Father, Meet PAPI (the Process, Assessing, Prioritizing and Implementing Plan)
Your path to helping your parish recover from the impact of COVID-19
Owen Phelps 0
“COVID shot holes through our parish’s bottom line and the pastor just crawled into a hole.”
That’s the way a lay friend of mine recently described the toll taken on his parish by the COVID-19 pandemic. He continued: “He just stopped communicating. Staff and volunteer leaders waited weeks for email responses to their questions.” As spring dawned and restrictions eased, my friend was hopeful his pastor would crawl out of his bunker.
Another pastor, halfway across the country, handled things differently — with a different outcome. In the first several months after the COVID shutdown, his parish’s revenues had risen compared to the prior year. I joked that his people would spare no expense to avoid listening to his homilies.
In truth, his parish was thriving because he is an exemplary innovator and a great communicator. Within days of his parish’s mandatory shutdown, he was producing an online Mass seven days a week and a weekly kitchen sit-down show where he and his associate chatted with and took questions from parishioners. Think family around the dinner table.
Something else: This pastor was not shy about engaging his parishioners in the effort to keep their parish financially healthy. As he chatted casually with them on Zoom, the kitchen memo board on the wall above his head proclaimed in huge letters: GIVE! You can be frank with friends.
Disparities of Impact
These two extremes are typical of what happens in a disaster. There are huge disparities of local effects. Some pay a terrible price. Others escape unscathed. No two situations are entirely alike. So it has been during the pandemic. Some businesses thrived, others shut down. Some people worked longer hours, others were laid off. Some people died, others suffered terribly, and still others escaped unscathed. Some relationships thrived, others withered and disappeared.
The little mission parish in a vacation area where I’ve been chair of the pastoral council during the pandemic actually came out of the ordeal in financially good shape. Government payroll aid helped. But a portion of our parishioners really stepped up and provided their support. We’re grateful. Now, we just have to get all our parish activities back up and running — and let people know where we are in that process.
Other parishes face more daunting challenges. A Villanova University study projects a 24% decline in parish collections for the 2021 financial year. That means parishes are asking themselves what organizations, what ministries — in some places, even what parishes — can or should continue.
As if the challenge of rebuilding after the pandemic shutdown isn’t enough, parishes across the country share another challenge. Nearly all are confronting declining member participation. While visionary pastors and advisers are strategizing about how to turn spectators into disciples, nearly every parish in the country is facing the challenge of fewer people in their pews.
The sense I get from everything I hear is that church life is rife with uncertainty. Will people come back? How many? When? Will they be more eager to don the yoke of discipleship, or less? Should we be preparing for success or failure? And to what extent do our expectations of the future become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
If we can’t muster confidence that the Holy Spirit will guide us and “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30), starting with our own parish, how can we expect to endure and serve the People of God? So, prayer is the first order of the day. In many cases, the question is, How can we do more with less? But a better question may be, How can we do better with less?
Whatever a parish’s circumstances, there is a way to proceed to assure that it does its very best with the resources it has been given. There are many ways to proceed, especially if we drill down into the details. In the end, no two approaches will be exactly alike. But let me propose one approach to help you get started, or at least better organize your efforts.
Don’t think of it as a solution, a silver bullet to resolve all your concerns. Think of it, instead, as a framework, something on which you can hang, organize and appraise your work. It’s the PAPI approach. PAPI stands for Process, Assessing, Prioritizing and Implementing a plan for recovery from COVID and cultural challenges. Father, meet PAPI.
Who Should Be Involved?
The first question to consider is who else should meet PAPI? It’s axiomatic that responding effectively to major changes in a parish budget is not something a pastor can do alone. Yes, it’s quicker to just develop a plan yourself and announce it. But then look forward to spending all your time and energy trying to sell your plan and fighting off active resistance.
Getting buy-in from staff, councils, commissions, volunteers and parish members is hard. But the more who own the process from the start, the fewer people you will have to convince later. It’s not true that “more is always better.” More people make the process more cumbersome. But they can also make the outcome more promising. Error on the side of inclusion.
