Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Numbers Matter

One of the tropes heard in the discussion over the future of ECUSA is a certain dismissiveness of the steady-since-2000 declines in membership and attendance. Occasionally people cast doubt on the statistics-gathering, which I would hold to be unjustified. The membership numbers have certain problems which are well-known to those of us who study them; the attendance numbers are perhaps subject to a certain imprecision, but they are immune to the record-keeping issues which affect membership values. But beyond this, all the problems with church statistics tend to minimize decline. To the degree that the numbers are wrong, they are almost certainly inflated. There is no reason to disbelieve that the decline is real, and at any rate the closure and departure of parishes testifies to the trend well enough.

Given the reality of decline, the forces of tradition naturally want to attribute it to the church's deviancy. And again, on some level this is inarguable: one can match up much of the decline over the past few years to departures of dioceses and parishes over theological issues. This of course doesn't immediately imply that the issues should have been resolved the other way, nor does it imply that this is the sole source, or that sticking to traditional teachings on the issues at hand would have avoided declines.

On the other side there is a certain perverse pride in driving off the troglodytes, and a certain stiff upper lip about dealing with the losses. But that brings us to the point: the losses DO have to be dealt with. To take an example close to home: Back twenty-some years ago, around the time we married, our parish was nearly literally bursting at the seams. We would have to open the windows so that the people standing outside the building could see and hear the service. And this happened at Easter, and then when the bishop visited; but when we had people standing outside on an ordinary fall Sunday, we knew we would have to build. And while being stuck in a school lunchroom for nearly a year was pretty annoying, the idea that we were growing was energizing and helped carry us through. Twenty years later, we are in the throes of our third rector change, and attendance in 2010 was down to the point where we probably could fit into the old, unexpanded church, and my guess is that 2011 will prove to have been worse, and this year is looking worse still. There is a constant drumbeat about making budget, and anyone who watches can see that we have gone from spiritually prosperous to living under a constant level of strain.

It is easy enough to say that numbers are not of themselves a sign of spiritual health. But the church is a spiritual institution, and the numbers are surely a key measure of institutional health. They do not show that the institution is in some sort of healthy, controlled contraction: they show a church which is being forced to retrench at the mercy of demographics and as a reaction to its dogmatic changes. In context, the dismissal of the numbers' relevance isn't confidence; it's denial. Parishes (and now cathedrals, for two were closed and one was sold off in the past year) are forced to close, and few on the progressive side are willing to face up to the obvious truth that the institution cannot keep going like this.


The Archer of the Forest said...

I am convinced that it is baby boomer myopia. You see the same in the Federal government realm. We can't keep spending huge deficits forever, but as long as we can ring up that Federal credit card, why speak of all those unfortunate realities? As long as the baby boomers get all their entitlements till the grave, to heck with fiscal reality and anyone in the next generation.

I think the same is true in the Episcopal church. Just look at the way the health insurance through the CPG works. We have congregations here in South Dakota that are asked to pay $35K per year for their young, healthy clergy to have family health coverage, who can often find comparable individual plans for less than half the (Denominational Health Plan) rate. Whereas the baby boomer clergy (and partners) in places like New York City can get plans literally for peanuts.

I got a phone call back in the winter by the people at the Clergy Pension Group about my thoughts on how the CPG could revamp the insurance system. I listened to their song and dance and then I started talking about this very thing, particularly how the plan isn't family friendly and bent toward helping aging baby boomers and such. I even had some facts and documentation to prove what I was saying because I had been asked about by my bishop, who was taking concerns about the matter to the House of Bishops meeting later that month. So I had all the paperwork literally in a file on my desk. Let's just say the CPG people couldn't hang up the phone on me fast enough.

Boomers think the world and the Church revolves around them and their issues, and derned if anyone or anything gets in their way, even if they drive the country and the Church into the ground.

The Archer of the Forest said...

Pardon for the double post. The "Prove you're not a Robot" letter number thing tripped me up.

C. Wingate said...

Pleasing as it may be to blame everything on the boomers, I think this is just normal institutional behavior. Growth gives resources, which provide greater means for dealing with change (or ignoring the need for it); contraction limits response. that said, there is a great deal of denial going about, including refusing to face up to the need to plan for the future in a totally different way.

Anonymous said...

"Progressives" saying that it doesn't matter how many people go to church sound like people with arteries spurting blood saying that it doesn't matter how many corpuscles they have in their body because they've lived through periods of their lives when they have even less blood and they did fine.