Transitions in parish size: Part two
Tuesday, September 10, 2019 at 1:04PM
Robert Gallagher

Adapting parish practice to growth or decline

The parish needs to live in the size it now is. We need to wear clothes that fit.  

When a parish grows there will be a need to increase coordination, routines and standard practices, formal communication and decision-making processes. That’s not just about parish churches. It’s basic organizational behavior.

The size of an organization will impact how these basic tasks are addressed. For example: Very small parishes are more likely to have informal ways of including new people. The greetings are more likely to be one-on-one; the information on culture communicated more by stories and over time; and so on.

Leaders are wise to allow this organic process to just happen. I remember not being so wise. I was the young, new vicar in a tiny urban parish. I decided to have a series of small group social gatherings to get to know people. I had heard how well it worked in other places. The new priest becomes more familiar with more people more quickly. It also may help build new relationships among the members. Makes sense—right!

One Sunday I began to test out the idea with people at coffee hour. Toward the end of coffee hour Rose came up to me (she was 80 years old, very short, had worn black since her husband died many years before, and was loved and trusted in the parish). Rose said, "About these groups. [pause] Don't worry, Father, we'll get to know you." So, no groups! It was a good idea that fit another size parish and another culture. Rose acknowledged my need, but was signaling to me how it would be addressed in this parish. 

Clergy carry ideas that worked in their last parish, or in the pages of a book, into their current parish. That’s inevitable. But that’s where leadership skill comes in. Some understanding of size issues, a feel for the culture of the new parish and its community, a bit of knowledge about group behavior, and a few facilitation skills allow the priest to adapt to the parish’s size. 

If you’re a priest with good skills for one-on-one pastoral care and communication that’s a wonderful ability to have. It will serve you in any size parish. In a smaller parish it will be useful in many situations. In a larger parish it will fit some situations but can’t effectively be used as a primary form of communication and listening. For that you need skills in large group listening and decision-making processes. Using skills that work well in one situation but don’t fit the current situation will cause frustration and resignation in the parish system. It will also mean that the priest is spending time and energy in an inefficient manner. Not so much of a problem in smaller parishes but a considerable problem in a large parish.

Or maybe you’re a priest who likes to keep his fingers in all the pies. You have good ideas and enjoy being directly involved in the action. But if this is a large parish, once again, you’re using your time and energy inefficiently. I’d add that in any size parish you may undermine people’s self-confidence and cause some to pull back from volunteering. Many people don’t like being micro-managed.

All this relates to the question we started with—“Does your parish have an optimum size that periodically reverts to the mean?” I think it does, unless leaders effectively engage the size transition with behaviors that fit. In which case they may be able to stabilize the parish at the new size.  If clergy don't adapt their personal behaviors and the parish’s communal practices to the parish’s size, that will probably impact both the parish climate and size. Keep using small parish methods in a large parish and you may find the parish shrinking. 

Managing anxiety in the parish system

Significant size changes will set off anxiety in the parish system. People may both want to talk about it and to avoid talking about it. It is a core responsibility of parish leaders to manage that anxiety. That means engagement rather than avoidance or suppression.

The conversation has already begun. If your parish has been experiencing either a lot of growth or a significant decline, the conversation has already begun.  People are talking about it—in coffee hour, out in the parking lot, at Dinners for Eight, and in homes at breakfast. Some people may approach the priest or a vestry member and mention their concern. Occasionally one will speak with a vestry member or someone with a blog will write about it. The conversation has already begun. The only question is whether the parish leadership will grab hold of it. Will the rector and wardens move to suppress the conversation or give it shape?

It’s usually true that parish leaders can shut down these conversations. People will generally defer to those in positions of authority. But those in such positions need to learn to ask themselves how to best serve the parish rather than their own anxiety or ego.

Failure to skillfully engage such matters will cause the system to either become depressed and resigned or erupt in some disturbing way. Many leaders will, in practice, opt for a depressed parish instead of an agitated parish. Understandable but mistaken!

If leaders find what’s happening hurtful and displeasing that’s also understandable. But it is in such moments that leaders either rise to the occasion or fail to fulfill their basic responsibilities. Any instinct to suppress the voices of concern needs to be set aside. It’s time for wisdom and emotional intelligence. If you’re a leader and what is being said, or how it’s being said, makes you angry—put on your adult! What’s needed is de-escalation and engagement. Not doubling-down or attempts to control.

Manage the anxiety by maintaining a non-anxious presence and creating an effective process for a parish conversation.

Thoughts on needed conversations

Here I’m trying to suggest direction and examples, not be comprehensive; I assume you will add in your own ideas.

At a national level we could use some serious exploration of how in an increasingly diverse nation we are trying, but generally failing, to reach beyond the predominantly white ethnic base of the Episcopal Church. We might also look at how we have been closing churches—from 7,200 churches in 2004 to 6,447 in 2017—and wonder if that’s been a mistake in many (some) cases.  Or how is it that 3 million identify as Episcopalians and our recorded baptized membership in 2018 was 1,835,931? And then there’s the big one—how to address the increasing non-religious population? How do we better incorporate people already in the pew into our ethos and thereby inoculate them? And how do we speak to people unfamiliar with any Christian viewpoint? And, how do we not confuse those two tasks? Where’s today’s C.S. Lewis?

In our dioceses let’s look at how to help parish churches have the conversations they need to have. Help them do an analysis of the growth and decline issues and dynamics in their parish.

Parishes can begin with two issues: 1) Do we think that the world would be better off if more people were Christians in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition? If the answer is “no,” we can relax. If “yes” then we have some work to do—how might people best be drawn into our parish? How to explore the parish culture and related practices that affect whether people want to come and stay? What is an organic form of evangelization that fits our culture and ethos? And 2) What is needed to have a stable and sustainable parish life? We need to run the numbers. Being pragmatic is part of “true religion.”

For the parish to engage such matters it needs to have the conversation. And our tendency is to avoid having the conversation.  We avoid it for at least two reasons. First, many, maybe most, parishes have poor conflict management skills. We are not good at talking honestly and respectfully about hard matters. Members may think “we should have this discussion” but step aside from raising difficult matters because they sense that the parish won’t handle it well. The tendency to have a conflict averse culture may in part be because of the temperament of core leaders and members. But in many cases, it’s because we are uncertain about how to manage group conversations on challenging issues.  We can learn how to do that.


       MORE – a PDF – “Parish Size: Categories, Dynamics, and Issues”

       Transitions in parish size: part one

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