Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Measuring Congregational Vitality

Elizabeth Kaeton has written a most thought-provoking essay at her blog. It’s an over-simplification to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: She asks why all our metrics of parish growth and health are based on the number of people who plop their butts in the pew on any given Sunday and how much they drop into the offering plate. That is to say, we worship at the Golden Calf known as ASA [average Sunday attendance] and finance.

Sometimes I get really ticked by those self-styled "congregational development experts," whose only focus seems to be on some sort of business-model "bottom line." We have one of them in my diocese. Many of us refer to him as “The Rev. Used Car Salesman.” He just wants to "make a sale," with little apparent regard for the baptismal covenant, the theology that is supposed to go along with that "sale," or the service that may be required after the "sale." From my perspective, all that seems to matter to him is some magic spreadsheet on which he totals up the “sales.”

But Elizabeth said it much better than I can. Go read her post. She quotes several folks who are wrestling with this issue. Go read her essay. I’ll wait.


OK. Back now? Here are my thoughts.


Here at Grace, our ASA has remained steady around 140 ever since I moved here in 1998.

You need some background.

When I moved here, Harv+ had been a marvelous priest, pastor, and rector for more than 30 years. When he retired in July 2005. we hired Joan+ to serve as interim rector. We knew we would need a long “interim,” after Harv’s long tenure, so we contracted with Joan+ to serve for two years … while we adjusted to our new reality and looked toward hiring a new rector. I served on vestry from the end of Harv’s tenure … through calling Joan … and then through the calling of our current rector [Shariya+], who has been here a little more than two years.

When I came here in 1998, the parish centered on Harv, our rector. I quickly came to love him as priest and friend and spiritual guide. He did it all! Sunday services, of course. Visiting all the sick and old, of course! Once he left, I (and all the vestry) learned there was more that he did: opening the church on Sunday, making coffee, fixing our old furnace with duct tape and bailing wire, cleaning up after/before social events, putting buckets under the roof leaks, and on and on. In short, we discovered that we had paid a priest to be priest and sexton and janitor and social committee chairman and jack-of-all-trades and on and on.

When Harv announced his retirement, the vestry recognized that we should have a very long interim period of discernment … a very long time to determine what we wanted to be, who we wanted to be, and what kind of rector we wanted/needed. We decided to hire an interim rector for two years to allow that to happen.

Joan+ guided us through that period. She was a wonderful interim rector. She helped us discern who we were and who we aspired to be.

When we called Joan, we said we wanted her to be our priest – not our sexton or parish life coordinator, and certainly not our jack-of-all-trades. We had begun to learn how many duties our rector had undertaken, which we laypeople should have assumed. We began to take seriously the “ministry of all the baptized,” and to distinguish our role as lay ministers from the role of the ordained ministry. We stepped up to it, so that we could free our priest for the distinctly priestly work. And Joan mid-wived us through that process of discovery and growth.

I believe we made good use of that “interim” period. I believe that interim period "unloosed" something in our parish. During Joan’s time with us, lay people began to take on more ministry. We began to understand the “ministry of all the baptized.” During that interim, we expanded our ministries within and beyond the church walls. More laypeople accepted leadership. We took responsibility for the life of the parish. We took on more outreach.

Consequently, when we began our search for a rector, we stated that we wanted two things.
We wanted a priest who could help us “grow” our parish. We believe that we have something unique to offer as Episcopalians in this part of the world. And, of course, we wanted more “butts in the pews” and more money in the offering plate.
We also wanted someone who would be a priest and spiritual guide for us ... not a rector-of-all-trades who would also run the stewardship campaign, be responsible for all ministry, and maintain our physical plant. We wanted a priest! – not a sexton and parish coordinator with an M.Div.! We made clear in our profile that we wanted someone who would help us deepen our spiritual lives.

At the end of the search, we came down to two finalists. One was clearly gifted in outreach and "growing" congregations. The other was ... how shall I put this? ... quiet, centered, spiritually deep. In the meeting when the vestry voted on the candidates that the search committee brought to us, we looked longingly at the "congregational development" person, but someone said, "Y'know ... maybe we're not yet ready to grow the congregation [i.e., in ASA & other numbers]. Maybe we need to grow/deepen our own spiritual lives before we’re ready to expand the congregation." I believed then, and I still believe she was correct.

We called Shariya, and she came.

And I believe that’s just what she is doing – “equipping the saints for ministry.” Yes, she is a marvelous priest. Yes, she provides marvelous pastoral care. But, above all, I believe she is “equipping the saints for ministry,” working – sometimes through her sermons, and often one person at a time – to help us discern how we can and should be the Body of Christ in this place.

