Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Lawn Chair Catechism #2: Catholic Retention Rates

I'm a convert to Catholicism. I was one of 73,405 adult baptisms in 2005. I was raised believing in God, but never going to church. I had some bad experiences with a "Southern Baptist" when I was in middle school. After those experiences, I wanted nothing to do with the Christian God. I've been Buddhist and Wiccan. I converted to Catholicism my freshman year in college directly from Wicca.

I was always deeply interested in religion. I remember meditating in the backyard when I was still in elementary school, trying to become one with everything. I always knew there was a God, I never questioned that. I knew there was a God and He (or She) loved me and cared about me. I would characterize my entire religious journey as looking for that God.

I was initially introduced to the Christian God as a hateful and vengeful God. My maternal grandfather was convinced that anyone who was not a heterosexual, white person who went to his particular church in southwestern MO was going to hell. I sent him a letter when I converted to Catholicism. He's probably still praying for my soul.

When I went to college, I was really alone for the first time in my life. I knew no one. I was three hours away from my family. I had the opportunity to redefine myself. I decided to flirt with Christianity just to prove that what my grandfather did to me no longer had any power over me. I wore a cross just to see how it felt. I read the Bible. I visited several nearby churches.

My Conversion Story

I went to the Catholic Newman Center because I had to do a paper on a religion I had no prior exposure to. I was surrounded by Catholics in my dorm building. All of the new friends I was making were Catholic or ex-Catholic. When I went to my first Mass, I had a pretty intense conversion experience. I felt completely at home there even though I didn't understand what was going on.

I was angry with God for calling me into the Catholic Church. What was a free-spirit like me doing joining the Catholic Church? I went on a walk with one of my ex-Catholic friends. He listed all of the things that was wrong in the Church and all of the issues that he disagreed with. I most remember his arguments about the Church being against abortion and the death penalty. He supported both.

That made me stop in my steps. What do you mean the Catholic Church is against abortion and the death penalty? My whole life, all of my family and friends were either for one or the other or both. I was the only weirdo who was against both! And now I find out that this 2000-year-old organization agreed with me and no one had ever bothered to tell me!!!!

That is what started my conversion. I was in RCIA for about a year and a half because I was a non-Christian convert. I would have been in RCIA longer, but I got close to an old man in the parish and they wanted me to get baptized while he was still alive to see it.

Not my baptism because none of my pics exist in digital form
I was baptized by full-immersion in an old, converted horse trough at the Catholic Newman Center. It was a lot like the gentleman in the picture above, except mine was by a Catholic priest, of course. I was baptized as part of a Sunday Mass. Third Sunday of Advent to be precise, which that year fell on December 12th, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Why Do People Leave?

I cannot comment on my parish's retention rate since I have only been here for two years. I can, however, speak to my experience with former Catholics. Many of my friends are no longer active in the Church, although they used to be very active in our Newman Center.
While they all left for different reasons, there is one over-arching theme: We all got used to having a close church family in college. Our Newman Center was like our home away from home. Some of us even called the director "Mom." We did everything together. Many of us practically lived at the Center. Several of us even got our mail there.
Then we came out into the real world. I am yet to find a parish that is truly a family like our Newman Center was a family. True, we're all busy with our jobs and our biological families, but it would be nice to have a community again.
Many of my friends have left the Church because they don't feel at home here anymore. I can understand them completely. Before I was married, I did a lot of parish hopping in hopes of finding a close community again. 
Do you have any ideas about how to build community? I think that building a community would go a long ways toward getting our 20 and 30-somethings back. 

To read more reflections on Chapter One, head to We're reading Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell. It's a good book and it's never too late to join us!


  1. The need for community is so real. In my experience, it starts with small groups within the larger parish, and it's an organic, highly engaged environment. I can't help even rolling my own eyes at that sentence, and yet in 9 years of working for a pretty small parish, I've seen this truth...even 300 families is too big to have a "close knit" community (we used to be smaller, and the old time families often complain about the changes and growth because of this).

    I love your conversion story, too--thanks so much for sharing that.

    Glad to have you as part of the conversation...looking forward to more!

    1. Thank you for helping put this on. I've been enjoying reading the book. Our parish up here is supposedly around 1000 families, although only 600 responded to the most recent census. I don't know the dynamics of the parish that well yet. I know we have a handful of people who do everything, but I think almost all parishes are like that. The funny thing is, our Newman Center wasn't small. We regularly had 200-300 people at each Mass and we had three Masses every weekend. Of course, there was an "in-crowd" and "every body else." That, I guess, was our small group.

  2. I feel a sense of community in my parish in two ways. One, my kids got involved in their youth programs and that drew me in. Second, I started volunteering for things like praying in front of abortion clinics during 40 Days for Life, teaching RE and becoming an EEM. I do think that parishes are trying to create a community feeling. Joining in scripture study or attending Theology on Tap events are good ways to connect as well.

    1. I do see that my parish is trying to be more of a community. Mainly, they have big pushes during Lent and Advent where they have weekly events for everyone to go to. I just wish they'd push for it year-around.

  3. I liked reading your story. I'm a cradle Catholic, going to Church since birth...although sometimes sitting alone in the pew when Mom played the organ, Dad was an auxillary minister and brother was an altar boy. My Faith only really came alive when I went looking for it with some questions, in University. Thankfully...the chaplain of the University (now my spiritual director) was on fire with the Catholic Faith and his enthusiasm is still contagious. I pray that my kids will fall in step with other awesome Catholics, on fire with their Faith...who will prompt them to make their Faith their own, beyond what we've hoped for in the nest!

    1. I hope that the next generation catch fire with their faith, too! It's just such a challenge with all of the other stuff vying for their attention. That's been one of my biggest challenges teaching Confirmation this year. To get and keep my kids' attention for the whole two hours.

  4. "I know we have a handful of people who do everything, but I think almost all parishes are like that."

    It's certainly true in my parish, except that the number is more like 50 or 60. Many of them are either retirees or empty-nesters who have the time to devote to the parish that their still child-rearing counterparts do not. That said, there are still a significant number with kids at home who are actively involved - mostly in our family related activities.

    Building community sometimes involves recognizing an unmet need and acting on it - with the pastor's permission, of course. For example, I know of a two mothers in a neighboring parish who started a daytime group for stay-at-home moms with toddlers. They opened their group up to members of neighboring parishes and today anywhere from 6 to 15 get together for a couple of hours a week in the parish hall for prayer as well as story time and other activities with their children and to have a chance to socialize a bit among themselves.

    When I was much younger (I'm now 69) just about every parish had a Holy Name Society for men and similar groups for women. They offered a mix of community prayer, charitable activities and fellowship and many were good sized groups. Why they died out (at least locally) I'm not sure but I don't think it would take all that much to start up a similar community today - just a couple of interested people willing to take the lead, a pastor willing to provide meeting space and a few bulletin announcements.

    1. Thank you for your comment. My observations of my generation (I'm 28) are very different. To me, it seems as if my generation just are not "joiners." We don't tend to show up to things. We certainly don't join organizations. We're busy in our own worlds with our immediate family, the internet and TV. We feel like we're already stretched too thin to add something else to our agendas.


What do you think? I want to know.