Christ feeding the multitude. The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Feeding the Flock!

The business of Church hospitality

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Why do people leave the Church? The answers vary. People complain about the doctrine but cannot fully articulate the Church teaching they oppose. They claim the Church has too much money and is, therefore, corrupt, but fail to recognize the financial responsibilities to pay employees while providing charitable services. Some have insipid reasons for leaving — for example, not liking the music, the priest didn’t allow their dog to be the ring bearer for the wedding, the usher wouldn’t give them a bulletin until after Mass. But the most painful reason for abandoning the Church I’ve heard is, “I am not being fed.”

Spiritual Food Desert

Being fed requires being hungry. Being hungry means you will eat whatever is served and be grateful. And so this makes me ask, “Are people actually spiritually, theologically and religiously hungry for what the Church is serving?” Or do they come to Church already fed — that is, filled up with the things of this world and food from the devil? Let’s not forget about the devil who wants to feed us with forbidden fruit.

I believe people come to Church hungry for something. They may come to satisfy an obligation yet perhaps sincerely hunger for God, even if they cannot articulate it. And so, we must ask the next question, “Why do people feel like they’re ‘not’ being fed in the Catholic Church?”

At every Mass, the congregation listens to the Word of God in large portions. They recite prayers, all biblically based. They have the opportunity to receive holy Communion, the divine meal for the soul — the body and blood of Jesus. So, why do people feel unsatisfied? Why do they leave the Church feeling hungry to wander the options?

Like the wandering Arameans of the Old Testament in search of the Promised Land, or even like the disciples who to had to ask, where will we get enough food to feed the crowds, we have to see that our job as pastoral leaders — that is, people ordained and commissioned to feed the flock, that we have to do a better job in feeding them. If not, they will go elsewhere. And they have!

The shocking statistics of ex-Catholics or the growing number of “nones” — that is, those who publicly declare they have no religious affiliation — should humble us to work harder to keep our parishioners well-fed, satisfied and, at the same time, craving more of God in their life.

Here are some best practices, or at least some practical, tips that may help you and your parish do a more effective job of feeding the flock without boring them.

St. Jean Vianney
A stained-glass window of St. Jean Vianney at St.-Honoré d’Eylau Church in Paris. Julian/AdobeStock

Observations in My Ministry

My vocational ministry is quite different from parish priesthood these days, yet very connected to parish life. I’m a priest and chef, host for a TV show, author, speaker, operator of a food-truck ministry, and also a social and multimedia content creator. But, like every priest, I see my ultimate job as helping people get to heaven. Even though I’m not working in a parish or church full time, I know that attending regular Mass is a necessary part of that goal. I’ve traveled to many different parishes and churches across the country and around the world, and I’ve noticed some very common characteristics that make for successful, faithful and effective parishes.

No. 1. Church programs don’t always work. Parishes should invest in ongoing formation and provide resources to parish staff that offer best practices and tools for effective kerygmatic evangelization, catechetical instructions and administration efficiency. While some Church programs offer ideas and methods of improving parts of the parish mission and outreach efforts, they are not a silver bullet to defeat the decline of attendance and parishioner morale. There are too many factors that affect results, including church membership, demographics, finances, staff capabilities and a pastor’s willingness and skill set. These programs have great ideas, but it takes a rare synergy of many external and internal forces to align and execute these programs before the pastor is reassigned.

The good news is that I’ve been to many successful and thriving parishes that haven’t invested in these programmatic approaches. So, before you invest considerable resources into a program, hoping it will completely rejuvenate your parish, take time for a lot of prayer, conversation with key people and discernment on every level of parish life. Don’t focus on one program or another, but focus on techniques with a renewed focus and an attitude to serve your people with the same enthusiasm you expect from your parishioners.

No. 2. Attitude is everything when it comes to parish revitalization. Parish leadership, from pastors to the people in the pew, has to begin from a position of confidence in Jesus Christ’s promise that he will not abandon the Church. Even if it feels like Jesus isn’t interested in parishes with small membership and limited finances, he is! And even if we have small gifts, if we put these in Jesus’ hands, he can perform the miracle and bring the lost sheep home. I sometimes feel like many priests have lost a sense of their prophetic zeal.