Every now and then, I offer a priest/preacher the highest compliment I can offer after the service: “You done went from preachin’ into meddling,” I’ll say. Frankly, I want to be meddled with. I want to be challenged. I want my priest to challenge my comfort zone from the pulpit and in our one-on-one conversations. I want the preacher to preach the Gospel and challenge me to see where it may be calling me as an individual and as a member of the Body of Christ.

I sense some great changes in this parish over the past few years.

I sense a tremendous growth in "vitality." Lots more outreach. Lots more lay ministry, including lay "pastoral" care for our members. In addition, I'm hearing more people talk about their prayer life. More people seem to be praying the daily office. A new theological discussion group has formed, in which people are discovering the riches of our liturgy and our Book of Common Prayer.

And I wonder whether this is some indicator: In the first 7 years I was here, we formed one discernment committee, for a man who has since been ordained to the priesthood. In just these last two years, three people have moved into discernment. One's now a candidate for the priesthood. One's a postulant to the vocational diaconate. The third (just last month) got permission to form a discernment committee toward the vocational diaconate. Make of that what you will. I believe it comes from people hearing more clearly the call to ministry. Every one of them was exercising lay ministry, and they’re now hearing a call to ordained ministry. I think that’s a good thing.

Meanwhile, many of our parish members continue to exercise lay ministry. We are doing so in more ways and more varied ways than we ever did before. And I believe that’s because we’re being called to ministry … though not in any way that the parochial reports to TEC will ever capture. It’s not reflected in ASA. But I believe it is a revival. It is vitality. It’s a “renewal” of our vision of what we are called to do as the Body of Christ within our parish and beyond our brick walls.

Of course, none of this will be captured in the statistics that The Episcopal Church will collect and share. None of it will be discussed by the self-proclaimed “congregational growth” experts in our church. Because all those “experts” know is a business model with its measures of success. The Church needs other measures of its vitality. Or so it seems to me.

23 Comments:

Blogger LKT said...

Oh, I hate it when "grow" means only one thing. Idolatry is right. Jesus wasn't exactly a raging success in the "church growth" model.

7/06/2010 11:44 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lisa - I'm so glad for this post. I think the church should be having more conversations about the idolatry of the "business/congregational growth/metric system" of understanding the vitality of churches. Thank you.

7/06/2010 4:02 PM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

The reason we focus on bums in pews and cash in plate is because those are easy to measure and objectively verifiable. It's difficult to measure "vitality" at the best of times, and particularly to do so in a way that is even vaguely objective.

And there's nothing wrong with measuring ASA and $$$ - as long as one remembers that those aren't a complete picture. As I've always told clients looking at polls or other data, numbers tell you what they tell you - and that is ALL they tell you. The problem is, we keep assuming that numbers tell us more than they really do.

So we assume thhat more bums and more bucks means a healthy parish - and often it does. But not always. We assume that fewer bums and fewer bucks means an unhealthy parish - and often it does. But not always.

Where I hang my biretta, we're using Natural Church Development precisely because it makes an effort to measure things besides bums and bucks - and because it focusses on parish health, not parish growth. The underlying thesis is that if we look after making the parish healthy and vital, the growth will look after itself.

I'll let you know how it goes as we progress.

7/06/2010 6:20 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kaeton said...

(Just posted at my blog - sorry to be lazy. It's 102 in Chatham, NJ right now. I'm allowed.) Hey, Malcolm - thanks for your contribution to the conversation. I am about to post something to Lisa's site, too - mainly that it's not "either/or". It's both/and. The numbers are meaningless without spiritual depth and vitality - and, spiritual depth and vitality just becomes a "Navel gazing Club" if we don't bring people in or do the work of God's mission. I'm interested to know how your work progresses. Please keep us posted.

7/06/2010 7:11 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Lisa, your parish, with its growth in spirituality, lay ministry, and outreach, seems to me quite a healthy community. I believe you're on the right track. Numbers don't tell the whole story.

7/06/2010 8:01 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Thanks, Lisa. I needed to hear this, as a vestry member in the middle of a search process, and I needed to be reminded of some different parameters of "growth," on both a parish and a personal level.

7/06/2010 9:39 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Oh, I hate it when "grow" means only one thing. Idolatry is right. Jesus wasn't exactly a raging success in the "church growth" model.
Amen, Laura!
While I was drafting this post, I thought about what a miserable failure Jesus was in "congregational development." He went from 12 followers, to more than 70, and then to three.

Would that some of our "congregational development gurus" emulate Christ more ... and show their purple lust less.

7/06/2010 10:49 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Elizabeth, I'm happy to pursue the conversation you started.

This is funny: Our bishop and diocesan staff often talk about our wee parish. They say that we are "notoriously healthy." I am very fortunate to be in a parish that is notoriously healthy.

