the Hartford Institute for Religion Research had about Catholic parishes put the situation in perspective:
There are many very large catholic churches and if we extended our interest in megachurches from just the Protestant megachurches to very large Catholic congregations with attendance over 2000 on average weekly we would add roughly 3000 additional Catholic churches to the 1200 or so that are over 2000 in attendance.
This means there are more than double the number of Catholic mega-parishes than there are Protestant mega-churches.  This is an area of church life that we have not really studied much, but need to, because the phenomenon is only going to continue to grow (Note that CARA defines a mega-parish (PDF link) as having 1,200 or more registered parishioners).

Look at these numbers:
St. Ann's in Coppell, TX has 8,500 registered households and 28,000 members!
This means that the only non-Catholic church in the USA bigger than St. Ann's is Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston. From what I could find St. Ann's is the largest Catholic parish in Texas, but not the largest in the nation. Thus, there are others within the same range.

If we define a mega-parish as one with 2,000 or more in attendance, then St. Mary's Catholic Center clearly qualifies.  The difference with us, obviously, is that we are not a traditional territorial parish.  We are a "personal parish" which means according to canon law, we do not cover a geographic territory, but serve a group of people (the campus communities of A&M and Blinn College). So, the issues we face are unique in many ways, but cross over into what many other mega-parishes are going through.

Think of the issues that arise when you get into larger parishes:

  • administration issues
  • leadership structure for apostolates / groups / ministries
  • engaging visitors
  • budget
  • buildings / facilities
  • handling volunteers
  • communications / marketing
  • parking
  • evangelization 
  • etc.

To top it off, no seminary I know of does a good job preparing priests to manage budgets, work on administration issues, handle human resources, good business practices, etc.

Of course there are also advantages to having mega-parishes:

  • it prevents priests from having to handle several parishes + more priests.
  • they can provide a wider range of services / organizations.
  • they generally have larger staffs.
  • generally have better RE and youth ministry.
  • they usually have better facilities.
  • they are more diverse.
  • etc.

Furthermore, the mega-churches have, in my opinion, handled growth better than mega-parishes. Here is why:

  • They push small groups and communities more than Catholics. This helps individuals have more to tie them into the community.
  • They make evangelism (Catholic generally call it evangelization) a priority.  They don't sit back and wait for new members to show up at their door.  This is why they grow so rapidly.
  • They make adult education an emphasis.  Catholics have it upside down - 17% of Catholic churches offer no adult religious ed. and what we do have is generally weak, with little participation.
  • They continue to think differently than small churches, Catholic mega-parishes think "small" too often.

Put it all together.  We have a situation (growing mega-parishes) that we aren't even talking much about yet. How do we work to handle the issues raised above (and many more)?  I am not sure. But I would sure like to know who is going to participate in the conversation and when will it start?


hollisonjourney said...

If you've never been to St. Ann's, you should go. Whenever I go, I always smile that a church that large doesn't need the projector screens and bells and whistles that so many of the Protestant mega-churces do.

Plus, it's beautiful and has a chapel that is simply gorgeous.


Kacie said...

This was a fanscinating post. I go to a Protestant mega church in Dallas, about four to five thousand people attend. It's my first time in a huge church, I prefer small - and yet because of their small group program I feel as though I am in a more intimate and accountable community than ever before.

I respect Holly's comment - the bells and whistles and become distracting and are sort of extraneous. I appreciate the quiet beauty of the type of church she describes. And yet - I think your point is very important. How many of the attenders of St. Ann's are simply anonymous attenders who appreciate the beauty of the chapel but never become truly connected? I hope all churches, Protestant and Catholic, shoot for more than just attendance as the goal for their membership.

Sherry W said...

I've worked at St. Ann's. One of their secrets is on-going evangelization. In their case, through the Christ Renews His Parish retreats. They have a trained spiritual director on staff (or did a couple years ago). The campus is beautiful - it reminded me of an medieval Italian urban courtyard with it's big fountain.

I've worked in many, many Catholic mega-parishes around the country (such numbers are normal in the US but not in other English speaking countries) and everyone struggles with the issue of anonymity.

But parishes that put on evangelizing processes and/or do gifts discernment processes like Called & Gifted get to know participants as individuals and hear about their real lived relationship with God. To get to know thousands takes a long term commitment to the couple hundred who are hungry and searching this year. But it is a new couple hundred people every year as the Holy Spirit moves in people's lives.

If we care enough to really evangelize and really form disciples and help them discern, we will get to know them. It is labor intensive but a work that lay Catholics can and should be part of and where real transformation begins.

Stina said...

My husband and I have just started attending St Ann's, and we love it so far. I was raised Protestant and was excited to find a Catholic church that offers so many of the programs that always helped me find friends and feel "at home" in a new church whenever my family moved while I was growing up while still having all of the things that made me shift from the Protestant side of things to the Catholic.

Marcel said...

FYI - my comments about mega-parishes are in no way an indictment of St. Ann's.

Tyro said...

Mount St. Mary's / Mount St. Maaary's / Mount St. Mary's / in EMMITSBURG!

That's the song... and they've been piloting pastoral admin seminars (no, it's not an MBA) from guys at the USCCB for the past two years. I make no claim that that's enough... but people in priestly formation *are* talking about it.

Michael said...

Hey Marcel,
Found your blog post when googling 'largest parish in us'. You should correct your claim that St. Ann is the largest parish in TEXAS (not USA). But it's not even that. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Galveston-Houston has almost 10,000 registered families. What that translates into in terms of 'members'...who knows? 40,000? 30,000? I'd love to see a listing of the largest parishes in the US.

1200+ registered members does not a mega-parish make. That translates to approximately 400 families...which is almost every parish. The org you cite uses the benchmark of 2000+ weekly attendees (I assume to weekend worship services). I have no idea how that translates to registered family size (the common measure in the Church), but if half of registered attend...and you assume 3 people per family...that would mean all parishes of 1333+ families. Again, that would be a LOT of parishes.

They claim that there are 3000 Catholic mega-parishes (compared to 1200 Protestant mega-churches). I'm not sure how they came up with that given that they admit they gave up trying to explore such things within the Church!

God bless.