Parish Viability Study

GOAL: By July 2017, all parishes will prepare a plan for ministry improvement based upon their completed profile and viability study and analyses of diocesan parish best practice.

Origins of the Parish Viability Study?

The Parish Planning & Viability Study was initially designed to assist the leadership of the Archdiocese in planning for future administrative structures and staffing of parishes.  Given an environment of declining numbers of priests, the Archdiocese needed to assess how best to staff parishes given available resources and needs and preferences of parishes.

We are blessed in the Archdiocese of St. Louis with significantly more priests, recent ordinations, and seminarians than other dioceses around the country.  The St. Louis Archdiocese is the 41st largest diocese in the U.S. with about 515,000 Catholics.  When compared to the largest 61 dioceses in the country, those with 300,000 or more Catholics, we rank 1st in diocesan priests per capita; 6th in recent ordinations per capita, and 7th in seminarians per capita.  You can view a recent study that compared the Archdiocese of St. Louis with other large diocese around the country.  

Comparing the number of Archdiocesan priests and seminarians to other large dioceses

But the fact is that the number of priests in the Archdiocese is declining.  In 1980, we had 580 diocesan priests, the most the St. Louis Archdiocese has ever had.  The numbers have declined since then to today in 2017, we have 330 diocesan priests (including those retired).  Click below to view a graph of the number of diocesan priests since 1960 and a graph of the number of priests ordained each year since 1960.

Graph of Archdiocesan Priests

Graph of Archdiocesan Ordinations to the Priesthood

Many of the large number of priests ordained in the 1960s and 1970s will be retiring (and some dying) in the next ten years.  Even though we have been ordaining an average of 5 priests per year, actuarially, we will have an average of 10 priests die each year.  In addition, some priests will also unfortunately leave ministry during the next decade.  We estimate that during the next 10 years, we will have 60 fewer diocesan priests available for ministry in our Archdiocese.

We all know that we have been blessed with large numbers of religious order priests serving in our parishes, high schools, and universities; and working in health care, houses of formation, publishing enterprises, and spiritual direction/retreats.  In 2017, there are 286 religious order priests serving in the 11 counties of our Archdiocese, but their numbers are declining faster than diocesan priests thus jeopardizing their future ability to serve in parishes and other ministries that benefit our Catholic people.

In addition, there have been a number of trends in the Church in our Archdiocese over the past 20 years that should concern all of us:  declines in numbers of Catholics and Catholic households, participation in the sacraments especially marriage and baptisms, and full-time school/PSR enrollment.  Some of this data is presented in the statistical data presented in the following table of data.

Archdiocese of St. Louis Statistical Data 1996, 2006, 2016 (pdf)

For these reasons, we need to look at our parishes and look to a future where we will have fewer priests and require increased pastoral ministry from our deacons, religious sisters, and especially our lay people.  This beONE priority challenges our lay people to assume greater leadership positions in our parishes and other ministries.


What is the Parish Viability Study?

 The study methodology was adapted from the methodology used in the Los Angeles and Pittsburgh Archdioceses.  Bishop Edward Clark, auxiliary bishop from Los Angeles, presented the study methodology to the priests of the St. Louis Archdiocese in April 2015 and Archbishop Carlson asked that pastors complete the study in their parishes and submit it by November 2015.

 The study document involved a parish self-evaluation of the effectiveness of its ministries in five areas:

  • Faith
  • Worshipping and Praying
  • Service
  • Evangelization
  • Administration

In addition, the parish was then asked to submit its 10 greatest assets and 10 greatest deficits. 

Finally, after its self-assessment, the parish was to report its recommendations regarding its parish’s pastoral leadership preferences:

  • Resident priest/pastor
  • Twinning of parishes
  • Clustering of parishes
  • Consolidation of parishes
  • Parish Life Coordinator
  • Closing of Parish
  • Ethnic/Cultural Center

A copy of the study document can be viewed here:

Parish Planning and Viability Study

During the spring and summer of 2015, five training sessions were conducted in various areas of the diocese with about 1000 attendees from nearly every parish in the diocese.

