Episco-upgrades: Taking measure

This is the second post in a series. Click here for the previous post or here for the next post.

The Episcopal Church appears to be in slow, steady decline. Our pews are not as full as they once were, and we’re losing ground at about 5% per year. Average ages of parishioners are increasing. To be sure, it may be that we’re attracting just as many people as we once were, but individuals attend less frequently (at least that’s what Bishop Alan Wilson suggested, as I blogged earlier). Either way, we’re in trouble.

The problem is that that there aren’t enough people in our churches. It’s that we’re set up for more people than we have now. We occupy buildings designed for double or triple our current numbers. We maintain programs that were designed for much larger congregations and for a different time.

Here’s the thing: there are some congregations which thrive, while others are in terminal decline. One problem is that we simply do not measure ourselves often enough. Too often we base our thinking on how things feel. “Well, sure, we are not where we once were, but it just seems like we’re doing fine! You can’t measure spiritual things.” Or so people say.

Let me begin by acknowledging that we ought not to play a numbers game. There are perfectly good reasons why a congregation might shrink and why that might be fine. For example, a congregation which is adapting its mission or ministry to new circumstances is likely to lose some members who are resistant to change. These things can be anticipated and measured against estimates of loss and gain. It also goes without saying that what is popular is not always right. Look no further than Christianity itself. I’ve never read any of the early church leaders who worried about numbers; they focused on mission. The numbers took care of themselves, as the church grew under the power of the Holy Spirit.

That said, numbers are often a useful indicator of how we’re doing. The fact that the church choir is growing at the parish I serve suggests that the music director is doing a good job. The fact that our church school attendance has declined indicates that something is amiss (or at least needs closer scrutiny). Numbers are especially handy when taken in the aggregate. I come back to that annual decline of 5% in our attendance in the Episcopal Church. That’s not sustainable very long.

Here’s one problem. We tend to focus on numbers that are favorable toward our point of view, and we ignore others that might run counter to our thinking. Within congregations, we run a great risk of devolving in groupthink. Or, as we used to say in my IT work, “We begin to believe our own press releases.” The latter comment is not good, by the way.

I’d like to propose a solution. It comes, actually, from Adrian Worsfold in a recent blog post over at Pluralist Speaks. In that post, he describes at some length his own experience attending a congregational evaluation. His context is a bit different from ours, but the idea has the same merit.

Suppose that once a year, a small team of trained volunteers descended on our congregations. They might meet with some leaders and ask a set of questions. Perhaps they’d get a church directory and call a few people at random (to ensure that you get outside the bubble of happy/unhappy leaders). They’d certainly attend the worship service. This last one is crucial. Worship is the most important thing we do in our Episcopal congregations. It’s the only real contact that many parishioners will have with their congregation. If we get that right, we’re doing well. If we get it wrong, we’re toast.

We love to talk about how welcoming we are in the Episcopal Church. Of course, we’re a self-selected group. When this comes up, say in a vestry retreat, the people who are chiming in with how wonderful things are have all been welcomed. They stayed. And they now have friends who greet them warmly each time they appear. The true test — and the only test — of welcoming is to see what happens when a stranger appears.

About a year ago, a man showed up at our 8:00 service. As always, we clergy were outside before the service to greet all who come. After the service, we were there again, and I had a chance to chat with him. He’s a retired minister (of another denomination) and had been visiting churches. We were the fifth parish he visited, and he told me we were the first place where anyone asked his name. We were the first place where anyone invited him to come to coffee hour. Now, in this case, we got it right; this is actually one of the principal gifts of the parish I serve. But what about the guests who are not welcomed? They don’t stick around to tell you that. Four times, this man went to church and not a soul offered him real welcome.

To find out how a congregation looks on first impression, you need to get people to come for the first time — people who are not known within the congregation. A congregational evaluation should most certainly include this component. I guarantee a guest at the parish I serve will notice the faded, peeling paint over the main entrance; our regulars have probably tuned it out by now.

In surveys, preachers usually get high marks from their congregations. But of course, not everyone can be above average. The relationship between priest and people begins to color things such that people find ways to enjoy mediocre preaching (or worse). First-time guests don’t care about these things. The sermon is heard on its own merits. And getting it right matters not just to first-time guests. Mediocre preaching isn’t likely to change lives. In other words, “liking” a sermon that somehow makes us “feel good” isn’t enough.

Everything I said in the preceding paragraph applies to music and to the liturgy itself. When it comes to worship, familiarity does not breed contempt. It breeds something more deadly: complacency. Getting some folks to come in from outside the system can help name a congregation’s weaknesses. It can also help to raise up its strengths, so that they can be magnified.

