How to foster a successful shared parish community

Theology professor Brett Hoover explores how diverse parishes can share resources and come together as one community.
In the Pews

As U.S. Catholics become ever more diverse, so too are Catholic parishes. The result, says professor Brett Hoover, who teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is what he calls the shared parish, or parishes where two or more distinct cultural groups share a building while maintaining their own unique worship and ministries.

Shared parishes challenge the idea that “if Catholicism were perfect, every parish would look the same, every Catholic would worship the same,” says Hoover. “But anybody who’s travelled—even within the United States—knows that Catholicism isn’t actually like that.” Catholic parishes in the Northeast look and feel different from those in the Midwest or the Southwest.

Hoover, author of The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, and the Future of U.S. Catholicism (New York University Press), spent years conducting ethnographic research on how these parishes function. He found that the successful shared parish both provides space for distinct cultural groups and ministries to coexist and connects these groups through shared social networks and ministries. This works to minimize power imbalances and to make sure each cultural group has what it needs to flourish. Such a balancing act is hard to achieve, but Hoover has some concrete suggestions for how parish leadership—both lay and ordained—can help foster a successful shared parish community.

What exactly is a shared parish?

A shared parish has more than one cultural group—and by cultural group I mean communities that approach Catholicism in significantly different ways. Most of the time, these are different racial or ethnic groups.

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In a shared parish, these groups have their own distinct worship and ministry  despite belonging to the same parish. They share the facilities, they usually share parish leadership, and they normally do certain things in common, such as big social events or certain liturgies. But other than that they remain largely distinct.

Can you give an example?

Almost every U.S. Catholic has probably attended a shared parish, even if just on vacation or while traveling. A good example is my former parish here in Los Angeles—St. Mark’s in Venice, California. Historically, Venice was a white, working-class town, and the parish has white, working-class roots. Now both the town and the parish have a significant Latino population, as well as a growing population of upper-middle-class professionals, many of whom are white or Asian. The parish has three Masses in English and one Mass in Spanish. Most people who attend the Spanish Mass are immigrants, while both white and English-speaking Latino members attend the English Masses.

How common are shared parishes? 

They’re very common, but it’s hard to give exact numbers because there are a lot of different definitions and measurements out there. For example, there have been studies on multicultural parishes, but many of these studies define a multicultural parish as any parish with a significant population of people who aren’t white. If you have a parish that’s almost entirely Mexican American, that’s not really a multicultural parish; it’s a monocultural parish. 

One of the ways my students and I have measured shared parishes is to count how many parishes in a given diocese have Mass in more than one language. It’s not a perfect measurement—for example, you could have a parish with a Filipino and an Anglo community that have separate Masses but both are in English—but it’s pretty good. 

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Generally, what this method shows is that in cities and states with large immigrant populations—such as Miami, Los Angeles, or Chicago—normally the majority of parishes are shared or have Masses in more than one language. In other parts of the Midwest and in Southern states, it tends to be somewhere between 15 and 50 percent of parishes that are shared. And in places such as Wyoming or Vermont, which have a small population of immigrants, this number is much lower.

What kinds of questions do shared parishes have to negotiate?

I think disputes over room reservations, the conditions of rooms, and parking lots are probably the most common things that create tensions for parish communities. I’ve heard that at one Virginia parish, people would set up lawn chairs and wait in line all night to reserve parish facilities, like they were waiting in line for concert tickets or something.

On the one hand, this is a problem with an easy fix, and it’s something the U.S. parish system does pretty well. Usually, there’s a computerized system of assigning rooms that is pretty orderly. But the real tensions aren’t about rooms or parking lots: They’re about power dynamics. I think that traditionally Anglo communities who are now coexisting with Latino communities are sometimes uncomfortable with the demographic changes in their neighborhoods. I think sometimes these little irritants become symbols of the fact that parishes are changing in ways that people don’t always like. 

One of the ways that established communities in the United States deal with discomfort or conflict is by making rules and enforcing them. That’s OK. It generally works pretty well for people. The problem is when there is a power differential that makes it easier for some groups to make and set rules or abuse them to get what they want.

The real tensions aren’t about rooms or parking lots: They’re about power dynamics.

Can you give a couple examples of how these power dynamics play out?

I would say that the most common power disparity I see, especially in Anglo-Latino parishes, is when Anglo community leaders are all paid parish staff and Latino community leaders are all volunteers. I’ve seen this so often: a paid white youth minister whose youth group is actually one half or one quarter the size of the Latino youth group, while the Latino youth group is run by a volunteer who often has to pay for their own resources, books, candles, and other supplies.  

I don’t think this is always intentional: People sometimes don’t even know that it’s happening, or it just creeps up. Maybe the staff member has been there for a long time, but the demographics of the parish and the parish’s needs have changed.

Another symbol of power differences is when one community has Mass in the church basement while the other gets to use the church. There’s less of that nowadays, but you used to see that a lot in New York in the 1950s. I did hear recently of a parish where the Spanish Mass was in a little hall, even though it was full and lively, while the English Mass was in the sanctuary, even though it was a lot smaller.

Are there any examples of parishes that have successfully corrected these power differences?

One of the parishes I studied was in a suburb of Los Angeles where 80 percent of the population is Latino. There are virtually no white Catholics in this parish, but it does have several distinct cultural groups, including an English-speaking Mexican American community, a Spanish-speaking Latin American immigrant community, and a Filipino community. 

In this parish, it’s not an issue of the Latino community having less power: They’re so overwhelming in numbers that they have more influence. But there are still power dynamics at play. For example, the English-speaking Mexican American community has been there for a long time. They know how things run, and the community includes members of the city council—they feel like owners of the parish, and others see them that way.