By the fall of 2016, 170 parishes have submitted their Parish Viability Study.  The information on each parish’s pastoral leader preferences has been provided to the Vicar for Priests and the Priests Personnel Board for their consideration.


What were the results of the Viability Study?

  1. As stated previously, the primary goal of the Viability Study was to provide information to the Leadership of the Archdiocese (primarily the Vicar for Priests and the Priests Personnel Board) regarding each parish’s preferred pastoral leadership model. 
  2. Many pastors and parish leaders have responded with the submission of their completed report that the process of parish self-assessment was very beneficial to the parish.  Bringing together leaders of the parish to discuss the parish’s strengths and weaknesses led to fruitful discussion and in many cases a plan of action to improve or enhance parish ministries.

Diocesan-wide Assets and Deficits

The most valuable information collected in the Study was the identification of parishes’ top 10 assets and top 10 deficits.  This information was compiled for all parishes in the diocese and the following were the Top 5 assets and Top 5 deficits for all parishes in the Archdiocese combined.

Top 5 Assets of All Parishes

  1. Pastoral Leadership
  2. Quality of Weekend Liturgy
  3. Commitment to the Weekend Liturgy
  4. Welcoming Community
  5. Parish School

Top 5 Deficits of All Parishes

  1. Evangelization
  2. Shared Leadership
  3. Adult Faith Formation
  4. Acknowledging Specific Needs of Parishioners
  5. Demographics

Ideally, we would have paired parishes that were weak in a particular area of ministry with parishes that were strong.  However, many parishes did not report their assets, that is, what their most effective areas of ministry were.  Rather, it was clear that parishes were concerned about a future without a resident priest-pastor and for that reason substituted “what they felt good about” for what was an “asset.”  All parishes appreciated the presence of their priest(s) and that they have priests available to celebrate Mass at many convenient times.  In addition, parishes also reported what they liked about their parish, i.e. successful picnic, parish school instead of what their ministerial assets were.

What was more telling was that evangelization was by far the number one deficit of all parishes.  Number two wasn’t even close.  Evangelization manifested itself as reaching out to ex-Catholics, engaging unengaged parishioners, welcoming new parishioners, sharing the gospel in the local community.  Our parishes felt inadequate and unsuccessful in these endeavors. 

Shared leadership meant that the pastor did not share leadership with its lay parishioners or that lay leadership was concentrated among a few “leaders” who did not want others, especially new parishioners, to take their place.

Adult faith formation frequently meant that that there was inadequate catechesis within the parish but also that young adults and millennials were not being sufficient engaged in parish life.


How has the Archdiocese addressed the results of the Viability Study?

Diocesan-wide assemblies

A beONE Resource Day was held on April 30, 2016 to bring together parishes that excelled in the four beONE priorities so that other parishes could learn best practices in evangelization, leadership, service to the community, and education initiatives.  This Resource Day was attended by over 200 parish representatives from more than 90 parishes.

The annual Pastoral Assembly was held on October 20, 2016 to address the Young Church, an area of concern uncovered in the Parish Viability Study.  Thus, the assembly was centered on Youth Ministry and engaging the Young Church.  Over 150 participants from more than 70 parishes attended the assembly.

Another beONE Resource Day is being held on January 28, 2017 focusing on a practical look at the four beONE priorities with a special emphasis on how each priority leads to missionary discipleship.

Pastor Consultations

Though many parishes were already addressing their Viability Study deficits, there was still a need to assess how the Curia can best help pastors and parishes.  Thus, during October and November 2016, a series of three pastor consultations were held with three groups of parishes:  Large parishes, smaller and/or demographically challenged parishes, and rural parishes.  Each consultation involved 4-6 pastors and much useful information about parish life, issues, and needs was uncovered. 

Next Steps

We at the Archdiocesan Curia (Rigali Center Offices) are continuing to seek input from parishes on how the Parish Viability Study information that is being collected can be best used to help parishes.  What resources can be provided to parishes to help them improved their ministries?  Please provide your input to John Schwob, Director of Pastoral Planning at johnschwob@archstl.org and he will coordinate resources to assist parishes.