We’d also benefit from sharing this knowledge widely. My congregation could offer workshops on welcoming. We could benefit from the gifts of others in several areas. Over time, with annual evaluations, congregations and dioceses would have a broad sense of what’s going well and what’s not going well. There are no magic answers to make churches grow, except that we must be the church God calls us to be. That’s easier said than done. As we’re discerning how to follow Jesus — how to be the church — we can work on some technical details in parallel with that. We need a mixture of objective, concrete goals and subjective, abstract goals.

I often think of welcoming people into Sunday morning worship like this: we do not have to persuade people to join us. The Holy Spirit will do that. Our task is to clear away any obstacles from the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to be who we are — in a loving and honest way. If we manage that, things tend to work out pretty well. In other words, we use objective, concrete techniques to make sure that there’s room for the more important subjective, abstract work of the Spirit.

In a future post, I intend to write about clergy accountability, so I’ll leave that issue aside now. Suffice it to say that we need to take stock, regularly, of how we’re doing in our work as a congregation. There are many aspects to this evaluation, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Still, it’s clear to me that doing this would cost almost nothing in terms of money and very little in terms of time. And the potential upside is huge.

Maybe the problem is that fewer people are turning up because we’re not offering what they need. Maybe we’re not even offering what people want. Perhaps we need to do some thinking about needs versus wants. But how would we do any of this without asking people about their experience and their spiritual life? How will we know how we’re doing if we’re not sure what we’re trying to do? You begin to see how obvious and how essential regular evaluation could be.

What do you think, dear reader? In the Episcopal Church, we are pretty allergic to using hard data in our evaluations. This is probably part of our denial of our present crisis, and it has to stop. Do you think there’s room for systemic, regular evaluation of our effectiveness in ministry? How might we balance that with less concrete evaluation?

We don’t have programs for doing this, alas. I think I’m going to call a friend and see if I can get a team to come have a look at the place where I serve. I’ll let you know how it goes.

This is the second post in a series. Click here for the previous post or here for the next post.

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10 Responses

  1. Kirk says:

    In keeping with your suggestion, I often recommend to vestries that they recruit personal friends (churched or not) to serve as “spies” on a given Sunday. They come to church, sit someplace else than with their vestry friends, and later report back on how they were welcomed.
    The results are usually a surprise. Parishes always describe themselves as “friendly” but usually little effort is made to greet visitors. The perception does not fit the reality.

  2. Phil Snyder says:

    Scott,

    It is not enough to be “welcoming.” There needs to be a reason to stay. There needs to be a message that draws others outside of themselves. The problem that TEC faces is that our message seems to be “we’re nice people” or “we’re relevant and cool.”

    The question that TEC faces is this: “Are we the Church of Jesus Christ or are we the Democratic Party at Prayer.” We tried to be the Republican Party at Prayer and that didn’t work so well. What makes us think being the other party at prayer will?

    One problem with all the conflict in TEC is that conflict itself takes away from the attractiveness of local congregations. The first apologia for the Christian Faith was “See how they love each other.” Our conflict shows that apologia to be false for TEC. There may be love within our congregations and even in a small area. But we have become so politicized by making the Diocesan Conventions and General Conventions places of political conflict that I think we are in a death spiral.

    YBIC,
    Phil Snyder

  3. Gary says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflection.

    I think one issue we haven’t quite explored in the Episcopal Church is a confusion about the “why” of congregational development. Any efforts at such development often seem more focused on “keeping things going” for another decade or so, than engaging in ministry for the sake of ministry itself. We can sometimes seem more fixated on meeting the budget than feeding people who are hungry (spiritually and otherwise). Oh sure, we’ll dress it up with some good language about “the Great Commission”, but in the end, we don’t seem to want our parishes to grow for any purpose beyond underwriting the status quo. If that’s indeed the case, maybe it’s OK for a few parishes to wither into oblivion. Perhaps it’s helpful for us to remember that the Reign of God isn’t dependent upon the viability of the Episcopal Church. Who knows? Maybe that knowledge would free us to take a few risks for the sake of the Gospel.

    And while I welcome your upcoming post on “clergy accountability”, I remain uncomfortable with the focus on “clergy leadership”. I believe the collar-caste system (and I’m a priest) has probably done more to keep us stagnated than any of the factors you mentioned in your post. Frankly a growing parish may not require full time clergy or full time anything else for that matter. In spite of the fact that most clergy do admirable work for modest incomes, those “compensation packages” continue to be more and more difficult to fund by average congregations.

    I’m reminded that the early followers of Jesus worked with small numbers, without pension funds and housing allowances, and all sorts of other things we seem to think are indispensable to being church. I’m not suggesting we can somehow go back to some sort of utopian past, I’m simply pointing out that in some cases we’ve exchanged the dynamism of a community of believers for the predictability of a small, non-profit organization in which clergy function more like “branch managers for Jesus” than evangelists and teachers.

