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Transitions in parish size

Does a parish have an optimum size

One of the most interesting questions I’ve heard recently is, “Does a parish have an optimum size that periodically reverts to the mean?”

Some years ago, I conducted an exercise at a parish meeting. I started with an overview of Doug Walrath’s size categories. Here’s a PDF of that.

The model is still very useful though you’ll need to translate a bit. For example, he wrote it before web pages, so he writes about print communications. You’ll also need to translate it into Episcopal Church culture and language.

Walrath was a sociologist and an ordained leader in the Reformed Church. He offered categories useful across denominational lines: Very Small (Ave Sunday Attendance -under 50), Small (ASA 40-100), Middle-sized (ASA 75-200), Moderately Large (ASA 150-400), and Very Large ASA over 350).  The numbers had a range and overlapped. Doug’s approach involved considering the characteristics.

On a sheet of newsprint, I wrote up a set of numbers—50 – 75 - 100 -125 – 150 – 175 – 200 – 225 - 250. People came forward and placed a mark to indicate the average Sunday attendance they wanted the parish to have. They averaged at 150 ASA -- 25 said 150, 15 said 125, and 15 said 175. One person said 225.

It gave everyone a sense of the collective mind of the parish. It cut through fears about what others thought. Now they knew that no one was okay with the current size (89 ASA). They also knew that they had a common mind on the issue. Many had worried that the parish would have to merge. The financial picture was tight. They wanted a full-time rector, the sense that they knew others in the parish, and could manage financially.

Martin Thornton, priest and pastoral theologian, thought that Anglicans had a mental image of the right sized parish church. He thought it rose out of hundreds of years of experience. My take on the image goes like this—A parish was domestic and familiar. It was home. It had a priest that stayed for quite a time and got to know people. And people got to know the priest. Priest and people had worked out a way to live together in harmony and faithfulness. They had bonded. The church wasn’t large or very small. It was just right. It allowed for vibrant liturgy, good pastoral care, a feeling of being known and accepted, and roots.

I think that’s what that parish was saying in the exercise. That’s what 150 ASA was about. It felt “right” to people.

But when you begin to grow you don’t really have control over what happens. You do all the right things—pay attention to visitors, incorporate newcomers, and so on. And sometimes you don’t grow. And sometimes you grow more than you wanted. In either of those cases you then had a responsibility to live where you were not where your imagination had been. And that is hard to do.

So, “Does a parish have an optimum size that periodically reverts to the mean?” I think the answer is yes; unless leaders and members effectively adapt practices to the new size. In the field of Organization Development, we talk about “the natural tendency of organizations to be in a constant state of equilibrium—there are always forces driving change and there are always forces restraining change. These operate together to mostly maintain the status quo.” (M. Heyne)  In order to stabilize a parish (always just for a time) at a new state of equilibrium there’s a need to change the forces involved. The communication system, leadership skills, and pattern of interaction among members will all need to shift.

A few considerations

I’ll explore how we think about the size issue (numbers or people?), how it’s hard to talk about decline, having an adequate incorporation process, the question of a priest’s competencies and how they fit with the size of the parish, and the conversations we need at the national, diocesan, and parish levels, and how parish leaders can take the parish into a defensive direction or an open, graceful direction. 

Numbers or People?

There’s a chart on the Living Church’s web site showing the Episcopal Church’s continuing decline in attendance and membership along with a stable income pattern.  The pattern for the Diocese of Olympia looks much the same. It’s a slow decline. But it adds up. The national average Sunday attendance has dropped 24.7% from 2008-2018. In the mid 1960s our membership was around 3.4 million people. In 2018 it’s 1,835,931.

David Goodhew wrote an article in Covenant a few days ago. “The Episcopal Church shrank in the 1980s and ’90s by a number of measures, but the pace picked up from around 2000. The pace of decline increased markedly again between 2005 and 2010. Since 2010, it has continued to decline: at a slower pace than 2005-10, but faster than 2000-05. In other words, things are not be quite as bad as they were in 2005-10, but they are bad.” He ended with this, “Numbers are not everything, but the virtue of hard data is that it makes churches face tough questions.”

That last may be wishful thinking. He says, “It makes churches face tough questions.” That hard data should get us to face into difficult issues is true for me. My observation is that we have become skilled at avoiding that conversation at all levels of the church. Parishioners are uncertain how to do it. Parish leaders are often defensive and either ignore the data or shut down conversations that begin by discounting the data or attacking those offering their thinking.