Perhaps some have given up on dynamism. Priestly confidence diminishes for fear of failure and rejection; our zeal has been tempered by internal jealousies, the number of bureaucratic hoops or the threat of the cancel culture; and our sins have prevented us from seeing clearly how the salvation of souls is our ultimate goal. Yes, we need an attitude that says, “I want to serve my people the good news in such a profound, dynamic, self-giving and powerful way that my parishioners will taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

In particular, the attitude of the pastor determines so much. His vision, witness and willingness to allow for dynamism create the environment for another level of hospitality. We know that not everyone can be like St. Jean Vianney. But he is the patron for the priest and model par excellence for the priesthood. Even the devil admitted that if there were just three priests like Jean Vianney, the devil’s kingdom would come to an end. So, yes, I’m begging priests to consider how their priesthood is the key to a vibrant parish or a building that functions at half capacity.

The admonition from Revelation 3:16 should put the fire in every priest’s belly: God spits out the lukewarm. This enters into my prayer often, especially when I’m tempted to do the bare minimum or let my desire for quiet and peace create inertia to fight against the evil one who is leading our flock to different and evil pastures.

There is no doubt, the Catholic Church exists and operates in the hospitality industry. The word, although limited to secular understanding, is actually the basis for the corporal works of mercy. Hospitality, like a hospital, heals people. Like a restaurant, the Church has a product to promote and serves as our source of hospitality. It’s called eternal salvation through a holy way of life in Jesus Christ. This product looks and tastes like humble food — bread and wine. Our vocational mission is to serve people with this product — the faith — because we know that when we offer hospitality to people who come to our church, they experience God’s healing and salvation. But again, we have to query why people are leaving the Catholic Church? We have to honestly assess that they don’t like, or rather understand, what we are serving. In a sense, they aren’t biting.


Those Invited to the Banquet and Salvation

Celebrating Mass on Nov. 7, 2017, Pope Francis spoke about people invited to the banquet. He said that there is an “entrance ticket” to the Lord’s salvation; it is a free ticket, but one which will be appointed to the men and women who realize that they “need care and healing in body and soul.”

The entrance ticket, the pope said, is “to be sick, to be poor, to be a sinner,” and “in need, both in body and in soul.” By “neediness,” the pope was referring to those in “need of care, healing and love.”


Restaurant Analogy

Some people may think that I take food analogies a little too far in comparing churches to restaurants. But, I don’t think we take it far enough. We have almost the exact same goals and objectives:

— To fill seats, i.e., to retain numbers of patrons/parishioners.

— To provide an excellent experience (from service, ambiance, appropriate levels of formality and familiarity), i.e. to make sure people are satisfied.

— To have guests joyfully return, i.e., to create a sense of joy for people who come.

— To have the guests spread the word about our establishment and bring others along the next time, i.e., to have our members participate in the mission to evangelize.

— To make the guests feel like they are a part of the family, i.e., to make our parishioners take proper ownership of their church.

— To have happy and fulfilling memories of the place, i.e., to create deeper and formative connections.

— To feed people in a way that leaves them content, satisfied and yet hungry for more, i.e., to see that people have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord, and thus long for the Lord like a deer yearns for running streams.

Hopefully, you see the goals are similar enough that we can actually learn from successful restaurants in order to replicate these techniques for our establishment of holy hospitality.

In order to achieve these goals, there are similar approaches, attitudes and, yes, best practices that can be applied from restaurants to churches, where hungry hearts come to be fed. It’s worth repeating, these goals aren’t always accomplished by a program. Instead, it requires a tremendous amount of pre-service discernment, high-level training, and steadfast and zealously persevering in the execution of the mission. It all begins with an attitude to serve.

If any of this sounds daunting, or if you’re tempted to say, “I don’t have the kind of skills to run a restaurant, or a parish like a restaurant,” please don’t worry. The fact is God called each priest to a role of service and holy hospitality because each ordained minister has something to offer. He is called to contribute in building up the kingdom of God as a place where all are welcome. The fact is, each priest has an inherent intuition of what makes a parish a great place of evangelization, service and sacramental ministry. Each priest is stamped with the diaconal charism to serve. We have to remember that and tap into that gift so that we can be more intentional in our role as servants. Remember, the most successful restaurants are those that take service seriously, to a certain level of sophistication and, at the same time, top make people feel comfortable.


