Friday, September 23, 2022

Adapting and Reimagining: West Coast Catholic Church Leverages Social Outreach to Thrive During COVID-19

by Porsia Tunzi

Image Credit: Josh Applegate via Unsplash

The following guest post was submitted by Porsia Tunzi of Graduate Theological Union. Interested in submitting your research to be featured? Learn more and contact us!

A recent research project conducted in partnership with the Villanova University Center for Church Management fellowship (2021-2022) and funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., examines a case study on how one Catholic parish on the West Coast of the U.S. — Saint Patrick’s Church — has navigated and continues to navigate the diverse challenges, conversations, and reimaginings prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. This summary highlights how Saint Patrick’s has engaged in social outreach as the pandemic continues to impact the local and global community.

Although Saint Patrick’s has struggled during this uncertain time and some ministries have been put on hold, it has also adapted to digital modalities and even learned to reimagine what “community” can look like and mean. For one interviewee, she found that the ministries facilitated over Zoom provided opportunities to continue connection and community that otherwise would not have existed during lockdown. Prior to the pandemic, Saint Patrick’s had a vibrant hospitality ministry that relied almost entirely on in-person activities and mainly included food and fellowship after the main Mass every Sunday. During the pandemic, these activities were completely suspended and their absence left parishioners feeling isolated, as one interviewee shared. Since hospitality in the form of eating and conversing no longer could occur after mass, parishioner volunteers found new ways to show hospitality and do outreach to their fellow parishioners.

In the early months of the pandemic, a parishioner offered a generous donation that focused primarily on hospitality efforts. This donation, alongside the efforts of a number of volunteers, established a phone tree where volunteers contacted and checked on all of the parishioners at Saint Patrick’s and offered financial assistance and emotional support depending on parishioner needs (e.g., help with rent, dropping off groceries, etc.). Although hospitality no longer resembled past initiatives, a commitment to hospitality continued.

The pandemic coinciding with a period of social, racial, religious, and political unrest, laid fertile ground for the expansion and creation of (new) ministries and outreach efforts at Saint Patrick’s. The LGBTQ ministry was fairly new prior to the pandemic starting. However, as the pandemic continued, the ministry expanded, due in large part to its virtual Zoom format, to include new members living outside the confines of Saint Patrick’s local community. The volunteer coordinator of the LGBTQ ministry shared how both parishioners and outside community members gravitated to connecting online in meaningful ways through “LGBTQ and faith sharing” meetings every six weeks, made possible by Zoom during quarantine. In response to the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, volunteers spearheaded anti-racist education, advocacy, and outreach, including workshops, discussions, guest speakers, and a reading series over Zoom. Saint Patrick’s food pantry, already an established outreach ministry for decades, grew during the pandemic, as volunteers responded to the needs of the local community.

This growth is consistent with other churches, as determined in Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC)’s second survey, which found that over 30% of congregations saw an increase in the demands for food assistance (Congregational Response to the Pandemic: Extraordinary Social Outreach in a Time of Crisis, 2021). In the latter part of 2021, still in the midst of the pandemic, women volunteers, with the support of the pastor, came together to provide and find opportunities for lay people to reflect and preach. One interviewee shared that these lay-led reflections made her feel “closeness and community” in a time of isolation. The young adult ministry, which had been dormant before the pandemic, flourished online during lockdown. One young adult commented on how being a part of this ministry and micro-community within Saint Patrick’s made him feel “nourished” and “empowered” in ways he had not experienced before. All of these social outreach examples demonstrate that Saint Patrick’s adapted and sought new ways to create connection and foster community during the pandemic.

For Saint Patrick’s Church — and many other parish communities — there is no returning to a pre-pandemic existence. Rather, they can only progress forward, changed. Although COVID-19 has taken a toll and people are weary, many interviewees believed they will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before, which echoes similar sentiments in the survey data conducted by EPIC. In reflecting on how Saint Patrick’s will continue to endure, an interviewee offered this: “The great task, and great reward, is to engage with others” and to be in deep community with those involved in different ministries, as well as those at the margins of the parish and local community. In other words, this interviewee believed that it was Saint Patrick’s mission and commitment to each other that would help them survive, and perhaps even thrive, during the COVID-19 crisis.

Learn more about the study below and explore the full expanded study here.

Study Title: Adapting and Reimagining: A Case Study of One Catholic Church’s Navigation of Mission, Outreach, and Business Administration during COVID-19

Date Published: Sept. 1, 2022

Institutional Funding: Lilly Endowment Inc. through Villanova University’s Center for Church Management

Research Methodology:

  • In-depth interview
  • Participant observation
  • Content analysis

Sample Size:

  • Between November 2021 and May 2022, the author utilized snowball sampling to find interviewees within one diocesan Catholic parish in a city on the West Coast of the U.S., and then conducted a total of 14 in-depth interviews via Zoom.
  • Although this study focuses only on a single church, and therefore is not representative of all churches, it provides an in-depth look into how this one parish church community has navigated and continues to navigate the pandemic, and how it specifically addresses matters of mission, social outreach, and business administration. However, the realities of these challenges are not foreign to other parishes, especially during this time, and in that way, many parish communities can empathize with and learn from Saint Patrick’s Church.