David Paulsen wrote an article from the Episcopal News Service on the decline—"Episcopal Church’s parochial report numbers fuel discussion of decline and rebirth." What struck me about the article was the lack of serious analysis of how we got ourselves into this place. Some people had a favorite solution but solutions without analysis is daydreaming.  There was also a national staff person who tried to fog over the issue by saying how much we’ve grown in other ways (which may be true and worth noting unless you’re using it to avoid the conversation in front of you)

It’s been common in recent years for a segment of the church to discount the importance of the declines in attendance and membership. Often those doing that point to other worthy measures of Christian action. Sometimes the discounting takes a nasty turn.  I recently heard a sermon that implied that to concern yourself with numbers (e.g., average Sunday attendance, membership) was to choose death over life and be a church killer.

Such sentiments are an attempt to shut down a needed conversation, cruel and unworthy of Christian leaders, and callous in regard to all those people who were once part of our Eucharistic communities and have moved on. Yet, as mistaken as such action may be, I think its rooted in fear. Fear of not knowing how to have these conversations, fear of people being hurt and blamed, fear of not being in control, and fear of high-level conflict. And fear is often connected to a sense that there’s not enough love among us to handle this.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18) 

Hard to have the needed conversation

It is difficult to help a parish community discuss declining numbers without things drifting into blame and defense dynamics. It requires significant competence in group process and decision-making to help such discussions stay with trying to understand what’s happened, what factors are involved, and what we want to do going forward.

Here’s an example of why it’s so difficult. I had been consulting with the parish for about a year. I arrived on one Sunday to participate in the Eucharist and then facilitate a vestry discussion. I was kneeling in a pew, praying before the service began. A woman, call her Kate, slid in beside me and started talking. She wanted to welcome me, tell me how glad they were that I was visiting, and give me a basket filled with a mug, some candy and lots of literature about the parish. I was polite, thanked her and returned to my preparation. After the Eucharist I went into the coffee hour and was surrounded by five vestry members. They wanted to talk with me about Kate’s behavior. They had for some time thought that her approach was intrusive and probably somewhat annoying. Not really helping people feel welcome. I confirmed their impression. Then I asked, “Have you spoken to her about this?”  You know the answer. They didn’t know how to have the conversation. So, Kate had continued doing her thing. And they, the parish leaders believed that visitors were not returning because the that initial exchange. In fact, they found it difficult getting visitors to come to coffee hour.

It may help

It may help to keep two things in mind. The numbers are people. When there’s growth that seems too much, too fast—these are people, brothers and sisters in Christ. When there’s decline and people leave, for reasons other than death or moving, they have been with us in the Holy Eucharist, they are part of us. Their human dignity matters to us.

These may be the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:3-7). The one lost sheep is of such value to the shepherd that he leaves the other ninety-nine to go find the lost one. Or maybe you’d be helped by the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The son that has gone off and wasted his life. He returns home ready to beg to be admitted. His father on seeing him runs out to him, has compassion, and hugs and kisses the son. And as the son begins to apologize, the father has him clothed and orders that a feast be prepared—"for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

There was a piece of research done many years ago that suggested that if a parish reached out to people who had left within six months there was a good chance of their returning. And that after six months they would have settled into new Sunday routines. But if we fear talking about people drifting away because it might upset some in the parish, we will lose the opportunity to bring people back into the Eucharistic community.

Conversations: humility and courage

These conversations can be well done. It takes some humility and courage, but parish leaders can shape fruitful discussions around difficult issues such as growth and decline.

But won’t there be people blaming others? Blaming the rector, the wardens other members? Yes, you’ll probably have some of that. Some will refuse to be involved. You’ll have to manage some anger and frustration, especially if you’ve side-stepped the issue for a long time. So, you need to invite people to be honest and kind and to avoid blaming or defending. Invite people to share, “What’s your experience?” “What factors do you see in the decline/growth?” “How can we improve things going forward?”

Here’s what I’ve heard in such conversations over the years, especially when there’s been a decline. Some will express concern about people who are gone. A few will get into sharing their take on factors that are involved—The forces external to the parish and within the parish. If they deal with the internal factors in a non-accusatory and professional manner it will usually be well received. Often, you’ll hear talk about their perception of the parish climate—lack of energy, fearful, suppression of people taking initiative, feelings of resignation. Though it is hard work to find a way to address how Kate welcomes visitors. It’s especially tricky to say anything about leaders, especially if they are liked by most of the congregation. If the leaders mishandle it, they go into defense mode. If leaders turn defensive, most people will hear the message—"don’t say anything without permission!”

These conversations seem to open up much more personal stuff. People can be very vulnerable. They talk about being hurt, not accepted for most of their time in the parish, being micro-managed by clergy, fearful to say something at parish meetings. They also talk about their love for the parish and often about how they want to help the leaders. And almost always they say how glad they are to be able to talk about these things.


 Transitions in parish size: Part two