About Father Leo

Dining with the saintsFather Leo E. Patalinghug is a member of a community of consecrated life, Voluntas Dei (“The Will of God”). He currently resides in Baltimore, hosts a weekly television show, is a bestselling author, radio and podcast host, and an internationally acclaimed speaker. He offers various speaking engagements at conferences, retreats, parish missions and youth rallies.

Father Leo is a two-time black belt martial arts instructor, award-winning break dancer and choreographer and an award-winning cook, which caught the attention of ABC, PBS, NBC, FOX, the Cooking Channel and the Food Network, where Father Leo defeated the world-famous chef in a competition called, “Throw Down with Bobby Flay!” His television program, “Savoring Our Faith with Father Leo E. Patalinghug,” can be viewed on EWTN every Sunday.

On his website, Plating Grace, Father Leo brings people together one meal at a time! It is a fun, family-focused, dynamic ministry seeking to bring about a future of stronger families, closer relationships and a deeper understanding of Jesus as food for our mind, body and soul. His message is also shared on YouTube.

His most recent book, “Dining With the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Righteous Feast” (Regnery Press, $39.99), co-authored with Michael P. Foley, gives readers the resources for a healthy meal with an array of folk dishes from around the world designed to be delicious, easy to make and a good fit for liturgical occasions. The book presents what a saint ate or drank and offers some advice that the saint may have offered.


Forms of Hospitality

When I give these lectures and presentations to priests, I ask them to consider their favorite restaurant. Then I ask them why? What kind of restaurant is it? Is it formal and fancy, homestyle or fast food? What do you like about it? Be as honest and as descriptive with your answer as possible. Do you like the way it looks, smells, the decor, the level of cleanliness? Do you know and like the people who run it? How do they make you feel? What kind of food do they serve? Is the food approachable, consistent, priced right, satisfying and ultimately delicious? Do you want to come back for more? Do you recommend others go there? How regularly do you eat at that restaurant?

And now ask yourself, if you were in charge of that restaurant, what would you improve? Would you change the menu? Change the prices or the amounts of food that you’re serving? Perhaps offer more festive seasonal specials? Would you change the environment, perhaps change the decor? Would you pay attention to more details, like cleaning the entranceway from clutter? Would you lower the volume of the music or change it altogether? How would you improve the type of service? Do you need to change or retrain the staff?

These questions can then be applied to an unbiased and honest assessment of any parish church as well. But don’t look at it through the lens of an expertly theologically trained, well-seasoned pastor. Instead, look at it through the lens of your parishioner — a customer looking to be fed!

These simple questions, based on your personal preferences, can help determine the kind of hospitality you want to use to serve your people. In a sense, it establishes the brand of your parish. For example, is your parish known for being an “in and out” no-frills type of parish? Or, are you considered a very formal place, where people expect higher liturgy, in which there are more people wearing suits and altar veils than shorts and flip-flops? Or does your parish have a more contemporary feel, with drums and an electric guitar, rather than chant or to the exclusion of organ music? However you describe your parish, no one has a “right” to judge it, because, just as many different styles of restaurants exist, there are just as many churches offering holy hospitality in their unique way.

This sounds very subjective, based on personal tastes. And it sounds like I’m excluding bad liturgical practices. But, I’m not. I’m challenging my brother priests to consider if their style of hospitality is working by answering the objective questions that every restaurant has to answer: Are you filling your pews or losing people? Do people leave feeling satisfied? Are they telling others to come? Do they get involved and have a sense of familiarity and appropriate ownership? Do they come back each week, excited that their hunger will be satisfied?

My ministry, which involves international travels, has brought me to many different experiences of parish life. I’ve seen many different styles of ecclesial hospitality. And I can honestly say that I’ve seen vibrancy, holiness, mission mindedness in every setting — from the highest formal and traditional churches to the casual and contemporary communities. In the same way, I’ve seen lines form outside of food trucks and reserved seating months in advance at Michelin Star establishments. Yes, the simple diner can be just as effective as silver cloche fine dining.

It’s easy to conclude that these institutions of hospitality — no matter the brand — have gotten it right. They’re serving people successfully. We need to do the same.

But, how do you do this? It’s challenging to talk about something that should rather be experienced. When I give presentations about this, participants begin to explore how they are part of the hospitality industry in more concrete ways. For now, I can provide basic observations from the most successful hospitality establishments. And it begins with understanding how restaurants work.

