Priest proposes "exit interviews" for lapsed Catholics

It’s a novel concept, but what would we learn?

From America magazine, here’s Fr. William J. Byron:

Ever since Larry Bossidy, a former C.E.O. of Allied Signal and the Honeywell Corporation, raised the question of conducting interviews with lapsed Catholics, I have been giving it a lot of thought. Mr. Bossidy is a devout Catholic and the co-author (with Ram Charan) of a bestselling book, Execution, which Bossidy likes to explain is about effective management in business, not about capital punishment. He addressed a meeting of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management a couple of years ago and pointed out that if businesses were losing customers at the rate the Catholic Church in the United States is losing members, someone would surely be conducting exit interviews. His observation was prompted by data on declining church attendance released by the Pew Research Center.

Immigration, largely Hispanic, is still shoring up the aggregate numbers for the Catholic Church in the United States, but there has been a dramatic decline in Sunday Mass attendance and church life among U.S.-born Catholics, not to mention the drift of Hispanic Catholics toward Pentecostal sects.

The church in America must face the fact that it has failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively to a population adrift on a sea of materialism and under constant attack from the forces of secularism, not to mention the diabolical powers that are at work in our world.

An exit interview, if used creatively, could help church leaders discover ways of welcoming back those who have left, even as it helps leaders find ways to strengthen the current worshipping community. This interview could also help identify what else might need to be taught to those called to positions of parish leadership. The church would have nothing to lose by initiating exit interviews.

As a long-time writer of a biweekly column called “Looking Around” for Catholic News Service, I devoted a recent column to the exit interview idea and was inundated with responses from readers. Many indicated that they had been waiting to be asked why they left. The high response rate is all the more unusual because the column appears only in diocesan newspapers around the country. Evidently, respondents who claim to be no longer “in the boat” are still keeping in touch. Many of my respondents identified themselves as older persons.

I asked: Does anyone know why the ranks are thinning at Catholic weekend worship? There are several obstacles to finding out. First, pastors and bishops tend not to think like business executives, so the practice of conducting exit interviews is not likely to occur to them. Second, no one is sure how to reach those Catholics who are no longer in the pews. Third, we do not know precisely what to ask. This is not to say, however, that the problem cannot be investigated.

Check out some of his ideas at the link.

  • http://catholicprairiemuffin.com Becky Le

    I happened to be blessed to live in a diocese which has packed masses at all parishes at pretty much all times. My own parish offers confession at least 6 times per week and there is ALWAYS a line. I should point out that my parish is not a TLM parish, pulls from all socioeconomic groups and has a sizable immigrant population.

    From that point of view I can tell you that attrition in our diocese probably comes largely from Catholics who are living outside of communion with the Church. In fact I’d be across the country divorce and abortion are huge reasons the Church is losing members, people’s desire to live as they wish without guilt.

    So the question really should be why is attrition in our diocese not higher? Why do we pack all of our masses throughout our geographically huge diocese? One answer: our priests! When I visit my relatives in PA it is easy to see why people would not want to go to mass. The priests, God bless them, are old and WAY overworked. Many are afraid to preach anything too controversial less they lose the parishoners they already have and some are so mentally fragile they often forget what they are doing DURING mass. I’m convinced if every diocese in America could have the priests my diocese has (and we have MANY per parish) then there would be no attrition problem. We need a new way of assigning priests to make up for the severe shortages in some dioceses and the abundance in others. Just don’t take my priests. ;-)

  • Pat McNamara

    Greg, I’m surprised that you would say that.

    I think that a good deal might actually be learned, if church leaders were willing to listen. But my suspicion is that, with a few exceptions, they’re not. It’s easier to write off those departing as heretics and attribute their exit to pelvic issues, rather than acknowledge that there might be other reasons. These might well include a resurgent clericalism among younger priests, a self-righteous finger-pointing on the part of self-proclaimed “orthodox” laypeople, and a lack of strong leadership among bishops spouting pithy catch phrases like “evangelization” without any real conviction.

    Not everyone leaves because they’re selfish, bad, heretical, or religiously illiterate. But what disturbs me is the attitude I see on the part of some priests and laypeople to the effect of “Good! Leave! Who needs you? It’ll be a better, purer church without you.” I call this approach “taunting the unchurched.” It’s a sad reality, which I’ve even seen expressed in these comment sections.

  • Eugene Pagano

    The comments at the link give some examples of what might be learned.

