Nathan Poe was working in Catholic young adult ministry when he and some friends had an idea: Pair empty rectories and convents — short these days on priests and nuns — with young people looking, in a peripatetic society, for community. The problem was seed money.

Other young Catholic social entrepreneurs discouraged Poe from going to big Catholic donors and foundations, saying money is mostly locked up in large, long-term programs, or in programs that are part of the institutional church. He wound up getting his first and largest grant — $10,000 — from a Protestant donor.

Now, with a waiting list of seven parishes, Poe needs more, and he is taking his modern-day idea into a modern-day process: A “Shark Tank”-like competition, but for Catholics.

On Saturday, Poe’s team will be one of 12 making pitches for $100,000 grants in a contest modeled after the popular reality show, in which entrepreneurs go before successful businesspeople and lay out their innovations and business plans in hopes of receiving money and guidance. This version, called the OSV Challenge, will be livestreamed. More Hollywood and Wall Street than St. Peter’s Square, it is an effort to inject some startup culture into an ancient religious organization that has lost more members than any other U.S. faith group.

“Their big questions will include those about scale, and whether we can replicate” the two parishes that his nonprofit organization, called Quo Vadis Catholic, has already done in Indiana, Poe predicted this week of the judges. Meanwhile, his team was shooting videos of the existing projects to show during their pitch for the OSV Challenge on Saturday. OSV is short for Our Sunday Visitor Institute for Catholic Innovation, a century-old Catholic foundation connected with the Catholic mega-publishing firm Our Sunday Visitor. “The things we want are more quality control and brand management,” Poe said.

This kind of lingo and thinking is what Our Sunday Visitor Institute was hoping for when it created the challenge a year ago. More than 600 groups applied this year for the challenge, which will give $100,000 each to three winners.

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The institute has given $87 million over the past century, said Jason Shanks, its president. In recent years OSV leaders have become frustrated with predictable ideas when it comes to ministry.

“This is where we said, ‘Let’s try to create a secular environment, “Shark-Tank”-type challenge,'” he said of the contest, which is in its second year. “We need in the Catholic community this kind of competitive incubator, where new strategic methods can come to the forefront. [The church has] been trying a lot of things for a long time and it’s not working. If you look at the shrinkage [of the U.S. Catholic church], the numbers would suggest we need to think in a new way that will resonate with a new culture, new people.”

Inside the Meolas’ home, where they run a nonprofit organization focused on Catholic ministry and support for adult children of divorce. (Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post)

Our Sunday Visitor looks to be in line with church teaching, and its concept of innovation has perimeters. It doesn’t refer to theological changes popular with the majority of U.S. Catholics, such as allowing women to be priests, ending the requirement of celibacy for priests or approving of artificial contraception. Instead, the challenge represents Catholics who want the church to be more nimble and flexible and to be creative in its handling of cultural issues, such as allowing women into most leadership positions, and being open to building community wherever Catholics hang out, be it in brewpubs or social apps — even if they don’t go to their parish church often.

The challenge’s applicants show the desire for many more programs focused on marginalized, hurting and minority communities, including women, Latinos and people who have lost children or experienced infertility. The 12 finalists include:

  • a Bowie, Maryland-based dating and marriage prep program for adults struggling with pain from childhood related to their parents’ divorce or separation
  • a Catholic 12-step program for addicts
  • programs for daughters and their parents to undertake together about menstrual cycles, using cutting-edge science on the topic of menstrual cycles.

As the world’s largest Christian denomination — and the largest faith group in the United States — the Catholic Church is a big, old hierarchy and bureaucracy whose structure doesn’t lend itself to rapid transformation. Poe, whose parish projects are in South Bend, Indiana, and in the Chicago area, said the Catholic Church is not opposed to innovation — and cites its vast system of universities and hospitals — but thinks faith-oriented organizations in general can’t easily be compared to many secular ones.

“The whole ‘move fast and break things’ — that’s harder when people’s lives and relationships are at stake,” said Poe, citing a famous mantra of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “In a church, you can’t just throw people away when they don’t perform. You have to work with people as they are.”

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Francis Butler, a longtime leader in national Catholic philanthropy, said Pope Francis’ emphasis on using church resources for social good has changed the behavior of many Catholic venture capitalists and institutions.

“This has influenced many [U.S.] Catholic institutions to relook at the way they invest,” Butler said. The new outlook includes repositioning investments with an awareness of what activities cause carbon emissions, thus contributing to climate change. He said the church in recent decades has emphasized better financial stewardship, which is expressed in a desire to measure impact and seek concrete results.

Eric Groth, president and founder of ODC Films, a faith-based filmmaking company and a judge in Saturday’s program, said the challenge is meant to show Catholics ways of living their faith all week, rather than focusing on Sunday Mass.

“We spend one hour a week in Mass. And the invitation isn’t to compartmentalize, to have God in this box that only opens Sunday morning. What does 24/7 integration of your faith look like, practically lived out in your life? How do we do that?” Groth said, citing the loss of active members the U.S. Catholic Church has experienced in recent years. “The billion dollar question is: How do we reverse that? We can’t by just expecting people to show up on Sunday. We solve it when we innovate.”

Bethany and Daniel Meola, of Bowie, have since 2015 been creating material for dioceses’ lay-led retreats serving adults coping with childhood pain stemming from their parents’ divorce or separation. The Meolas are competing Saturday for resources to create a program for such adults who are dating or engaged. Dioceses and priests have marriage prep, which is required for those marrying within the church, but the couple said there isn’t anything oriented specifically toward people struggling with aspects of their parents’ breakups.

Daniel Meola, who holds a doctorate in theology and whose parents divorced when he was a child, said he thinks that even within the Catholic Church, divorce is common and that there isn’t much support for people who struggle with it.

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“Divorce has become normalized. Therefore I think there’s a stigma in admitting you have pain from the divorce,” he said. Growing up in the church, “there was some stigma having divorced parents, but, honestly, I’ve felt more stigma talking about my pain. This topic provokes a lot of intense feelings.”

He said that launching a startup in the church is hard “if you’re not connected to one of the larger institutions.” There aren’t established systems for mentoring, he said.

One aspect of the challenge was to send 24 semifinalists to a six-week accelerator run by the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where they received professional, spiritual and personal development.

This week, the Meolas were rehearsing their pitch and running through some role-playing with an OSV mentor playing the role of a challenge judge. The finalists will be judged on points such as whether their ideas can be scaled up, whether they are sustainable, what kind of impact they will have and whether they reflect a deep understanding of the people whom the groups are trying to serve.

Shanks said the process is meant to sharpen the applicants’ thinking, too.

“It’s not just about the idea; it’s about the innovator. They kind of start out hungry but very docile and humble. We’re not only looking at the idea but the entrepreneur. Have they grown, do they have the chops, will they hustle, can they take this, can they get up there and show that this will have legs?”