I remember the first Mass I attended after COVID-19 caused lockdowns countrywide and cut off access to the sacraments. I hadn’t been to Mass in more than two months, and I craved the Eucharist more than anything else I’d lost during the pandemic.
The Mass was going to be outdoors, and I arrived super early as I wasn’t sure how crowded it would be. To my surprise, the parking lot was almost empty when I arrived. Well, it’s a daily Mass, I reasoned. Surely the weekend Mass will be more crowded.
The weekend was better attended, but there were still plenty of spots; we probably could have doubled or triple attendance without an issue. Week after week, I marveled at the lack of parishioners returning. It’s not like I attend a small church; we’re one of the most active and engaged parishes in our archdiocese with a high Mass attendance rate pre-Covid. But even once the weather forced us to move Mass indoors and we were limited to 25% capacity, I never saw anyone being turned away.
It’s a story I’ve heard over and over again, as parishes braced themselves to reopen and find creative ways to fit as many people as safely possible and then faced underwhelming attendance.
For some, attending in-person Mass just isn’t safe right now, and I completely respect that discernment. I myself made that difficult decision for a few months when I was about to have my baby, as I couldn’t risk exposing her tiny immune system during the peak winter months.
But I have a feeling that the decrease in participation seen at almost every parish in the country is not just due to health and safety…it’s that online Mass is just more convenient, or maybe people are discovering they weren’t that invested to begin with. They’ve survived without Mass for this long; why should they make it a priority now?
As the country slowly begins to look at reopening, I think it’s critical that parishes start strategizing how to reengage parishioners after a year away. We were already seeing record low attendance levels prior to the pandemic; now we’re at a crossroads – either rekindle the hearts of our unengaged parishioners or face even more mergers and shutdowns.
As a marketer specializing in Catholic communications, there are seven things I think every parish should be thinking about right now when it comes to their reopening strategy.
7 Tips For Churches To Reengage Parishioners
- Re-education: Why go to Mass in the first place? Isn’t online Mass just as fruitful and more convenient? We know the answer – the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith – but many do not truly have a conviction of Christ’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Parishes have to prioritize fixing this disengagement, and fast. One idea might be to offer a teaching Mass, going through why we do what we do during the Mass, or a lecture series on Eucharistic miracles, offered via livestream and in person to engage both audiences.
- Welcome strategy: I am passionate about the fact that the most successful parishes are those that have a solid welcome strategy in place, from registration to showing up to Mass. For example, if someone registers to become a parishioner at your parish, what does that process look like? Most likely, it’s pretty bland – fill out a form, get your donation envelopes, the end. Imagine if we were as dedicated to our welcome strategy as we are to making sure parishioners get their donation envelopes! New parishioners will be much more likely to engage if they receive a personalized email or letter from the pastor, a phone call from a parishioner in similar family circumstances, and even a brochure of how they can get involved at the parish. Once they show up to Mass, a friendly greeter can make a world of difference in feeling welcome and loved. Additionally, I would encourage parishes to consider having a “Welcome Back Weekend” to reengage those currently inactive parishioners. We essentially have to start over from the beginning with these folks and renew that relationship with them. The pandemic has given us an opportunity reevaluate who we are as a parish – use this weekend to communicate that vision with social opportunities like potlucks or service projects, teaching moments like lectures or Bible studies, and fostering parish engagement through forums on parish operations and needs.
- Parish pride and connection: I tell EVERYONE I meet about my parish because I simply love it that much. I feel at home there, I consider my fellow parishioners to be part of my extended family, and I have deep pride in the fact that it is my parish. Now is the time to foster that sense of parish pride! This goes beyond just branded church gear like car magnets or tote bags (though those certainly don’t hurt and are great modes of evangelization!) but also offering opportunities for parishioners to engage with one another in meaningful ways. Consider highlighting a family per week in the bulletin or starting a parish blog with faith testimonials from congregants. Offer guided small groups around different topics like parenthood or health and their relationship with religion. The more connected a person feels to his or her parish, the greater likelihood that they will make the effort to attend Mass in-person – and donate.
- Livestream phase-out: If there are positives to be found, one of the best things that I think has come out of this pandemic is how parishes have begun livestreaming many of their Masses and events. This is a wonderful way to engage those who are sick or homebound, and I hope it will continue long after we’ve returned to normal. That being said, I fear that livestreams make online Mass too convenient for those who could attend in person – after all, who wants to trek out of the house with all of the kids every Sunday morning when you can crash on the couch and watch in your pjs? I would advise parishes to only livestream one Mass per weekend as conditions improve and integrate reminders about Mass times and in-person opportunities within the livestream. Save the livestream for families wishing to stream sacraments to those who cannot attend or even just capturing the homily to post and share online.
- Safety protocols: I’m an awkward person who overthinks everything, so going to a new place always scares me. Where should I park? Where are the bathrooms? People may feel nervous about attending Mass again as well if they aren’t sure of the protocols in place. Consider setting up a page on your website with all of your safety protocols (including cleaning measures you’re taking to ease those worried about transmission!) and announcing them prior to each Mass. Clear signage at the front doors and within the church about masks, where to sit, and reception of Communion will also make for a more reassuring experience for those who are nervous.
- Accommodations: Related to safety, many people may be dreading the return to Mass because the online experience has been more tailored to their needs – ie. Those who have difficulty hearing can turn on the captions or those with small children can feel free to let them roam at will. Think through these different groups at your parish and how you can make the in-person Mass experience more accommodating for them. Could you have listening devices on hand for those who are hard of hearing or offer a sign language interpreter at one of your Masses? How about having children’s missals on hand or even offering a “practice” Mass for families with small children so they can get used to Mass again?
- Evangelistic outreach: You’re probably thinking I’m crazy. Why would we focus on getting new parishioners when we can’t even get our current ones to return? I think we would all agree that this past year has been challenging in so many ways. I have a feeling that many fallen away Catholics or people of no faith at all are going to be desperately searching for hope. Thankfully, that’s exactly what we offer in the Church, so now is actually a wonderful time to be in the business of disciple-making. Use this time to up your evangelistic outreach: put up flyers at local businesses with Mass times (your bulletin sponsors are a great place to start) or even consider putting a little money into digital advertising in your local area.
No matter how you decide to phase your reopening strategy, one thing is for certain: how we come back from this as a Church matters. In fact, it will make or break the future of Catholicism in our country for decades to come. We have a tall order – to convince people that of all the things they return to in post-pandemic life, church should be one of the first. Is your parish prepared for that encounter?
Find More Tips And Inspiration At Gloriam Marketing’s Free Webinar!
Want to learn more about how you can reengage your parishioners post-pandemic? Gloriam Marketing is offering a free webinar for parish leaders to discuss welcome back strategies and communications plans. One parish in attendance will win a free one-on-one welcome back consult! Learn more and register here.
More Catholic Resources For Returning To Mass
About the Author:
Emily Ricci is the owner and President of Gloriam Marketing, a Catholic marketing and creative agency that assists parishes and Catholic businesses with communications needs. She is passionate about the intersections of marketing and evangelization and enjoys working with organizations as a partner in evangelization.
Emily has 8+ years of parish work experience and holds a master’s degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute. Prior to launching her business, she worked in digital marketing and content development in higher education. She is an adjunct instructor of Religious Studies at the collegiate level and enjoys work from home life with her husband and 4-month-old daughter.
You can learn more about Gloriam Marketing at www.gloriammarketing.com