    Some hierarchs might be afraid of what might be leaned. When Bishop William Murphy came to the Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY, after being one of Cardinal Law’s auxiliaries in Boston, he announced plans for a diocesan synod, starting with listening sessions in each parish. Many of the comments in my former parish were blistering! Soon after the listening sessions were completed, plans for the synod were apparently shelved, but without public announcement.

    Archbishop Dolan’s recent interview in the New York Times was the first time I saw a comment by a Roman Catholic bishop showing awareness of your church’s problem. That was two years after the Pew Foundation quantified the exodus at about 30% of cradle Roman Catholics.

    DIsclosure; former Roman Catholic, now Episcopalian.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I’m leery of the notion. On one hand, I can see where getting more information on that score would be helpful (and likely humbling) for the church, I fear it would also create an expectation, both among those leaving and among certain factions within the church, that this very corporate-and-secular sort of fact-finding should generate corporate-and-secular sorts of solutions that are worldlier and frankly more democratic than the church was ever intended to be.

    That the church has done an insufficient job of teaching the Good News “cheerfully” is undeniable. Most Catholics do not understand the whys-and-wherefores of Catholicism, and have little appreciation for the meaning behind her pronouncements or the staggering amount of thought and reason that has been wedded to our theology. Thus, it would not be enough to ask, “tell us what you wanted, here” we must also say, “through our negligence, it is very possible that you do not even know what it is you had, here…” The action must be offered with catechesis. It cannot be an exit interview that becomes essentially a “gripe list” looking for appropriate reform. It would have to be an exposition of poor catechesis with the enticement of better catechesis made available, or the whole idea becomes dubious.

    For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. An inevitable mindset would develop that says: “we have collected the data, and if the Roman church would only change with the times and become the Church of England, everyone would love us again”

    Data collection and studies are things that are done to excite change. My worry is that whatever “change” would be inspired by such exit interviews would be earthly, entirely human and ultimately wedded to times and trends; since times and trends are fickle, the changes would be temporary fixes that could do lasting damage to the Church Eternal. Times and trends are not what we’re supposed to be about.

    On the surface the idea of “exit interviews” sounds innocuous enough, and “constructive” and “helpful” and perhaps if the information collected there were used to reform our terrible catechetical programs and improve our “preaching” and pastoral mindset they might be constructive, at that. But I know that nothing remains static, and human expectation always wants “more.” Ultimately, I think these “exit interviews” would be used to foment schism and create an “American Catholic Church.”

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  • Klaire

    I agree with much that e_scalia writes, but from my own experience of having been “out” for over 20 years, no need for an exit interview (It wouldn’t have been real anyway, just full of “excuses”)

    I think I speak honestly for the plethora of dropouts when I say, it’s this simple: ” The Catholic Faith doesn’t allow me to live my lifestyle, consequently, I want nothing to do with it.”

    I even wonder IF I had known the faith, (I clearly didn’t but sure THOUGHT that I did), if there would have been a chance I would have stayed. Answer: NO

    On the other hand, had I known Jesus, it would have been impossible to leave, but sadly, that EXPERIENCE (key word), came only AFTER learning the faith, which came only AFTER 20 years of drop out, followed by 10 more years of “cafeteriaism”, only finally to arrive at the “aha” moment
    of the experience of sanctyfing grace via the sacraments, along with a willful attempt at obedience.

    My “cover excuse” was “mean nuns”; today it would be “priest scandal”, all cope outs for “not chaniging my lifestyle for anyone or any “church.”

    Many often forget that WE are the church as well, with “we the chruch” often being the first to point the fingers, when the reality is, most of us have never uttered a prayer FOR the church or anyone in it, especially priests. It’s sort of like never taking a car in for a repair or tune up, and then blaming the maker of the car when it fails to perform.

    Bottom line, why be Catholic when there are thousands of “protests”, (Protestant denomination) that tell you don’t have to be, especially in a culture where for the most part, being Catholic makes one “radical?” Besides, Catholics have that “Cross thing” going on.

    There is only one reason: it’s the one true Church of Christ, and the only one to have all of the sacarments, including confession and the Eucharsit, which, at least from my “experience” make it possible to truly experience heaven on earth., consequently, have a personal relationship so intense with Jesus Christ that, the experience of not being Catholic is about as logical as giving up the long sought “great love” of life of which most only dream. Who would do that, at least knowingly?

    I would even make the case that once the love affair is in place, the catechesis will follow. After all, this is a “supernatural” lover like none other. Those “teachers” interestly just seem to “show up.”

