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The True Measure of a Successful Parish
2 April 2000
We have had many different measures of success in a parish. In the 1950s, people compared membership rolls. Then the emerging church growth movement taught us to be more specific with our statistics. Average Sunday attendance became the touchstone of success. Sociological categories arose to explain the dynamics of different sizes of congregations--family, pastoral, program, corporate--and how to get from smaller to larger. The huge growth of some charismatic parishes in the 1970s and 1980s reinforced the notion that success in proclaiming Jesus is validated numerically.
Indeed, the statistical measure is back in the news. Many critics of the US Episcopal Church argue that the "apostasy" of the Episcopal Church is clear from the flight of one-third of its membership in recent decades.
There is a movement afoot to declare a goal of doubling the size of the Episcopal Church by 2020. In light of the fact that the Episcopal Church grew in real terms by about a quarter-million people between the two years 1950 and 1999 (with a big up and down in between), this will surely need a massive commitment.
While there is nothing wrong with seeking to grow, the question is whether numerical growth is a measure of success in proclaiming the Gospel. Church history suggests otherwise. The Arian heresy grew quickly. So did the Millerites, Mormonism, Christian Science, among many others. Surely we can distinguish between authentic growth and flashes in the pan. But that takes time and wisdom.
On the other hand, numerical decline does not automatically signal degeneracy, as the sixth chapter of John's Gospel makes clear. The numbers of persecuted Christians do not always grow. They often shrink, depending on the policies of their persecutors. That does not mean they are apostates, or otherwise deficient in faith.
Beyond the theological question of the relationship (if any) between numerical growth and faithfulness, there are a number of other issues. Demographics are important considerations. It is more difficult for a parish to grow in a region where the population is static or declining. Many cities and a few states in America have official policies against demographic growth that work against church growth. It can be extremely difficult for a church to add or expand a building in order to accommodate growth. Securing parking is often a major barrier in itself. Cultural changes like the repeal of blue laws, among other things, have forced the churches to compete with Sunday morning commerce, soccer games, marathons, etc.
Meanwhile, independent churches have shown an ability to circumvent and even thrive on these changes. Their explosive growth, as well as the expansion of a few parishes in a given diocese, embarrasses the majority of congregations that are not growing. The leaders of these parishes feel like failures, even if they have managed to continue for decades or even centuries.
A new standard for measuring success is necessary. We should not give up our new-found interest in accurate statistics, however. On the contrary, telling the truth in parochial reports to the diocese, and in numerical as well as financial accounting to the local congregation, is critical to the health of the church overall. We wouldn't want our physician to make a blood test look better or worse than it actually is. Neither should we desire "spin" in church statistics.
Nor should we dismiss the need to grow. There are some significant statistics which every Episcopalian should be mulling over. For instance, it has been reported that the average Episcopalian is about 57 years old. The average cleric is about 51. Of 13,000 active and retired clergy, only about 300 are under the age of 35. Clearly, if we are to double the size of the Episcopal Church by 2020, or even 2100, we are going to have to do something big, and that right quick.
The best way to accomplish the goal of doubling the Episcopal Church is to plant new churches, as well as invigorating existing churches. So we do need a way to measure the success of a given congregation. But is average Sunday attendance the gold standard of success? The growth of independent churches, for example, is usually marked by a precipitous decline, even demise, when the founding pastor leaves. After we double the number of Episcopalians, we certainly want them to stay.
It is a truism that 20% of the membership does 80% of the work of a parish. If this is so, even roughly speaking, then it stands to reason that the key statistic is not how many show up on Sunday, but how many are active. "The ministers of the church," the Catechism says, "are laypeople, bishops, priests and deacons" (ECUSA BCP , p. 855). This simple statement makes it clear that the work of the church belongs to the laity. The clergy are there to help the laity do that work.
What this means is that the primary function of a parish is to be a community of ministering people. It starts with offering worship on Sunday, "the work of the people," which is what "liturgy" means. The ability to offer regular Sunday worship is the sine qua non of every church. This is so fundamental that we often overlook it. New missions, and the tiny churches that dot the nation, however, understand it well.
But the work of the people is much more than that. Each one of us has a speaking part in God's drama of salvation. The meaning of a Christian's life is to discover that role, accept it, and learn to employ the specific gifts of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing that work. This means of course being part of the ministry of the local congregation.
Each congregation is therefore a seedbed--a "seminary"--for the individual ministries of each member. Those congregations that claim this as their primary role will succeed in helping birth the vocations of their members. The consequences of this will be enormous. First of all, the negativity of being a static or declining church will disappear, as well as the "category envy" ("we wanna be a corporate parish!") that all too often infest the thinking of parochial leadership. The higher the percentage of members who have claimed their ministry, the more joy a congregation will experience being who they are, rather than wishing they were another bigger, richer parish (Eph. 4:16).
Focusing on developing lay ministers also sweeps aside a lot of the thought patterns that hinder a parish. "We've always done it that way before" is impossible if you want to see people grow in the often-surprising ways that the Spirit prompts. The leadership has to be intentional about seeking God's will together, for they will have turned over the development of the congregation to the work of the Spirit in the hearts of the people. The community around the parish will begin to notice that something is happening, for the church's members will be influencing the community for the better.
People who have discovered that God loves them and has a special task for them suited to their uniqueness are a lot more likely to frequent Christian education offerings. They will be interested in the preaching and worship life of the parish as well as their own prayer life. They will be much more likely to practice proportional giving. And they will expect to take responsibility for their part of the congregation's life. This requires the leadership to create new resources to support people in ministry, to practice openness to new members with leadership gifts, and to allow the walls of the church to become transparent to the community beyond.
The true role of the clergy now becomes clear--"equippers of the saints"--which is the only role given pastors in the Scriptures (Eph. 4:11-12). Deacons are to help the people become aware of the needs of the community, for that will strike chords in the hearts of those whom the Spirit is calling to meet them. The Deacons also help the people appreciate more deeply their weekly worship. The Priests are leaders, pastors and teachers, gathering the people, giving them what they need to follow the Spirit's promptings, and getting out of their way as they do their myriad ministries in the world and the church. The Bishops guard the flame of the mission of the church, that we are all given unique ministries in the work of reconciling people to God and each other in Christ.
The gold standard of a congregation's success is the percentage of its members who have claimed their unique ministries and are helped to exercise them. Every other statistic should be relative to this one. A parish of 50 communicants, all of whom have claimed their calling and exercise it, is therefore much more successful than a parish of 5,000, only 500 of whom are conscious of their ministries. It goes without saying that the little parish will not stay small for long, all other things being equal.
It is easy to calculate this percentage of ministering members. Simply look at the parish directory and honestly count those people who are doing ministry at work, in their neighborhood, their parish, their social organizations and families. The higher the percentage, the more successful the parish. (Where to put that number on the Parochial Report is another issue altogether.)
It is a good thing to want to double the size of the Episcopal Church. In order to do this faithfully and in a healthy manner, however, we should look first to increasing the percentage of laypeople who are aware of their calling and want to pursue it. In a natural way--i.e., God's providence--our parishes will achieve their true potential. Our dioceses' church planting programs will produce enduring parishes, not hothouse flowers, beautiful to look at but that soon wilt in the real world. The numbers will increase by themselves. The communities of this nation will change for the better. And the Holy Trinity will richly dwell in us, giving us that peculiar joy and satisfaction that only come when we answer together God's call to us.
Fr Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay.
You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.