Changes to parochial report draw concerns

By Mike Patterson
Posted Jul 6, 2018

Maine Deputy Elizabeth Hall listens to questions during a joint hearing of the Evangelism and Church Planting Committee and the Congregational and Diocesan Vitality Committee. Photo: Mike Patterson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] A proposed resolution to increase the amount of data required on parochial reports faced skeptical legislative committee members on July 5 who expressed concerns that the changes might place too much additional burden on congregations.

Requiring more data collection would be especially difficult for small churches that often rely on lay volunteers to compile financial information and annual statistics, said Bishop Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island.

When serving as priest at a small church, Knisely said, “we struggled” to get the report completed. “We’re adding to the burdens for churches that don’t have staff.”

Knisely is chair of the Evangelism and Church Planting Committee, which participated in a joint hearing with the Congregational and Diocesan Vitality Committee to glean testimony in response to similar and sometimes overlapping issues.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Questions over the parochial report arose from Resolution A053. It proposes that a new parochial report be developed that is “appropriate to the current context of the Episcopal Church including but not exclusive to multicultural congregations; aging populations; outposts of ministry in challenging economic contexts; and creative use of space and local engagement.”

A related resolution, A058, encourages the 79th General Convention to challenge all churches to complete their profile on the Episcopal Asset Map. The asset map is a free online service showing the location and array of ministries offered by Episcopal congregations, schools and institutions throughout the United States in dioceses that are participating in the project.

Both resolutions were proposed by the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, which is charged with setting the form of the parochial report with final approval of the Executive Council.

“We decide what we measure, and what we measure tends to form what we value,” the Rev. Winnie S. Varghese, Diocese of New York deputy who chaired the Committee on the State of the Church, told the Episcopal News Service in an email.

“For the sake of data, it is good to measure a few vital things consistently for a long time, but the sake of our formation, and our self-understanding of what makes a great congregation, the (State of the Church) committee believes it is important for the church to revisit the entire form to align with what we say today are the characteristics that we value in a church, and make it fully and more robustly electronic, synced with the ways we would record such data, and appropriately shareable through the asset map or a resource like it that helps us to identify and develop networks of mutual support,” she added.

In addition to being skeptical about the collection of more data, several committee members questioned how the data would be used by the church and what the value is. In meetings to discuss the resolutions, for example, “we’ve shared the frustrations about the data we’re collecting and not collecting,” said Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, chair of the Congregational and Diocesan Vitality Committee.

The Rev. Elizabeth Yale of Northwestern Pennsylvania expressed her concern about the difficulty some have in understanding how to complete the reports. “I feel part of our issue is user interface,” she said.

The committees did appear sympathetic to requiring dioceses to include the status of parish and congregation safe church audits on their parochial reports as proposed in Resolution A051. Safe Church Self-Audits are required by the Model Policies for the Protection of Children and Youth and the Model Policies for the Protection of Vulnerable Adults.

“If you add it to the parochial report, it gives some measure of accountability for your vestry to look at,” said Maine Deputy Elizabeth Hall, who testified in favor of the resolution.

The Rev. Canon Gregory Jacobs, a deputy from Newark and committee chair, said working groups from his committee are reviewing these resolutions and will make recommendations to the full body at a later time.

– Mike Patterson is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. He is a member of ENS General Convention reporting team and can be reached at rmp231@gmail.com.


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Comments (7)

  1. Rev. Dr. James Hargis says:

    Parochial reports are pretty worthless. They are totally unreliable as to accuracy. They’re really nothing more than estimates, and are often easily inflated. Don’t know the solution, but hi-tech options may hold promise. Relying on clergy or lay people to count, is way too flawed.

    1. Rev. Louise Forrest says:

      I am an Interim Priest, trained with Interim Ministry Network. Often the work during an interim is to get real and accurate data for the parochial report. This was accomplished in my last parish by Interim Priest, Treasurer, volunteers in the parish who knew who had left the parish by death or moving to another parish. Often the number of communicants can be very inflated. However, if there change in clerical leadership is every 7 years there is some more accuracy. Interim and IMN “strengthens the spiritual and organizational health of the congregation by equipping and supporting those who lead during times of transition.”

  2. I believe the most reliable data we maintain and report is about worship attendance. Names and numbers of baptized members, communicants, etc. are not reliable – I speak as an intentional interim pastor. I believe average worship attendance tells the story of the congregation more than chronicling names, etc.

    1. Donald Hill says:

      I would want to add parish impact as a quantifiable indication of the extent of ministry with the larger community. The number effected by the 12 step meetings, the food pantry, the book studies, educational events, music programs,etc.

  3. Steven Giovangelo says:

    What in the name of all things ecclesiastical did The Rev. Varghese say? Such esoteric techno-speech. Plain English, please.
    Good Lord, deliver us.

  4. JOAN OGDEN says:

    OK, I admit I like numbers, as an actuary, but really — how hard is it to have someone count the number of folks at a service and get that right. In general we have an hour in which to have someone make that count. And we really do need to know — our lay leadership needs to know in every parish — how many souls the parish reaches every Sunday (and the days in between), if only to understand the general signposts those numbers make. E.g., is our attendance at the early service growing and the later waning, and if so, why? And frankly, if there are parishioners leaving for somewhere else or new folks coming in (names on the rolls), shouldn’t our lay leaders want to know? If there is not a requirement for at least basic information on a national level, it is too easy for it to slide at a local level. I do struggle with what I see as inflating the numbers at a service by the practice of having 5 “up front” at a service with 15 in the pews, but if it is consistent, then at least we can look at trends. And trends in either direction should prod us to ask questions. I know, there is lots else in the parochial report. But let’s face it, every business, in order to be successful, has to keep track of LOTS of stuff. Our business is not dollars and cents, but in order to do “the work we have been given to do”, we have need for data as well!

  5. mike geibel says:

    The comments that the number of communicants can be very inflated suggest that the membership decline is even worse than the dire statistics shown in the 2016 Parochial Report. Those in the pulpit have a better finger on the pulse of the Church because they are witness to the empty pews and the absence of young faces. One must question whether the resolutions are designed to search for positive statistics by changing “what we measure.”

    The 2015 and 2016 reports recorded a loss of over 70,000 members in two years. A net 37 parishes closed in 2016. The average Episcopal parish attracted 57 worshipers on a Sunday, and 71 % of churches have an attendance of fewer than 100 persons. Less than 4 percent attract 300 or more. One third of Episcopal parishes in the U.S. have an ASA of 35 or less. Membership in the Episcopal Church is less than 0.5% of the population of the United States.

    The Episcopal Church is 80% white, the majority of the membership is over age 60, and it is estimated that about 40% of parishioners are politically and fiscally conservative. Committee research uncovered “anxiety from the grassroots of the church” over whether “social justice preaching” should advocate a particular view on reform or that “emphasis should be on ‘outreach ministry’ (charity and humanitarian aid) but not social justice.” The actuarial tables and the partisan politicking by the TEC leadership since the 2016 election does not bode well for 2017 and 2018.

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