One way to get families back to Mass, according to Prenger Solutions Group, is to host a celebration weekend. (Thomas Killips photo)
One way to get families back to Mass, according to Prenger Solutions Group, is to host a celebration weekend. (Thomas Killips photo)

It’s a time we never thought would come: businesses are reopening and social restrictions are slowly being lifted as more New Yorkers are being vaccinated against COVID-19.

But what does this mean for churches? After a year of adjusting to livestreamed Masses and virtual homilies, many parish leaders are excited to welcome their parishioners back to church but question how to comfortably re-acclimate families to in-person gatherings.

Nic Prenger, CEO of Prenger Solutions Group, a Catholic-focused digital consulting firm, spoke with parish leaders in the Albany Diocese on April 13, during a webinar about how to welcome back parishioners to Mass. Nancy Bielawa, director of the Office of Stewardship and Development, Father David LeFort, vicar general of the Diocese and administrator of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and other diocesan priests joined in on the call.

Prenger Solutions Group, based in Omaha, Neb., has helped hundreds of parishes across the country strengthen communication with parishioners, especially during the pandemic. Now, Prenger is advising parishes to craft a month-by-month plan that will help engage parishioners and invite families back to the pews. More importantly, parish leaders should start planning now.

“The people that want to come back to Mass are already back,” Prenger said. “We’re talking about the next circle out. The ones who are maybe coming back. Some families need to be invited.”

Prenger notes that if parishes don’t focus on getting families back to Mass, nothing else matters. “If we don’t effectively bring people back to Mass, forget the other stuff: Growing your vocations, growing faith formation, growing your parish school,” he said. It all falls on having families present in church. So, how can parishes make this happen? Here are a few ideas:

HOST A CELEBRATION WEEKEND: Even if your parish is already doing in-person Masses, a celebration weekend symbolizes a turning point for the church. It gives closure to the painful year families have lived through, allows parishioners to vocalize that suffering and then turns the page to what’s coming next.

“Your parish needs to create this moment,” Prenger said. “This draws a line in the sand when we turn the corner and say now we’re getting better.”

CAST A TIMELINE: Plan for when you want to hold your welcome back weekend, or other in-person gatherings (a parish summer picnic, a Thanksgiving gathering, etc.), and start informing parishioners now. Giving a sneak peek of what your parish is planning tells families that things are changing and gives them something to look forward to.

POLL PARISHIONERS: Distribute a survey on how COVID-19 impacted families (did they lose a job, did they lose a loved one, was isolation difficult, etc.) to gauge where your families are at. In addition, ask families when they would feel comfortable returning to Mass in-person and would they feel comfortable volunteering at a celebration weekend or other parish events. 

WELCOME-BACK COMMITTEE: If possible, gathering volunteers in your parish to focus solely on bringing families back will be effective for both event planning and contacting parishioners. By directly reaching out to families — either through email, phone calls or visiting families at home — parishioners are more likely to respond to an invite back to church than a general “welcome back” message.

GET PEOPLE INVOLVED: Offer parishioners something to participate in, either for the celebration weekend, or another event. Some activities could be decorating a candle to be lit on the altar, bringing in an item for a time capsule that captures what quarantine was like, or a remembrance wall where parishioners can bring in photos of family members, loved ones or pieces of their lives that were lost or changed from COVID-19.

“Give people something to rally around,” Prenger said. By offering something families can participate in, it also shows the parish “who is participating, so you know who to reach out to.”

PASTORAL LETTER: Many parishioners want to hear from their pastor and receiving a heartfelt letter about how the church is doing can really boost morale. A letter to families on what the parish is doing and how they plan to host events later in the year can go a long way in connecting with parishioners