The Society has survived, and even in some cases remarkably thrived, during the pandemic period. Yet we have not been immune to the several major trends that affect our ability to grow or even maintain our membership.
It is worse than we thought.
Let’s look briefly at what we already know, the reasons why we are in this predicament. First, we primarily draw Society members from the Catholic Church, and the Church has suffered over decades now from eroding family memberships and departures from our faith. Add in a series of abuse scandals and other pre-pandemic issues, and we can clearly see that our universe of potential Catholic members has been shrinking.
Across the country, one Diocese at a time, we see massive parish consolidations. The Church has neither the dollars nor the number of clergy available to afford so many parishes, especially with declining enrollments and subsequent reductions in Sunday collections and other revenues. Society Conferences in these closed or consolidated parishes have merged when possible, but others have closed after struggling to stay viable with an aging Vincentian membership.
Then add to this a pandemic that closed down our very ability to go to Mass, to see each other and to serve. Local Society Conferences often lost their home base because the parish properties were closed. While we adapted mightily to these conditions to serve, it was certainly harmful to our membership efforts when we physically could not be together for many months. Fellowship was the first casualty.
Our just-completed annual national reporting from every Council and Conference shows a continued membership erosion, even considering some growth in associate members and in some ethnic minority volunteer numbers. I believe that these numbers still assume and perhaps inflate our actual membership numbers. It is easy to simply use the numbers from last year rather than take a new census of everyone to see if they are still active. We instead assume this participation. This is dangerous!
I asked our National Council Members at the Midyear meeting to consider a membership census, checking individually with each member to make sure they are still active and available to serve even if we need to help them adapt to changing parish and Conference membership. Now that the annual reporting is complete, let’s renew this effort to be in touch with every single one of our active and associate members. Businesspeople tell us that your best future customer is the one you already have, and it is easier and less expensive to maintain a customer than to grow a new one. While our members are far more than customers, the adage still works.
Let’s assure that every Vincentian is accounted for and has the ability to continue to grow in holiness with us. This may mean Conference mergers. Alternatively it might mean new Conferences, designed for language/ethnic groups or for younger cohorts. Every Vincentian deserves a home with us to be closer with the Lord.
I won’t pretend to have all the answers about what to do about parish closures and mergers, Conference transitions and other community dynamics that negatively impact our membership. We all need to work together on this and share effective strategies. Let’s first agree, however, on a few principles to guide our work. One, every Vincentian is of value and deserves our communication, respect and best efforts to keep them active. Second, while we can’t control parish futures we will be nimble in adapting and designing Conferences to give everyone a Vincentian home. Some Conferences may serve multiple parish communities, while some parishes may now host multiple Conferences! Third, we will not assume Vincentian membership and services, but actively work to keep everyone we have and increase our efforts to find new members.
The people we serve continue to be with us, and their numbers are not shrinking! With today’s economic challenges, short and long term we may have more demands on our time and financial resources.
The Church is still with us as well, even though it is at times battered and bruised. Our Bishops and priests still appreciate our work as an “outsource solution” to serve the neighborhood poor amid dwindling clergy and parish resources to do so. The Church also deeply appreciates our work to help anyone, especially Catholics, to grow in holiness.
Most importantly, Christ is still with us. We know this because we see His face every time we serve.
Hang in there, dust ourselves off after so many challenges, and let’s get to work to re-establish our membership and our faith in action. Too many depend on us to do anything less.