Organizations of many types, both for-profit and not-for-profit, have been talking about developing healthy cultures for many years. Not so much church organizations, especially parishes and dioceses.

But building and sustaining a healthy, vibrant parish culture is an important consideration. Think of it as the foundation for a dynamic parish that fulfills Jesus’ own Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mat. 28:19)

The same is true, of course, for dioceses and church organizations of all sizes and types.

What is culture?

An organization’s culture consists of its common beliefs, values and behaviors. Parishes and other Catholic organizations have a huge head start in defining their cultures because they have a ready-made set of beliefs, values and behaviors to which they subscribe.

Maybe that explains why Catholic organizations are often so indifferent to the topic.

But the development of a parish’s culture doesn’t end with the teachings of scripture and tradition. Everyone who has ever been a member of more than one parish will tell you that each parish has its own “character” – and that’s what we mean by culture.

Culture is generally shaped by the leaders of an organization and then passed through the parish staff to members. But a host of other factors play a huge role in shaping a parish’s culture:

  • Is the parish welcoming and friendly?
  • Is the parish active?
  • Is parish life affirming to families, or seniors, or singles, to the poor or minorities or otherwise marginalized people?
  • Does the parish have a huge commitment to pro-life and/or social justice issues?

All of these considerations – and many, many more – come together to give each parish its own unique spirit, which is to say its culture.

Why it matters

Organizational culture matters because every organization has one. Unfortunately, they often develop unintentionally, driven by demographic considerations and the behaviors of leaders. It just is what it is.

But even if it develops without intention, culture matters because it can attract or repel members.

It can “go and make disciples” or it can “make disciples go.” So prudent parish leaders devote some attention to the issue, paying attention both to their own personal behaviors and the behaviors of staff and members.

When something like only 20 percent of Catholics were attending weekend Masses pre-Covid -- and no one is really sure how many of them will be coming back as the coronavirus dissipates – parish leaders who don’t devote some attention and energy to developing a healthy parish culture are proceeding at substantial risk to their parishes’ viability.

Learning more

Recently the Best Christian Workplaces Institute (BCWI) took up the topic of culture, and the result is a superb article that qualifies as “must reading” by every parish leader.

While the article’s examples and comments come from Protestant churches and pastors, its insights are relevant to Catholic parishes and pastors. We guarantee you’ll find lots of great value in the article.