The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes

By Mary L. Gautier, Mark M. Gray, and Melissa A. Cidade
July 18, 2011

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In 2009, the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, a Lilly Endowment Inc. funded collaboration of five Catholic national ministerial organizations, commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct a series of three surveys in parishes nationwide. The first of these was a single informant survey sent to parishes to develop a portrait of parish life in the United States today. This survey was in the field from March 2010 to December 2010.

Major Findings

History, Location, and Size

  • The average year of parish founding is 1920. About a third of U.S. Catholic parishes (32 percent) were established after 1950 and another third (33 percent) were erected before 1900. Parishes also provided the year of construction for the current church building. Most parishesreport the current church building was constructed in the 1940s and 1950s.
  • Thirty-seven percent of U.S. Catholic parishes are in the Midwest and 24 percent in the Northeast. More than one in five parishes (22 percent) are in the South and only 17 percent are in the West.
  • The average number of registered households in U.S. parishes is 1,168 (median of 761). A third of parishes have more than 1,201 registered households. The percentage of parishes with 200 or fewer households dropped from 24 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010. Parishes with more than 1,200 registered households now make up 33 percent of all parishes.
  • U.S. parishes average 3,277 (median of 1,950) individual registered parishioners. In 2000, the average number of registered parishioners was 2,260. This number has risen by 45 percent as the Catholic population has grown and parishes in the U.S. have been closed and consolidated. Smaller parishes are more likely than larger parishes to be closed or consolidated. Forty percent of all growth in registered parishioners in U.S. parishes from 2005 to 2010 was among Hispanic/Latino(a)s.

Worship and Sacraments

  • The average number of Mass attenders at Sunday/Saturday Vigil Masses on a typical weekend in October is 1,110 (median of 750). On average, this number represents 38 percent of registered parishioners and 47 percent of parish capacity (number of Masses multiplied by seating capacity). Smaller parishes have a higher proportion of parishioners attending Mass that larger parishes.
  • Most parishes (82 percent) celebrate Mass at only one site. However, 13 percent celebrate Mass at two sites in a typical week and 5 percent of parishes celebrate Mass in three or more sites.
  • The median number of Sunday/Saturday Vigil Masses each week in U.S. parishes is four (average of 3.8). One in ten parishes (10 percent) celebrates only one of these Masses per week. Twenty-eight percent celebrate five or more. The median number of weekday Masses in parishes is five (average of 5.3).
  • One in three parishes (29 percent) celebrates Mass at least once a month in a language other than English. This is an increase from 22 percent of parishes in 2000. Most of these Masses, 81 percent, are in Spanish. Overall, about 6 percent of all Masses (weekday and weekend) are celebrated in Spanish.
  • Thirty-seven percent of parishes indicate that they have some special observance for particular cultural or ethnic groups in the parish. By far, the most common of these is a celebration for the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Twenty-one percent of all U.S. parishes indicate a special observance of this day.
  • The typical U.S. parish has 57 infant baptisms, 58 first communions, 44 confirmations, 14 marriages, and 29 funerals each year. Smaller parishes tend to have more sacramental activity per registered parishioner than larger parishes. However, in all but the smallest parishes (those with 200 or fewer registered households) the ratio of infant baptisms to funerals is on average 2 to 1.
  • On average, respondents indicated that the proportion of parishioners who are non-Hispanic white have decreased in the last five years as Catholics of other races and ethnicities make up a larger part of registered parishioners. Parishes in the South and West are more racially and ethnically diverse than those in the Midwest and Northeast.

Finances

  • In the average American parish, the total operating revenue of about $695,000 exceeds expenses of $626,500. The average surplus is 4.3 percent of revenue. However, 30  percent of parishes indicate that their expenses exceed their revenue. Of those parishes reporting a deficit, the average size for the shortfall is 15.8 percent of revenue.
  • Total weekly offertory is about $9,200 or $9.57 per registered household. Offertory has grown in the last five years, on average, by more than 14 percent. Smaller parishes generally collect more per registered household in offertory than larger parishes.

Programs and Ministries

  • Parishes are most likely to have programs and ministries for sacramental preparation,religious education, and for the infirm and homebound (86 percent or more). Majorities have youth ministry (76 percent), ministry to seniors (64 percent), social services to meet individual needs (59 percent), and ministry to the bereaved (54 percent). 3
  • A majority of parishes (56 percent) report some sort of commitment to a Catholic school. Twenty-four percent indicate that they have a parish school, 25 percent support a regional school, and 8 percent indicate a combination of these commitments.

Staff

  • The total number of people on parish staffs in the United States is estimated to be 168,448. This total includes ministry staff and volunteers as well as non-ministry staff and volunteers (including parish bookkeepers, groundskeepers, cooks, etc.). The average parish has a total staff size of 9.5 members with 5.4 individuals in ministry positions.
  • The estimated number of lay ecclesial ministers (paid in ministry for at least 20 hours per week) in the United States is approximately 38,000 (2.1 per parish). Fourteen percent of these individuals are vowed religious and 86 percent other lay persons. Overall, 80 percent are female and 20 percent male. Seven percent are under the age of 30. Eleven percent are in their 30s and 22 percent in their 40s. Thus, four in ten LEMs are estimated to be under the age of 50. It is estimated that the U.S. Church is adding about 790 new lay ecclesial ministers to parish ministry staffs each year.
  • Nearly half of all individuals on parish staffs are lay women (49 percent). Including religious sisters (3 percent), parish staffs in the United States are 52 percent female. Priests account for 18 percent of parish staff members and deacons make up 4 percent. Religious brothers are 1 percent of parish staff members and other lay men make up 21 percent of all parish staff members. Among ministry staff specifically, lay persons are fewer in number and clergy are more prevalent. One in four ministry staff is a diocesan priest (24 percent). Fourteen percent of ministry staff are deacons, 6 percent are religious priests, 5 percent are religious sisters, and 1 percent religious brothers; half are other lay ministry staff. Fifty-six percent of all parish staff members are between the age of 50 and 69. Fifty-five percent of ministry staff is of this age.
  • Ninety-three percent of U.S. parishes indicate that they have a pastoral council and more, 97 percent, say they have a parish finance council.
  • More than one in four parishes (27 percent) are utilizing multi-parish ministry where the parish is most often “clustered” or “linked” (among other arrangements) to another parish. A third of these parishes (33 percent) indicate that this is a relatively new development, beginning sometime after 2004. These parishes are most likely to share sacramental preparation ministries (54 percent), RCIA (53 percent), or religious education and faith formation for children (51 percent).