    I finallly met (and fell in love) with Jesus in the Eucharist, but only after decades of never believing He was really there. Turns out He was there the whole time, patiently waiting for me to respond. I just couldn’t see Him through all of the “excuses.”

  • Klaire

    Correction: Sorry it’s too early; writing poorly.

    I meant to say that my expeience of knowing Christ came FIRST, via an honest attempt (pathetic really, but honest attempt) to live in obedience and fully experience the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist.

    It was only AFTER the “I’m in love”, did I have any interest in learing the faith, which in the state of grace, sort of get’s “infused” in rather quickly, at least the basics necessary for the life long always fascinating, always challenging, spiritual journey, destined for the ultimate meaning of life, perfect union with God.

    FWIW, I have a looooong way to go, but if it’s this good now, imagine “getting there”, which is why I prefer the express route, the sacaraments.

  • Melody

    Well, it would make a good research project for somebody. And we might learn some things. Actually it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Just going from a couple of things that happened in my extended family, I’d say that one of the things the younger couples and families are missing is a welcoming atmosphere. Some people misinterpret this to mean that they want gladhanded all over the place, and that’s not really it at all. What they want is a willingness of the parish to meet them where they are, and what they often get is a bureaucratic insistence on crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. For instance, “We won’t baptize your baby until you are actually registered in the parish. And by the way, here’s a pack of offering envelopes.” If their first and maybe only experience of the parish is an attempt to make them jump through hoops, it’s not a good outreach technique.

  • Dave

    Exit Interviews

    In my own family I have seen nieces, nephews, in-laws and cousins, all cradle Catholics and most with Catholic school educations, walk away from their faith. They are good Christian people but for reasons ranging from marriage to disagreements with church teaching, to wanting a friendlier church experience they have left. The communities and families of the 30s to 50s period where you seldom strayed far geographically or socially from the parish have changed for ever. Transportation, social networks and media have expanded the context in which all of us live, work and experience our faith. We live in an age of change. The Church attempted to define and adapt to that change in Vatican II but was unable to sustain the effort leaving a divided and often frustrated faithful in the pews and often divided and frustrated priests and bishops.

    We all recognize these facts. But as is clear from this blog and other Catholic blogs, the social unity of the Catholic Church is divided even where we still maintain common doctrinal belief. My local parish is lifeless. Good people. Many faithful people. But it lacks the spirit that I have seen in other parishes. We have attended mass in other dioceses where the parish community felt alive during the mass, where the parish priest communicated the gospel with force, openness and involvement with all of the faithful. That unfortunately is a rare experience.

    The view from the pew where I currently sit is often bleak. But I stay. I believe. And I pray for change. The breath of the Holy Spirit I felt blow through the church and sustained my faith during my 20s and 30s is no longer present. The Catholic Church cannot return to the 16th century. The attempt to do so is doomed to failure and continued frustration. We in the United States, and increasingly so throughout the world, are people of the 21st century who are adapting to multiple social, technical and intellectual changes. The institutional church must adapt and change and look to the future while maintaining core doctrine. However, instead of change we are moving backwards. So my view from the back pew is that we will continue to be a frustrated and divided institution. My hope and my prayer is that God has a wonderful sense of humor and will forgive us and love us in spite of all that we do.

  • Klaire

    I think it’s this simple:

    People who leave, never knew Jesus, period.

    As Bishop Sheen used to say, if we REALLY knew what/WHO we were receiving, we would willingly craw through glass to receive Him.

    I personally don’t know a soul who has ever experienced Jesus Christ (via the Eucharist) and “left.”

  • http://balancingtheledger.blogspot.com/ Joe Cleary

    Father Byron has studied and championed the intersection of business and faith for decades, insisting that both could learn from the other.
    What I am certain Father Byron knows, but did not mention here, is just why wise business leaders actually take exit interviews seriously. Those leaders know that human nature will be to quickly assume motives or reasons for the person leaving that fit the world view of the managers ( insert pastor or bishop or blogger here) and not dig any further.

    In addition many people will not want to burn bridges with a former employer and will provide a stock answer ( I left for a better opportunity/ I hated the preaching) rather then reveal the perhaps deeper reasons that can come out a with good human resource professional interview ( my boss is a jerk so then i went looking for a better opportunity / the pastor is an autocrat who wants you to do what he says but not what he does so i went looking for better congregation and hey, the new guy is a better preacher too)

    I think it is a great idea but all of us as Church have to be open to the feedback if we ask for it.


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