Saturday, April 29, 2006

Big House Syndrome

Over at Entangled States we have some discussion of the overview of the Faith COmmunities Today study of Episcopal congregations.

Now, there are many, many statistical boobytraps in this study, and one of them has to do with parish size and growth. Now, from the report, we have these figures:
The median seating capacity in parish worship facilities is 175 persons. Only 16% of Episcopal congregations have facilities that seat more than 300 people, while one in four seats 100 or fewer.
And our commentator goes on to observe that these figures place an upper limit on possibilities for church growth.

Well, not exactly. First, there's the solution brought up by another: more services. But more fundamental are two other issues. First, let's look at a few more numbers. The report identifies 16% of parishes as rural/small town, and another 45% in communities of between 2,500 and 50,000. It's a little hard to decipher what that 45% means, but that's not all that important. What is important is that the 16% of small town/rural parishes significantly skew the numbers. It's a very safe bet that most of those parishes are on the small side, both in ASA and seats. So the median of seats of churches that have some expectation of growth is prabably rather higher than 175.

Or maybe not, because in my experience the biggest determinant of church growth, other things being equal, is what the community is doing. Huge spikes of growth around here (semi-rural/outer-suburban Maryland) are associated with established churches that get surrounded by development.

But the other side of the "too small to live" theory is that all of this presupposes expansion of parishes without increasing cleric staff and without doing any building. A building in the hand is a considerable asset, and something like Fr. Knisely's church is essentially irreplaceable. But even when the building is abandoned and the parish moves into school cafeterias and other rented spaces, the real savings comes from paying for one priest for 500 people instead of the more usual two.

Al of this is moot if there isn't any real pressure for expansion. I suspect that parishes (again all other things being equal) which do not feel pressure to expand will in fact experience significant contractions if the abandon their buildings. Expansion requires keeping the parish on the upper side of that magic 2/3s number. Also, in terms of programs, I wonder about the assumption that they belong to the parishes and not to the diocese.

Anyway, the point in the end is that this more complicated than just buildings that are too small.

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