    I keep hoping that the decline will elicit in us enough of a sense of urgency that we would try something new and different — even if it failed. I also continue to pray that we won’t confuse the plethora of task forces, conferences, reports, studies and data gathering with actually doing something.

    I totally agree that we need to pay attention to metrics. But metrics alone won’t give us a sense of how to “do church” in a culture that no longer holds a few hours on Sunday as sacrosanct.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    +Kirk, yes, in my previous parish I did the opposite. We sent people out to visit other parishes. They discovered that they had trouble finding restrooms, they were left to talk to themselves at coffee hour, and it wasn’t even obvious how to enter the church. That sunk in, and we got right to work fixing up our own situation.

    Phil, I generally agree with you here.

    Gary, see my previous post (or others here on 7WD). I’m right with you. Metrics are no substitute for purpose.

    As for clergy leadership, I’m all for ministry of all the baptized. I’d love nothing more than to obsolete myself. But the reality is that the leadership skills of whoever is leading have a major impact on outcomes. If the leader (of any organization) is fuzzy or unmotivated, it’s unlikely the organization will thrive. Congregations can do all the development they want, but it’s hard to work around an ineffective priest. To be sure, the opposite is just as true. The brightest and best leader in the world won’t make a wit of difference without a congregation that’s eager to grow. Sadly, I think the decline is going to have to get worse before most Episcopal Church leaders get out of denial and see that this is a crisis. I hope it’s not too late. If it is, well, then we have to place our trust in the resurrection that comes after death.

  5. Neil says:

    “Our task is to clear away any obstacles from the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to be who we are — in a loving and honest way.”

    Amen.

  6. R. F. Solon, Jr. says:

    Scott – thank you for this very thought-provoking series. My prior work before ordination was IT also, and in fact, my speciality was metrics. I am becoming very aware of both the need and the danger of objectivity in how we look at ourselves in parishes. I don’t have much insight yet, but I do think there is something that is correct in saying that St. Swithun’s is not and should not be treated like the IT division of Big Company Inc. I know you are not advocating that. I also know that we need to be very careful about our focus on numbers. For example, at the recent Holy Week debrief, one participant asked if I’d erver thought of not doing foot-washing. “It makes people uncomfortable. More might come if we didn’t.” I quietly and momentarily despaired. My own working thesis, in a town of eight churches with 33,000 people, is that we ‘Piskies most of all need to claim or reclaim our own POV. We have one. We just need to be clear about it. My parish is the only non-RC parish that does a full Holy Week, with foot-washing and just about everything the BCP and BOS require or even suggest. I think our charism of worship might be part of our POV. And like it or not, not being RC is part of that too. Call it Via Media if you wish. And so that means we’re prolly gonna do foot-washing next year. And it means that how we look at ourselves must be broader than simply butts in pews or ASA or budget. I believe being Episcopalian might be the hardest of any of the Christian denominations. Once a parish has a POV or identity perhaps – then and only then can you figure out how to measure if you are being what you say you are. What’s the POV or identity of my parish? (I’m a priest, perhaps obviously). Of yours? Of TEC? Of Anglicanism? How do you measure Via Media?

  7. R. F. Solon, Jr. says:

    And please keep this series up! I smeall a D.Min here at least!

  8. Malcolm says:

    While I understand the muted aversion to metrics, I think it’s really time for folk to get over it. There’s nothing wrong with using metrics – provided your response isn’t to “teach to the test” (ie, doing things to improve the metrics, rather than to improve the things the metrics measure).

    The biggest problem is that we have only two metrics that are easily, reliably and objectively measurable: bums in pews and bucks in plates. And like any other metric, while useful, these only tell you what they tell you – and that’s all they tell you.

    Measuring how welcoming a parish is is much harder. Measuring spiritual vitality, prayerfulness or meaningfulness of liturgy are harder still.

    Where I hang my biretta, we’re embarking on a process through Natural Church Development which use some sound secular techniques to measure some of these things. I have no doubt it will be helpful, but it’s still only a partial answer.

    Mystery worshippers now – gotta get me some of them.

  9. Phil Snyder says:

    How about asking members of your vestry to go visit neighboring churches (both TEC and non-TEC) to see what they do well and to learn how well they welcome visitors?

    You might also learn a thing or two about worship, sermons, liturgy, property layout etc.

    YBIC,
    Phil Snyder

  10. Phil Snyder says:

    On the flip side, you could ask the clergy or neighboring churches (especially non-TEC) to send visitors to your services – with the assurance that you will not be doing any rustlin’.

    Who knows – with some cross-polination, we all might learn something!

    YBIC,
    Phil Snyder