7/06/2010 10:53 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

You told me he said you all were "disgustingly healthy!" LOL

7/06/2010 10:56 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Amen, Malcolm. We measure ASA and pledges because they are easy ... but they aren't necessarily valid.

I would like to hear what Natural Church Development is.

7/06/2010 10:56 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Elizabeth, I would argue that "holding even" in ASA in this age is a gain. While people are leaving church, the parish must be gaining to stay even.

7/06/2010 11:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes, Mimi, I believe that's true.

Our diocesan staff says fondly that our parish is "disgustingly healthy." Thank God I would up in such a parish.

7/06/2010 11:01 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

KirkE, hear this clearly: A parish can indeed grow and mature during an interim period! We did. I'd be happy to talk more with you about this.

7/06/2010 11:03 PM  
OpenID eighthsacrament said...

I've decided church statistics are like traditional baseball stats: one part of the picture, but poor tools to rely on for hearing the whole story.

7/06/2010 11:17 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

That's a good analogy, 8thSacrament. Thanks!

And now I need to go to bed.

7/06/2010 11:29 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

I honestly think we ARE growing in an interim period at my parish. Not by $$$$ and ASA, but in terms of what the rank and file have stepped up to the plate and done, and the fact we have ADDED several special services. But not every "expert" would say that.

7/07/2010 9:43 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

Vitality is life force, yes?

I've seen very small children and sleek, slender animals just full of life force, of vitality. Bursting, vibrating, almost levitating in sheer energy.

I've seen, on the other hand, absolutely massive and glutted adults and pampered pets who struggled just to breathe and were clearly about to spend the last of their vitality.

7/07/2010 11:46 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

KirkE, that was my parish's experience, too: We grew during the interim period, and it was a healthy and whole time for us. We may not have grown in terms of ASA and $$, but we grew as a community and we grew in our understanding of our mission.

As you said, "But not every 'expert' would say that." The self-described "experts" can't bear the thought that we might grow spiritually without their guidance or approval. We know whereof we speak.

7/08/2010 10:43 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

That's a good analogy, MarkBrunson.

I've seen creatures gasping for their last breath. I think I can tell the difference.

My parish was drawing in a deep breath of fresh air. It sounds very different than a last gasp.

The "congregational development" gurus should have their ears adjusted so that they, too, can hear the difference between those breaths.

7/08/2010 10:47 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

That's always been my problem with the Rowan Williamses and Peter Akinolas and . . . well most "in charge." They keep telling us more is better, a sign of quality and value.

Yet, we see people who stuff themselves to morbid obesity with empty calories. Huge graduating classes full of people who barely know how to read. SUV's with all the bells and whistles - to distract and cause accidents. Our own huge country has become massive enough that someone elected to represent a people may never have lived in a community anything like those he/she represents!

We see, constantly, that more is not better - so why in this, as in all things, is the ecclesial hierarchy so slow on the uptake?

7/08/2010 11:09 PM  
Blogger Daniel Weir said...

Didn't Jesus call his followers a little flock?

US society has changed and being a member of a church is no longer the norm. We are becoming - like our Jewish siblings - communities of the diaspora, communities of people who have responded to a call and are not at all interested in buying into the world's notions of success. We have the opportunity to be the small groups of committed people whom Margaret Mead said could change the world.

7/09/2010 9:48 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes! Thanks for that, Daniel. "Communities committed to changing the world" is what I think we should be.

Some of my friends think the church as we know it should die. I am not so sure. I just want it to return to its roots and passion.

7/09/2010 10:36 PM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

Here's the link to NCD Canada (http://www.ncdcanada.com/), and the main NCD site is here (http://www.ncd-international.org/).

It really is an international thing, with partners in most countries / regions. The ultra-condensed version is this:

* The founder, Christian Schwartz, did extensive studies of church membership and growth in the earli 90s.

* Based on this, he identified eight metrics for congregational health which seemed to apply regardless of the type of church it was. The naming of the metrics (ie, "Empowering Leadership" vice merely "Leadership") is significant. The metrics are:
** Empowering Leadership
** Gift-Based Ministry
** Passionate Spirituality
** Effective Structures
** Inspiring Worship Service
** Holistic Small Groups
** Need-Oriented Evangelism
** Loving Relationahips

* NCD uses a congregational survey (30 selected based on established criteria) to assess the metrics.

* The recommended NCD methodology is not to "build on your strength," but rather to strengthen your minimum factor.

* Best of all, they don't tell you HOW to address your minimum factor(s). They merely help you get a realistic assessment of what your relative strengths and weaknesses are.

NCD is pretty big in the Canadian dioceses of Toronto and Edmonton.

7/10/2010 4:46 PM  

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