Church vitality is not just a matter of numbersLatest News Friday, December 3rd, 2010
A UMNS Commentary
By Rev. Patricia Farris
I think we’re barking up the wrong tree or simply seeking to relieve our anxiety by looking for certainty where there is, in fact, only mystery and call.
Let me be clear up front that I, too, am passionate about vital congregations, about changed lives and a transformed world. I work conscientiously to bring more people to Christ. I do not desire to relegate The United Methodist Church to a lackluster future of corrosive decline or institutional irrelevance. I do not seek to make excuses for laziness or to endorse a culture of clergy entitlement.
My concern with our latest institutional response in the form of the Call to Action Vital Congregations report is that its conclusions are based on flawed analysis, and its ecclesiology is thin and operational.
I’ve not been privy to presentations of the report nor to the actual deliberations. My observations are based solely on my attempts to read and comprehend it. Frankly, I hope to be shown to be wrong about what I think I see.
The report states that it will not define “vitality” but rather seek “Outcome Measures” that reflect church vitality and that must be “Descriptive, Differentiating, Quantifiable and Available.” As a result, the researchers rely heavily on membership, worship attendance as a percentage of membership and other factors as a percentage of membership or attendance.
My concerns are twofold. Without a clear, deep, sacramental and liturgical ecclesiological foundation, to say nothing of an explicit focus on life- and world -transforming mission, we risk turning to numbers as our aim or goal. I fear another manifestation of the idolatry and competition to which we are prone.
Were the packed churches of the 1950s more vital or just bigger? Were they more faithful? More Christ-like? Are we after more “members” to see more lives transformed? Or at base are we simply desperate to pay our bills, to maintain our buildings and our pensions? How will we know what the numbers represent? Defining “vitality” in terms of numbers might well not contribute to the actual vitality for which we yearn.
Moreover, EVEN IF we want to look at the numbers, “membership” and “worship attendance” are unreliable and outmoded categories. It’s no secret that every pastor, every congregation, has a different way of working with its membership rolls. The reported number of “members” does not necessarily illuminate much. Flawed statistics?
Additionally, newer generations aren’t “joiners.” The United Methodist News Service released a news report in 2008 titled “Membership down, constituency up.” Statistics show that the number of constituents is steadily increasing as the number of members declines. Yet this vital and growing group is given but brief mention in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s rulebook, and becomes invisible when membership numbers are tallied.
“Worship attendance” statistics are similarly in wild flux. Across ecumenical lines and across the connection, my colleagues and many church consultants are saying the same thing, namely that “regular worship attendance” now means one to two times a month. This is not due to lack of commitment to the church, but rather to other life-stage commitments, such as children’s sports leagues and travel to visit grandchildren. Evaluation through a weekly attendance figure not only undermines morale; it also does not accurately tell the story of congregational life and vitality.
To use flawed statistics to measure congregational vitality and clergy effectiveness strikes me as what the Book of Discipline cautions against: “Support without accountability promotes moral weakness; accountability without support is a form of cruelty.”
I wish that, years ago as a superintendent, I had been more of an encourager and less of a counter. I wish I had spent more time in pastoral care with my pastors and less in the latest revitalization workshops. I wish that I had led them in the deep work of formation and accountability through prayer, relationship-building, service and sabbath renewal such as I recently experienced on a long-overdue renewal leave.
And as a result, I have come to think that by the grace of God, pastoral leadership for vital congregations might come more through the formative work of the Orders than through the application of outmoded and misleading statistics and speculative technique.
For complete article visit www.umc.org.
Patricia Farris is senior minister at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, Calif. News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, TN., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.