February 2024 Newsletter


This is the famous quote that Andy Dufresne says to Red in the movie Shawshank Redemption. The message is clear: life can be spent going through the motions and waiting around for something to happen (reactive), or life can be spent making things happen (proactive).

I recently hit the REFLECT button a few weeks. With 2023 behind us, the second month of 2024 moving quickly, Catholic Schools’ Week activities on the horizon, and the Lenten Season right upon us, I took time to download and read some publications that were recommended to me. They all reminded me of the title of this month’s newsletter:

  • “Fewer Priests, Closing Parishes, Dropping Mass Attendance ” by Russell Shaw (June 29, 2023)
  • “Can We Be Frank about the Catholic School Crisis (January 26, 2024)?” by Patrick Reilly (January 26, 2024)
  • “Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks” by David Byers and Russell Shaw (2023)
  • “The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America” by Russell Shaw (2013)

Some of the facts and figures from these publications were eye-openers:

  • “Another 44 Catholic schools closed or merged last year (2022-23), following 71 closures and mergers in 2021-22 and 209 in 2020-21. That’s disastrous! Yet pundits still suggested a great comeback of Catholic schools” (Patrick Reilly, January 2024).
  • “Ordinations dropped from 805 in 1970 to 451 last year — including religious order priests” (Russell Shaw, June 2023).
  • “In 1970, Catholics who attended Mass weekly or more often were 54.9%, but by 2022 the figure was 17.3%. Monthly or more frequent Mass attendance – including the weekly or more frequent attenders – was 713% in 1970 and 36.6% in 2022” (Russell Shaw, June 2023).

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” Those words ran through my mind as I sat in church this past Sunday. This was Sunday, February 11th – Our Lady of Lourdes Feast Day, the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, recalling a series of 18 appearances that the Blessed Mother made to a 14-year-old French peasant girl. Listening to the celebrant recall the history of those appearances, caused my mind to wonder as I sat in the pew. I pondered what Our Lady may have thought if she appeared today in any one of our Catholic parishes and/or schools. Would She be pleased? Would She wonder why more people are not attending Mass? Would She smile at the many people who brought flowers to Her statue this past Sunday? Would She be disappointed that the same people seem to always step forward and do the same things? Would She see many young families in the pews? Would She be pleased with the Lenten opportunities our parishes extend to their families? Would She wonder why we keep closing our Catholic churches and schools?

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” As Catholic leaders, if our focus is about the business of living, then we are making things happen. We have that “fire in the belly.” We are proactive and not sitting around waiting for the next “bullet” to strike. We are doing something, and what we are doing may not be perfect, but “ . . . it is beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.” However, if our focus is about the business of dying, then we have allowed ourselves to sink into mediocrity doing the same things over and over again and expecting the results to be different. Sometimes we don’t even know we have slipped into those ways of thinking. And so, I ask the question: What will wake us up?

I wonder what the Blessed Mother would think about the culture we have created and developed in our Catholic parishes and schools. Are we seeking to build relationships and bring people to the Church so we can spread the Good News and grow our community? Or, do we not have the time to reach out and personally invite and have that cup of coffee or make that phone call or go for a visit or invite someone to share their best wisdom about the future of our school or parish? When thinking proactively, we are actively and strategically addressing the issue of Catholic school parents not coming to Mass on the weekends with their children; we are doing something about the 30% involved and the 40% actively disengaged (Gallup) in most every Catholic parish. When we get busy living, we are alive, joyful, and hopeful and seek ways to get better, always improve, always grow. We don’t believe we have all the answers or that we are better than others just because we are in a position of responsibility.

This is the beginning of the Lenten Season. What a wonderful time to get on with the business of living and add spark and energy to the lives of others! As a Catholic leader, consider taking new steps:

  1. Set up five 30-minute visits every week with someone with whom you would like to build a relationship – a new school family member, a parent, a teacher, a young graduate, a recent mom or dad who recently baptized their child in your church, a widow or widower who recently buried their spouse in your parish. The list can go on, but you have to make it happen.
  2. Pick up the phone and call 2-3 of your top financial contributors to your Catholic school and/or parish and simply say thank you – every week.
  3. Pick up the phone and call 2-3 of your top volunteers in your Catholic school and/or parish and simply say thank you – every week.
  4. Devote your next parish staff or faculty meeting going around the room and having each member affirm/commend someone on the staff.
  5. Set up a phone outreach committee/ministry of 20-30 volunteers and make sure every parish family is called 2-3 times per year and invited to something at the parish.
  6. Throw away that homily you planned to preach sometime this month and share with your congregation what you believe can help grow your parish, what you need to do better as their pastor, and what they need to do better as a parishioner.
  7. Once per quarter, as pastor or principal, identify 3 challenges that face your Catholic school and/or parish and invite 20-30 people (60% not involved; 40% involved) to join you for a potluck supper and discuss ways to solve those challenges.
  8. Grow! Break away for a few days this spring or summer and find the absolute best conference where you can rub shoulders with colleagues, be challenged by new and innovative ideas, and take the time to re-invent yourself for the coming years.
  9. Announce and proclaim that your Catholic school and/or parish is alive and demonstrate that with “absurd hospitality.” Have people in your parish greet people coming to Mass in the parking lot. Build a Hospitality Team of 15-20 people and start visiting new parish families in their home in order to welcome them. Do the same thing with the new school families.
  10. As that Catholic leader (pastor, president, principal, assistant principal, lead faculty member, board/council member, parent leader) make it a point to visit with each family in your school once per year – preferably to see how they are doing. Build those relationships.
  11. As pastor and principal (and president if applicable) make sure you block out the time every day to be outside in the morning and the afternoon to welcome and say hi to everyone in the carpool line. Great conversations can ensue.
  12. As this Lenten Season begins, create and prepare a dynamic “State of the School” or “State of the Parish” message that can be delivered in person and virtually and on the website and through social media. Tout your successes; tell people about your accomplishments; divulge financial conditions; but most importantly, share the vision of where your school (or parish) is headed for the next 1-3-5 years. “Vision gives us the courage to tell our story when we must have otherwise remained silent” (Nouwen).

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” If we are all about continuing to build the Kingdom, then there is no choice in the direction we must take. It is forward and proactive. We have much to do to make Our Lady proud.

This newsletter was written by ISPD president Frank Donaldson. Join us each month as one of the ISPD associates shares her/his thoughts on how to grow your Operational Vitality efforts.

We stand ready to partner with you and your parish and/or school leaders in creating that new strategic growth plan, in conducting a feasibility study and capital campaign, in enhancing your enrollment management efforts, in assessing your development/advancement processes, in creating that written strategic plan for development/advancement/stewardship, in working with you to build the people base in your parish, and much more.

**Please join us this summer (June 18 – 20) at the New Orleans Riverside Hilton as ISPD celebrates our 35th anniversary with our annual Development School. This year’s theme: Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. Visit ispdconsulting.com/summer-development-school/ for more information.

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