Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Looking at the Numbers

The Episcopal Church (TEC) recently published its findings based on the 2008 parochial and diocesan reports. According to TEC, the Diocese of California's 80 congregations had a total average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 9,000 people and a total pledge & plate of $20,000,000. The median ASA was 90 people, as compared to an overall median ASA for TEC of just 69 people.

I decided to look a little bit more closely at the numbers in our diocese, and prepared a simple Excel spreadsheet listing each congregation and its 2008 pledge & plate and ASA figures. These are readily available on TEC's website. What I discovered is that our ten largest congregations account for 50% of the diocesan pledge and plate total, and about 33% of the diocesan ASA. 58% of our congregations have fewer than 100 people at worship on Sunday, and almost all of our "ethnic" congregations (non-Anglo majority membership) have 50 or fewer people gathering for worship regularly. It is time for us to admit frankly that we have failed at multicultural ministry in this diocese - and are not doing as well as we'd like connecting with any segment of the population.

Approximately 30% of our congregations have less than $100,000 in pledge and plate income. That is a significant figure, given that it requires about $100,000 to compensate a full-time cleric at the diocesan minimum with full benefits (salary, health insurance, and pension). While some congregations have endowment and/or rental income sources that make a significant difference financially, it is clear that many of our congregations can no longer - or will soon be unable - to afford a full-time priest.

My own congregation, St. John the Evangelist, is a case in point. Our pledge & plate in 2008 was about $140,000 and our ASA was 75 people. 2009 wasn't much different. We currently employ a musician and a paid administrator, both at 10 hours per week (we have the benefit of two terrific office volunteers who add another 16 hours per week), and 12 hour per week sexton. We also have a 100 year-old building that requires a good deal of maintenance and, without a parish hall or much meeting space, doesn't lend itself to rental income. We've depended upon bequest income for the past four years to make ends meet - and that money is running out.

While the numbers don't necessarily reveal much about the spiritual vitality of our congregations, they do tell us a lot about their institutional sustainability. I know there are several living saints at St. John's, who have been nurtured and formed by life in community with us. How can we preserve the institutional "shell" that carries and protects this spiritual legacy? What will a sustainable model for the institution look like in the future?

In the Diocese of California, we have begun to explore these questions in terms of emerging "area ministries." We are still early in this process, but it is much needed and we need to be open to exploring new models, making corrections as we go along.

I know this much: the current model of "one priest, one parish, one organ" is not sustainable in many settings. Not for long. And we had better start experimenting with new models if we want to continue to be communities capable of raising up the saints of God. Taking a hard look at the numbers isn't about judgment or assigning blame, but rather one means of getting us in touch with reality. In that sense, it is a contemplative endeavor - a means of stripping us of our illusions so that we can learn from each other and make better decisions about our common life.

Our diocese, like the rest of The Episcopal Church, has some difficult choices ahead. There will be change and loss. But from this dying will come new life - if we are willing to die. Are we willing to be resurrected? Do we trust God and one another enough to give ourselves away in sacrificial and life-giving ways? We will have to take some risks in order to become the Church that God is inviting us to imagine and embody in new ways.