The key is communication between the “back of the house” and the “front of the house.” The back of the house consists of cooks, dishwashers and anything else customers don’t always see or have access to. The front of the house means the wait staff, greeters and the overall environment that customers experience and has visual or audible access from where they’re sitting. Successful restaurants have excellent communication between the front of the house and back of the house. For them, all the parties involved are working together. If not, customers will feel disjointed. For example, a place can offer great food but bad service, or vice versa.

To bring that to church talk, it could be that the parishioner experiences great music but bad homilies, or great homilies with rude ushers, confused and poorly dressed altar servers, or sloppy liturgies. The most successful parishes are those that have their i’s dotted and t’s crossed on every aspect of their parish life. It begins with the pastor and staff fully engaged in the hospitality virtues and having very clear communication with everyone involved in liturgy, education, pastoral ministries, sacraments and social justice. For now, ask yourself: Is there good communication with every aspect of your parish? If not, parishioners may sense that confusion and find some place that gives a better sense that everyone is on the same page.

Fulfilling Hungers

A successful restaurant offers what people are hungry for. If you want a five-star dining experience, you don’t go to a fast-food chain. Nor do you go to a fine dining establishment for something quick and easy. The brand of a restaurant knows what they’re offering, and they proudly serve it.

To interpret this lesson for the Catholic Church, we have to know that we are not a cafeteria for people to pick and choose. We’re not fast food, serving overly processed food, nor are we so high class that the humble do not feel at home. At the same time, we are serving home-styled food fit for the King of the Universe. We offer a smorgasbord of Catholic treasures that have changed the world for the better. We don’t just offer spirituality, sacraments, social justice or community. We offer everything!

I’ve been to churches that are proud of their social justice record but have sloppy liturgies and too many homilies that have replaced spirituality with volunteerism. Some places have beautiful liturgies but no sense of community. Other places offer deep theological truths but are presented in a way that makes it hard to swallow, while other places are stuck on serving marshmallow homilies devoid of anything substantial. As priests, we cannot limit our parishes to one style of parish based on our personalities or personal preferences. We have to remember that we are providing what people are hungering for. They are hungering for the “fullness of the spirit,” the more accurate meaning of the word “catholic.”

Always Improving!

There is a saying in the hospitality industry: We’re only as good as our last service. In other words, a restaurant can have three Michelin stars, but one night of bad service can take those stars away. As priests, we cannot be satisfied with an attitude of maintenance, but compelled by a mission toward excellence.

I’ve been to some churches that seem to “run themselves.” It’s a machine that has so many moving parts that it’s impossible for a pastor to know what everyone is doing. But, the devil is in the details. And while maintaining a church may be fine for a moment, we have to remember that maintenance can lead to a feeling of redundancy and boredom. The restaurants that thrive offer specials.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants shifted gears and went to carry-out menus. Good restaurants are learning new techniques, making sure the decor is updated and staff are being re-educated, recertified and renewed in their excitement for their job. The same has to be true for our place of hospitality and our home of worship. Ask, what am I doing to always improve? Some chefs actually enter into competitions just to keep their skills sharp. While we may not compete with one another, we could invite mission preachers, outside ministries or offer pilgrimages to keep things alive and exciting, lest we become like the diner that everyone went to for a period of time until everyone got bored of maintaining standards and left the place looking and feeling sad and unappetizing.

I’ve always considered restaurants the secular equivalent of churches. Both are places of hospitality. Some are better at keeping their customers than others. Either way, these two great institutions are places where people are fed. If they’re doing their job well, people will be fed body, mind and soul.

FATHER LEO E. PATALINGHUG, IVDei, is a member of a community of consecrated life, Voluntas Dei, and the host and founder of Plating Grace.


The Example of Chick-fil-A

I’m not into promoting businesses, but I think we can all agree that if you’ve ever visited any Chick-fil-A restaurant, you’ll notice a considerable detectable quality of great service. They’re incredibly efficient, always clean, consistent with their product, willing to make things right, and they do everything with a “my pleasure” attitude! It’s quite obvious that the Christian ethic of the owners has molded every aspect of this restaurant’s brand. I know a few priests who claim that if they’re in a bad mood, they’ll go to that restaurant for lunch just to feel better. In an analogical way, that should be the same for our Church.


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