Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

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A Message to the Wardens and Vestry of St. Margaret’s

Rembrandt, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"
Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”

The recent Pew Report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” indicates that the percentage of the US population that identifies as Mainline Protestant dropped from 18.1 to 14.7 percent during the period 2007 to 2014. During the same span, the only categories that grew were “Non-Christian Faiths” (4.7 to 5.9 percent) and “Unaffiliated” (16.1 to 22.8 percent). This continues a troubling trend that’s existed since Mainline Protestantism’s peak in the 1960s.

Since I was ordained in 2001, Vestries and Membership Committees in congregations I’ve served have been concerned about corresponding trends at the local level, and St. Margaret’s is no exception. When I was ordained, the major metric by which churches measured themselves at the congregational level and higher was in transition from “Members in Good Standing” to “Average Sunday Attendance” (ASA). That’s because the number of people who declare themselves to be “members” is thought to be less meaningful than the actual Sunday worship attendance. Since that time, the Church has begun tinkering again with the metric for a couple of reasons. A charitable understanding of the trend is that the Church has realized that their vitality is measured by lives changed by God through their own ministry. So, for example, St. Margaret’s might reasonably count volunteers in ministries like our Outreach Center who don’t attend Sunday services, or even the clients we serve there. A less charitable understanding would be that we now realize that we can’t win by that measure, so we’re changing the measure of success.

Here is how St. Margaret’s has fared in Average Sunday Attendance since 2004 compared to the Episcopal Church as a whole (domestic congregations only) and the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

2004 795,765 8,822 592
2005 787,271 8,314 619
2006 765,326 8,279 600
2007 727,822 7,669 607
2008 705,257 6,957 550
2009 682,963 6,617 495
2010 657,831 6,646 490
2011 657,887 6,457 520
2012 640,142 6,108 473
2013 623,691 5,761 475

If we take 2004 numbers as a baseline of 100%, here is how each level fared as a percentage of that baseline:

2004 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
2005 98.9% 94.2% 104.6%
2006 96.2% 93.8% 101.4%
2007 91.5% 86.9% 102.5%
2008 88.6% 78.9% 92.9%
2009 85.8% 75.0% 83.6%
2010 82.7% 75.3% 82.8%
2011 82.7% 73.2% 87.8%
2012 80.4% 69.2% 79.9%
2013 78.4% 65.3% 80.2%

Remember that the years immediately after 2003 were difficult for the whole church. Gene Robinson’s confirmation as Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, was an emblematic last straw for some who felt the Episcopal Church becoming increasingly liberal. At the diocesan level from 2003-2007, several clergy left the Episcopal Church and took the major portion of their congregations with them. Entire dioceses left the Episcopal Church. St. Margaret’s saw losses, but mostly held together until 2008-09, when conflict attributed to my predecessor’s leadership drove significant attendance losses. (I’d quibble with that interpretation, but that’s another message.)

The arrival of a new rector in 2010 (me) drove a temporary increase in attendance, but that fell off after the “new guy” mystique wore off and the school and Cellar Door were closed. Our ASA in 2014 was 455, which I didn’t include in the chart above because I don’t have comparative data for the diocese or the domestic congregations of the Episcopal Church.

So what are we to make of this data? If we were in a boat trying to forge a course upstream against a heavy current, one might measure our progress against the land, or against the current. There are good reasons for either measure. The measure we choose depends on the level at which we’re trying to understand our situation.

Why is our ASA in decline? What are we doing wrong? It depends on whether we measure against the current or the shore. My presenting presbyter (the priest who sponsored me for ordination) George Councell; later Bishop of New Jersey, now retired; once said that our seminaries are answering all the questions that no one is asking. Washington National Cathedral dean Gary Hall, who preached at St. Margaret’s in March, offered a helpful analysis of the Pew data: “One of the things that the survey says pretty strongly is that the people who are religious continue to have very strong desires to pray, to do important social justice work and community work with people, but they don’t see the church as the place to do that. … Most churches that you go to don’t know very much about their community, understand who’s there demographically, and offer the kinds of worship experiences that would appeal to people who are not attracted to Sunday morning. We might actually try thinking about how to organize our communities, not based on what people have historically always liked, but actually based on sort of more core principles about Christianity.”

Some are quick to throw in the towel, and argue that the world no longer wants what we’re selling – that we would do well to be a liberal social justice agency and accept a diminishing share of a pluralistic worldview in vogue in the culture. Others say the answer is that if water is pouring in through the holes we’ve drilled in the bottom of our boat, the solution is for the captain to call down to the galley: “Row harder!” We all want the church to flourish, and our different perspectives on the problem lead us to turn and feed on each other, demonstrating our fear and faithlessness to the world.

Here’s my interpretation. St. Margaret’s is doing well the things that made us a major congregation of the Church, but we need to put up a new sail and test the new winds of the Holy Spirit. We started that with our parish-wide discernment exercise in 2014, and I’m proud that we’ve listened to what we heard from God and are following in boldness and obedience. The next phase will require that we keep our heads and our calm as the chaos and even the sabotage associated with anxiety rises in response.

After teaching large crowds all day, Jesus left on a boat with his disciples. “A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:4:37-41).

The question of whether we are perishing depends on whether we are looking at the water, a fixed point on the shore, or our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t deny that there was a storm. But he was resolute about his purpose, and that of his disciples. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. And in this week between our remembrance that our work is sanctified and empowered by the Holy Spirit and our contemplation of God’s relational nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our complex congregation will doubt and call us to devote our attention to distractions that might seem to have life-and-death urgency.

As St. Margaret’s leadership, let us stand together on the alluvial fan of Haystack Mountain and be focused together on Jesus’ parting words to his disciples: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:16-20)

In the five years since I’ve been at St. Margaret’s, the congregation looks very different than it did when you called me as your Rector. I wonder if the St. Margaret’s of 2020 would be recognizable to a 2010 parishioner. I used to think of our task in terms of death and resurrection, but of late, I’m coming to believe that the better metaphor is Transfiguration – change. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). We have all the good gifts we need to accomplish our mission, and to see the day that Christ’s joy is in us and Christ’s joy is complete. It is a joy and privilege to be your priest and your partner in God’s ministry in this place.

Much love for our journey,