Of course, don’t just schedule a parishwide meeting and expect consensus to emerge. Consultations need structure. Think about that. Consult about the issues. Develop a plan with a process for how to obtain sufficient input. If you’re just dealing with a small crisis, you can probably design a process to include members of the pastoral council and finance commission, along with your staff. But as a general rule, the broader and more long-term your discernment process, the more people you should invite to participate.
In the first stage of assessing, two broad questions come to the fore: What are we doing? How well are we doing it?
The relevant answers to the first question are both qualitative and quantitative. Develop a list of all the ministries and activities in your parish. Look at how many people each of them is reaching and how much each cost. But also consider how important each activity is in terms of your parish’s mission and the mission of the Church: to go and make disciples. Remember, building relationships matters, so commit some resources to do that.
If you’d like to develop a long-range plan, consider reaching out to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) to develop and analyze a parishwide survey, which can help you assess which parish ministries matter most to people and how well the people think you are doing in providing them. Despite all the uncertainty afoot, there are things you know or can learn. Start with those.
When you begin to consider the importance of each of your parish’s activities, you have begun to prioritize. In this stage, you are asking, What matters most? But you don’t need a strict rank order. Worship, evangelization and religious education are all essential. They can share the pinnacle.
Still, this is a time to do a little digging. Yes, religious education is a huge priority. But what about the importance — and cost — of its various components? Within each broad ministry area, its components should undergo a prioritization process. And this process should involve the people being served, as well as the people doing the serving. The better our assessment process, the better and easier our prioritization process.
It should be no surprise that staff members will each give high priority to their own ministries. Council and commission members can be very helpful in providing a broader context in which to conduct your prioritization process.
Here’s where the rubber hits the road. But the better job you have done assessing and prioritizing — and bringing people on board in consensus about the results — the easier this part of the process will be. That’s not to say it will be easy. Here are a few tips to help make it bearable and ultimately better:
Communicate constantly. Know what you intend to accomplish and state it over and over again. Build your chorus: Get as many people to sing the same tune as often as possible. For your efforts to work, invest in building consensus. This is not about you; rather, it’s about a process. And remember, the most important part of communicating is listening.
Pay great mind to the outliers. Are there programs and/or staff members who have to go? Focus first on the people affected — providers and recipients alike. Be present to them. This is when, as Pope Francis urged, you get “the smell of the sheep” on your hands. It may not be the most important part of the priesthood, but it is the most important part of pastoring.
Let people vent. For some, it will be therapeutic. For others (as you surely know), it will be habitual. Do everything you can to let love win. Don’t let their anger define your relationships. Remember, anger nearly always masks pain. Try to provide a safe place where the pain can surface. Then try to help heal it. Feel their pain. Wear it. But don’t let it become personal.
If cutbacks are happening, leave time and space for grief. And remember its stages: denial, anger, bargaining and depression all come before acceptance. The process takes time. There are relapses. Help people work their way through it. And recognize that, sadly, not everyone will get there.
Some years ago, I was teaching Jesus-like leadership to a diocesan ministry formation class. I asked class members to talk about their very best leaders. One woman said the best leader she ever had was a person who had let her go. I listened for a trace of sarcasm but didn’t detect any. Mystified, I asked her to elaborate.
The higher-ups in the big company she had worked for decided to shut down her department. Her boss shared the heartbreak. But he then got everyone on board with the goal to help one another find other jobs — and not just other jobs, but better ones. In the end, they achieved their goal. She was forever grateful — for the better job and for the model of effective and caring leadership her boss had bequeathed to her.
In Matthew 17:20, we hear Jesus tell his disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. Surely, our faith can handle more modest tasks, even when they are incredibly difficult. It’s always good to remember we never proceed alone.
OWEN PHELPS, Ph.D., is executive director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book “The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, Shepherd” (OSV, $15.95).
Villanova Studies COVID-19 Impact on Parish Collections
The Villanova Center for Church Management study “COVID-19 Impact on Parish Collections” surveyed 169 parishes and examined giving during the pandemic. The study, posted at villanovachurchmanagement.com, revealed that in 1 in 6 parishes collections increased.
The key insights of the study reveal:
• Collections can go up
• Offer online Mass
• Reach out to people
• Share the financial reality
• Be bold and courageous.