The Catholic “Third Place”

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

By: Beth Lauver


Let’s all take 5 seconds and let out whatever feelings you have about Starbucks (They hate Catholics! I’d die without a venti iced soy caramel frappuccino! Overpriced burnt swill! PSL fan for life!) Ok, good, now let’s move on and admit that they know a thing or two about management, branding, and marketing and see what we can learn. 


Without divulging my personal feelings about the brand, I do love a good cup of coffee, so when I came across one of their ads that reads, “That first sip feeling,” I knew exactly what they meant. When a cup of coffee is prepared to the drinker’s liking, perfectly smooth, temperature just right, the first sip is like manna from heaven. 


From a marketing standpoint, this gets right to the heart of the company. They are focusing on their core product, and connecting with their customers on an emotional level. That core product has become even more critical for Starbucks as indoor cafes closed over the last few months, restricting the business to drive-thru and delivery orders. 


An article from June 2020 on inc.com highlighted Starbucks’ latest SEC filing, which explained their plan to close 400 stores and shift toward what they’re calling “Starbucks Pickup.” This shift away from the experience of a physical Starbucks location is, in their own words, “transformational,” given that this is the company that coined the term the “third place” to describe their locations’ bridge between work and home as a place for people to spend their time. Perhaps surprisingly, the company’s decision comes not as a result of the pandemic restrictions, but from months of pre-COVID data showing that 80% of orders were to-go. The coffee shop experience may have created emotional attachment to the brand, but ultimately the customers were just coming back for the core product, relishing the “first sip,” and moving on to their next to-do.


Stay true to your “why”


The article poses some great questions for leaders of any organization to consider. Let’s stop and think about this concept of the “third place” as it relates to our Catholic parishes. The Church’s core product is, of course, the source and summit of eternal life and salvation for the people of God. That (hopefully) was the reason we connected with our parishes in the first place. However, for decades, our parishes have very much become our "third place" - our location for social events for ourselves and our kids, our sports and recreation, our community service, our place to pursue our love of music or art. 


As parish facilities have reopened amid the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, we’ve been stripped back to our core product, and even then, only partially so. The sacraments are (mostly, sort of) available again, but with significant differences to the physical experience. No doubt many of us have questioned over these last months if we’d in fact taken the Eucharist and other sacraments for granted, perhaps focusing a bit too much on our parishes’ additional activities that created the “third place” aura. Returning focus to our core product, the Eucharist, is a great opportunity to remember that interaction with our parish community should be so much more than a casual routine, but rather a reminder that our connection with each other is our shared belief in the eternal life offered through Christ!


Consider a new “how”


Starbucks has the luxury of shifting their business model to deliver their product to customers’ homes or passing it through their car windows. So how do Catholic parishes continue to create an experience with parishioners and keep them connected under so many restrictions? Create more chances to encounter Church in a way that puts focus on our very reason for being. 


For example, St. Clare of Assisi parish in Ellisville offered a Eucharistic Blessing to parishioners on Divine Mercy Sunday as they drove through the parking lot. Parishioners were given a reason to come to the campus, safely interact with the clergy, probably see a few other familiar faces in the cars around them who were there for the same reason, and most importantly, receive the graces of an encounter with the Eucharist. 


Serve your “who”


If some of your parish’s “products,” programs, ministries, and/or events are no longer “profitable,” desirable or feasible, do something different. Consider new ways to be creative!


While viewing our Catholic parish as our “third place” is a GREAT thing, we shouldn’t just show up because we have a standing morning coffee date. We should show up because Jesus is calling us there for something that builds up His kingdom here on Earth and for our eternal salvation - the ultimate long-term growth!


Now “what?”


It doesn’t take a corporate statistician to analyze the data on Catholics’ participation in the sacraments prior to the pandemic - it wasn’t pretty. For a number of reasons that would fill many more blog posts, Mass attendance and participation in other sacraments has been declining for years, which has led to lower engagement in the other ministries and activities that created the Catholic “third place.” 


We’ve been handed an opportunity during this time to step back, ask some hard questions about who we are and who we want to be as a Catholic community, and where we might reap better “profits” in our evangelization, service, faith formation, and participation in the sacraments. The things we were doing before weren’t necessarily bad (honestly, many were good), but maybe we’re being called to use our resources toward something even better. Providing new and different opportunities to engage people who have drifted from our parishes will hopefully help draw them back, to leave space in their lives for the Church, eventually leading them back to the sacraments. 


Know “where” to be


Here’s where the Church is entirely different from the mega-corporation that is Starbucks. Starbucks can be “profitable” operating entirely from a distance - online ordering, contactless pickup, and delivery. While the Church is also more than its buildings, it’s also about the people and the experience. The gospel demands that we as the Body of Christ encounter each other, the sacraments, and Christ himself in a tangible way. Taking action and making bold strategic decisions now can help us broaden our scope, ministering more to the unaffiliated, and transform how we spend our time in our “third place” in a way that makes our spiritual lives our first priority.


If you would like to discuss how to refocus your ministry and prioritize your allocation of resources to meet the long-term needs of the Church, the consortium at KPC Group can help! Let’s talk.


Photo Source: Starbucks

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