When the parish got a new pastor, one of the things he tried to do was speak to the needs of the Spanish-speaking parishioners. He also saw that the Filipino members felt like they didn’t have any advocates within the parish, even though they’d been members for a long time. Even though they had their own choir and their own Mass, they were a much smaller community and didn’t quite feel like owners of the parish. So he recruited a Filipino associate pastor as a symbol that this was their parish too.

Do you have any suggestions for how parishes can start to equalize power dynamics?

I’m of two minds on this. My own writing tends to emphasize the role of the pastor. This works well within the dynamics of Catholicism in the United States but may not be as relevant in other parts of the world. I think ideally the pastor has a vision of how the parish works and keeps people accountable to that vision. In other words, he is highly invested in maintaining an egalitarian atmosphere in the parish and making sure that everyone has access to what they need and that no group feels like they are more the owner than another group. This includes doing interventions when somebody gets too big for their britches.

I think this works because when somebody presents a powerful vision, connects a parish’s mission to the gospel, and can say “this is who we are and how our parish works,” people love it. They want to go along. It tickles the conscience of people who might be totally unaware of the power differences.

But in reality, not all priests are trained to do that. Some come with their own expectations about rapid assimilation or multiculturalism. So while having a strong pastor guide a shared parish might be the most efficient way, in reality there needs to be other ways of handling shared parishes.

For example, other parishes have a lay leadership structure that celebrates the multiculturality of the parish, even if the pastor changes. St. Nicholas in Evanston, Illinois has a long history as a multicultural shared parish. This started with one pastor—Father Bob—but by now the parish has gone through a number of pastors over the years, and the basic openness and desire for a more egalitarian arrangement continues. I think that’s because of the lay leadership in both Latino and white communities.

What keeps parishioners dedicated to a common vision of a shared parish?

First of all, it almost always happens that some people are just not able to handle the transition into a shared parish, and they leave. That’s probably good in the end. Those who do stay find some way to make sense of their parish’s new identity. How they do that varies. I think it helps if the pastor can provide a vision that specifically ties to what it means to be Catholic: the catholicity of the parish, the fact that we all come from different backgrounds and practice in slightly different ways and yet are all joined by this common baptism into one church.

If that strong vision is lacking from the pulpit, then people piece a common identity together however they can.

Some people may adopt the language of tolerance: the idea that we all have a right to be in the country and worship. The language of “rights” makes a lot of sense to Americans. That, of course, doesn’t always solve the problem of how to share resources equitably: Just because someone has a right to be there doesn’t mean they have a right to anything else.

At other times, people find a way to identify with a new cultural group through their own immigrant ancestors. That can be really powerful. In the Midwest, for example, many white Catholics are descended from German immigrants. I saw someone respond to a complaint that new Latino immigrants weren’t learning English fast enough by saying, “Well, my own family spoke German for five generations.” 

What’s shocked me about how people make sense of shared community is that, unless they are guided by parish leadership to do so, very few people use religion to make sense of their shared parishes. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why the sense of a global communion doesn’t inform our sense of what it means to be Catholic. Maybe it’s because the Second Vatican Council places a lot of importance on the local and on the vernacular.

Healthy parishes have this sense that everyone is in this together.

What does a healthy shared parish look like?

This is what we call the $64,000 question. I think it’s about more than tolerance. Tolerance is OK: It’s a nice step forward compared to multicultural relations in many places. But when there are disagreements or tensions, tolerance isn’t really enough to help you love your neighbor. A parish needs to have some sort of shared vision of unity and diversity. I like communion ecclesiology for this vision, because it helps articulate that we are all one, but we are also different.

A healthy shared parish is not one in which all cultural groups start looking the same. I went to one parish that was predominantly African American and Latino. The Latino community was taking on a lot of liturgical elements of the African American community, because the parish’s Black members were worried they were losing their own distinct brand of Catholicism. But it wasn’t making anyone in the Latino community happy to perform a liturgy that wasn’t theirs.

Instead, healthy parishes have this sense that everyone is in this together, that the parish is a common project among all members. There are different ways of enacting that. In Southern California, where I live, the parish festival is one way this gets expressed: All members of a parish come together to make it happen, and they become these big multicultural extravaganzas that are both identifiably Catholic and identifiably unique to each parish. You need these periodic ways in which people feel like they’re part of a common project.

Thanksgiving Mass is another occasion that works well as a multicultural liturgy. It’s easier for parishes to develop their own unique community traditions than it is at some of the big church holidays—such as Holy Thursday or the Easter Vigil—where people are emotionally attached to particular liturgical expressions from their own language and culture. If things are missing from these Masses, people feel like they’ve lost something.

The flip side of shared celebrations is that each cultural group also needs its own space. In large, urban parishes that have multiple Mass times, we’re already used to that: Each Mass has its own community.

Do you have any suggestions for how parishes can start building traditions around a shared parish identity?

First, I think that someone from parish leadership—whether lay or ordained—has to remind people that it’s OK to be separate sometimes. It’s OK for people to worship in multiple languages. Someone needs to make sure that the parish schedule, room reservations, and parking lot issues are all dealt with and remind people to approach disagreements with Christian charity. There need to be ways of encouraging and validating the distinct parts of the shared parish identity. 

Then, the distinct groups also
need to be brought together. It helps to start with relatively simple common projects, especially if there’s a lot of tension in the parish. One project that almost always goes well is a “taking care of the parish” day, where everyone comes and pulls up weeds and sweeps the parking lot.

Give people shared experiences where they get to talk or do something together. Host dinners or social events. There’s so much that keeps us separate in this society, so any small positive interaction can be a revelation. 


This article also appears in the August issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 8, pages 22-26). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Courtesy of Brett Hoover