This will shock anyone who’s ever tried to teach me math, but I like numbers. I believe that established metrics and regular evaluation are key to moving forward or, at least, knowing where you are and how you got there. And I like trying to figure it out.
Episcopal Church leadership likes numbers so much they ask those of us on the ground every year to fill out “The Report of Episcopal Congregations and Missions according to Canons I.6, I.7, and I.17 (otherwise known as the Parochial Report).” I like how they just casually toss in the Canons, a not so gentle hint. Due March 1 this is, then, a time to celebrate that it’s done for another year.
In its current form, the report stinks. We’re hardly measuring the right things and the bulk of it measures the wrong ones.
The first section measures membership. How many people were added? Who’d you lose? That’s how you get Total Active Baptized Members. Those who are active but not baptized or were baptized in another denomination or, my goodness, another Episcopal church get a separate line: “Others who are active.” Does no one move to a different city and not get around to having their letter transferred? Also, in my experience, a greater percentage of the “Others who are active” are more active than those among the Active Baptized.
The longer we spend on this the further we get from more accurate metrics. Measurements which point to vitality have to do with participation and discipleship — not membership. The closest thing the Parochial Report comes to measuring that is Average Sunday Attendance, in my opinion one of the only worthwhile metrics. The report tries to find the underlying story when it asks about baptisms or confirmations or “Total Church School Students Enrolled,” but these measure enrollment, not participation; sacraments, not discipleship; attendance, not leadership.
And don’t even get me started on the Letter of Transfer. In six years, we’ve done two letters, one in, one out. If evolution is the case, I hope the Letter of Transfer is the first thing to go.
Recently, a member of a local congregation told me they’d like to transfer their letter to St. George’s. They intend to stay connected to both congregations but want to transfer membership here. I said “No.” I don’t want theirs or, for that matter, anyone’s letter. In fact, I want the idea that someone becomes a member at one parish which has one priest (or a team of clergy) and is defined over against the other local parishes, Episcopal and otherwise, to go away. I’m looking for church as a gathering of disciples or, at least, a mixed bag of those who are, those who want to be, and those who are genuinely curious about the whole discipleship affair. At least I want the institution called “church” to model this and no longer churn out measurement tools which are pre-programmed to tell us we’re not where we were back in 1957. I guess that’d be the second thing I hope would evolve away.
More, this distraction is inhibiting the building we need to be doing. Leaders at the height of the Baby Boom built new buildings and new parishes; today’s Parochial Report is a vestige of that time. Today’s work, though, is to build networks across parish boundaries, connections across geographical divisions, mission relationships beyond the lines our predecessors drew.
In our diocese, the parochial reports trickle out via a notable tradition of public shaming. Every year, the convention booklet publishes the list of errant parishes, listing the truants by name and in categories from bad to worse.
Last year, we were one of the tardy congregations. The report forced us to count numbers we don’t categorize in the same way, and it didn’t allow us to use the numbers which point to vibrancy. Someone said, “File an addendum,” which I knew would be read but go nowhere. A colleague said, “Just file it. They don’t care.”
I’ve written elsewhere about the creative way this parish has found a more lively connection between mission and money, operations and ministry. (Read here and here and here.) In short, we’ve set up a completely decentralized budget. It does two things well: one, the operations of the church are supported by a lean, central operating budget; two, the ministries of the church rise or fall depending on the movement of the Spirit of God amongst the People of God. We don’t fund outreach or Christian education, for example. And the ironic good news is that they raise more money because they are free. In turn, because our operating budget is so lean we can see, at a quick glance, what’s going on with operations.
We are growing, in part, because we’ve learned that operations and ministry are both mission and yet are not the same. We’ve freed ministry from operations. Further, we understand that operational functions are not only a vital part of the church’s mission but also support relational ministry. This, in turn, gives a new validity to administrative functions and operations.
This budget strategy is healthy, life-giving and the only way to make a budget according to the logic of the Body of Christ, not the illogic of the world. But it’s squarely in conflict with the assumptions behind the Parochial Report.
Our Normal Operating Income (NOI), then, is slim. But that’s not all the money. Even more small mindedly, the Parochial Report enforces a myopic view of expenditures and money raised. Outreach expenditures are “Outreach from operating budget.” According to this illogic, we report $0.00 given to build up our community and world. In reality, we raised and spent $13,144.76 in 2012 and $9,767.71 in 2011, lots more money than we were ever able to give out of the centralized operational budget! The report doesn’t even ask about Christian education or young adult or senior adult or youth ministry.
Beyond griping, here are five suggestions for revising the issues surrounding the Parochial Report:
1. Determine new actual average measurements, in addition to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), that might point to discipleship, leadership, and participation. Poll church leadership and ask one question, “What are the things you do in the course of your week which tell you if something’s working and there’s growth energy?” On the basis of what I’m sure will be a fairly universal set of responses, determine new actual average measurements.
2.Establish that Normal Operating Income (NOI) be determined by the total of four actual numbers: (a) total pledge contributions, (b) total ‘plate’ contributions, (c) any rental fees from parish properties, and (d) contributions from congregation’s organizations.
3. This will force and free up congregations to figure out other ways to budget the categories the Parochial Report currently determines as being inclusive of the NOI. It’s likely they’ll stumble upon a decentralized budget like we use at St. George’s, Valley Lee. They, too, will enjoy the healthy distinction between operations and ministry. Moreover, they’ll see money given to support operations go up, if only remain the same.
4. Make timely receipt of the Parochial Report without sufficient excuse and blessing from the Bishop or Ecclesiastical Authority the determining factor whether a parish or mission gets seat and voice and vote at that next year’s Diocesan Convention.
5. Make 10% giving of NOI — the NOI I sketched, above — mandatory for all parishes. If the diocese enables its congregations to find a life-giving connection between money and mission the diocese deserves 10%. Counterintuitively, the reason too many dioceses abandoned mandatory giving is because institutional, diocesan leadership is unsure of their role as network builders and uncertain how to model a new way of being of the institution and, at the same time, free of the institution.
And while I’ll bet a lot of readers were with me right up until I said “turn it in on time or lose your vote” and “give 10% to the diocese” the larger point is this: in an age in which people from all generations are happily walking away from institutions and institutionalism, the only choice remaining for those of us commissioned with leadership of these, face it, institutions is whether we propagate the old way (which a lot of us don’t believe in) or whether we use these structures to truly help people measure the areas in real life which impact joy, success, strength, and energy (positively or negatively). When we revise our metrics, we might actually see more liveliness, vitality and growth than we’ve previously seen or appreciated. We might, as well, see more clearly what’s standing in the way and needs to be removed or refashioned. Who knows? That awakening might actually make us more boldly the Body of Christ on earth, and more equipped to model it for others.