Around this time of year many Episcopal parishes, my own included, are having their annual meetings. Vestries are elected, budgets are adopted, committee reports are submitted. There is a great and probably unavoidable preoccupation with numbers--average Sunday attendance, baptisms, the size of the budget (and whether it is bigger or smaller than last year's).
Weighing in with a different view on this whole process is Fr Michael Marsh, the rector of St Philip's Episcopal church in Uvalde, Texas. In this post on his always-interesting blog Interrupting the Silence, he argues that, while numbers are not trivial, they must take second place to the community's spiritual growth.
...The business model of profit and loss has in many ways infiltrated the church...Sometimes the gospel truth is spoken softly, if at all, to avoid angering parishioners and losing attendance or pledges. The reality is, numbers matter. While most priests and bishops would probably agree that numbers do not tell the complete story, the underlying and often unspoken assumption is that the larger the numbers, the more successful the ministry. The numbers may be growing but are the people growing? Isn't that the real question? Perhaps we should be asking what theosis, union with Christ, looks like in the parish and how is it manifested in the lives of our parishioners? ...Simple numerical analysis of Sunday attendance and giving, though significant, is not the ultimate indicator of growth. The critical question is not how much money was collected or how many people showed up, but rather, how effectively did we transform and effect lives...Such evidence might be found in asking the following:
- How is your life of prayer? What is it like today? How has it changed over the last year, five years?
- What is your participation in the sacraments and worship, both quantitatively and qualitatively? Is your experience different now than it was three years ago? How?
- Describe your study of scripture, theology, spirituality. What are you reading? What are you learning?...
- How are you involved in outreach and social justice ministries? How has this changed? Where and how is compassion being expressed and manifested?...
- Where in your life is reconciliation taking place?