e-mail us

Cover story

What excellent parishes have in common

Following is an abbreviated rundown of Common Traits of Excellent Parishes outlined in the book:


Looked upon as missionary outposts

Wherever they are located -- in the suburbs, the city, a rural area or small town -- excellent parishes essentially see themselves as missionary outposts. Catholicism has never existed without being in conflict with the prevailing culture; these parishes face that conflict directly and attempt to sanctify it.

Maintain the “edge”

Excellent parishes have something for which I can find no better word than the “edge.” They constantly scrutinize themselves with even the most elementary and embarrassing of questions. If something is not working or the forecast is dim, they are willing to change.

Have a “habit of being”

Excellent parishes have, using Flannery O’Connor’s phrase about the considered life, “a habit of being.” This ranges from the warm welcome of the parish secretary to making sure that a first-time visitor at a liturgy isn’t a stranger for long, from relevant homilies rooted in everyday experiences to religious education that is exciting and meetings that brim with expectation of what might be.

Are innovative, entrepreneurial

While excellent parishes work with the resources and the rich Catholic tradition at hand, they are not restricted by them. They see new and current needs and are not restricted by them.

Are willing to take risks

Excellent parishes sometimes step outside their “comfort zone,” whether it be in boldly asking that members tithe, that teenagers be given a real reason to come to church, that evangelization be not just for fundamentalist Christians, that a neighborhood be transformed by a parish with enough will and gumption.

Are willing to make mistakes

Excellent parishes do not fear failure. They realize that innovation, stepping outside accepted ways, might have its costs.


Rules apply, but are applied intelligently.

Excellent parishes do not openly flaunt church or diocesan rules, but they are certainly not paint-by-the-numbers types or rules keepers who believe that faith is always engendered or enriched only by meticulous obedience.

Ideology and church battles have little place

Excellent parishes are not run by ideologues who must have everyone in the pews agree with their views on current hot-button issues.

A different kind of authority is present

The authority of excellent parishes -- both staff and leadership -- derives from reflective, sensible practice, not in the arbitrary wielding of some sort of ecclesial club.


Based around an idea, a relationship

Excellent parishes serve the needs of their members well. And their members feel a special relationship, often one they may never have experienced before in their lives.

Forms the core of their lives

An excellent parish stands at the center of the lives of its parishioners; it becomes their base of operations. Here they find strength; here they are reinforced by the actions of others, encouraged by leadership that stands behind them. In turn, they want to spread the Word wherever they are -- and word about this great place they have found.

Many communities within the community

Excellent parishes realize that, while a common bond brings their people together, many communities or areas of interest exist within the parish. They do not try to homogenize such groups, but rather acknowledge and encourage their many approaches to life and God.


Enough for all

Excellent parishes do not allow laypeople to do what was once the province of ordained clergy and vowed religious, they encourage --and expect -- laypeople to go beyond usual, assigned tasks, often doing things that may never have been done before.

Believe in quality

While simplicity and poverty remain exemplary Catholic virtues, excellent parishes have come to understand that such excellence has its costs. Excellent parishes pay competitive salaries to get top-notch staff.


Spirituality at their center

Excellent parishes customarily are beehives of activities … but undergirding all this is an accent on spirituality, not religion or religious belief, but spirituality. … Prayer stands at the core not only of their liturgies, but their meetings and youth or recovery groups.

Offer an ascent to God

Excellent parishes haven’t forgotten their reason for being. They are not franchises, not outposts of an empire. They provide, first and foremost, places where people come to be close to God and to be with others who have values that they either share or want to acquire.

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001