Is the Episcopal Church collecting the best information possible in the annual parochial reports? And then, is the church measuring the right things?
Those questions have been among the most pressing examined by the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. Now the committee is proposing resolutions that would not only significantly change the parochial report and definitions of membership but also the ways the church collects data and makes decisions. President Gay Clark Jennings has already determined that the resolutions will be debated during a special order of business in the House of Deputies, although a date has not yet been set during the shortened convention.
The question of membership has been at the heart of work led by Deputy Carlos de la Torre from the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. In conversations with deputies and lay employees, de la Torre asked how often they think of categorizing an individual as a baptized member, a communicant, or a communicant in good standing; they told him “almost never. It only comes up when it’s time to fill out the parochial report or select vestry nominees.”
He said although the church’s canons outline what is required to be considered a baptized member, communicant or communicant in good standing, the committee found “many parishes have developed their own interpretation when it comes to calculating who is counted under each category — especially baptized members and communicants in good standing, since these are the two that parishes are required to report on the parochial report.”
De la Torre said people told him they don’t think the current membership definitions have either a positive or negative impact on the operations of the church. However, when asked whether the church’s current definition has “helped you shape, empower, and expand your church,” the answer was “no.”
Proposed Resolution A156 would establish a task force on the state of membership in the Episcopal Church.
“This group would review the canons on membership — not baptism and Holy Communion,” said Committee Chair Chris Rankin-Williams, Diocese of California. “How are the categories of membership used? Is ‘communicant in good standing’ really important? What does it mean to be a member?
“In today’s world, people may go to their summer chapel in Maine or go to church online. They might pledge to multiple churches. How do the canons need to be addressed to reflect these realities?”
If membership definitions change, that would become apparent in the annual parochial report, which collects data about individual congregations that is sent to the General Convention office and the local diocese.
Vice-chair Louisa McKellaston, a deputy from the Diocese of Chicago said, “One of our charges was to reimagine the parochial report. As a result, we have been looking at the broader ways church data is measured and if our current methods can accommodate our current church. We have learned that considerable changes need to be made to the way data is collected, measured and shared if we want it to be relevant.”
The canons of the church specify some of what must be collected, such as total baptized members, communicants in good standing, number of baptisms, confirmations, etc. Otherwise, the parochial report content is determined by the State of the Church Committee; the church’s Executive Council authorizes use of the form approved by the committee.
“If membership definitions change,” said Rankin-Williams, “the parochial report will need to be changed by the committee and Executive Council to reflect the newly defined categories or eliminate questions about a category that no longer exists.”
He added that “the main complaint we hear about the parochial report is that people think it’s like a tax form or report card. Instead, we want to make it a tool that could help congregations make decisions for the future.”
This work also would include addressing the issue of “average Sunday attendance” (ASA).
“You communicate what you care about by what you measure,” Rankin-Williams said. “For us, that’s ASA. We wanted to have a more whole, complex picture that looks at total active participants in the congregation, average weekly attendance, and total attendance at things like weddings and funerals to give a sense of the reach of the congregation. All these numbers need to be compared to rates of church attendance where the congregation is located. If you change what you measure, you can change peoples’ behavior.”
The committee also has added narrative questions to the report, asking congregations to write about the challenges and opportunities they’re facing.
“We don’t just want the rector to fill this out,” he said. “Engage the vestry and staff. Congregations want to tell the story of their ministry, not just be evaluated.”
Racial, ethnic and age demographics are being added to the report form, which could be tracked over time and compared with the neighborhood where the church is located. “For example, has the neighborhood changed and the church hasn’t?” Rankin-Williams said.
Other changes will focus on the expansion of online worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, to learn more about how that’s affecting local churches — especially the fact that there’s no reliable formula for determining how many people are watching.
Proposed Resolution A155 would establish a task force of congregational treasurers and diocesan financial officers to revise the finance page of the parochial report. The group would “collect and utilize data on diocesan-level use of parochial reports to determine diocesan assessments and apportionment; consider issues of currency conversation for international dioceses; evaluate current requirements on calculating and reporting operating income and expenses.”
The committee identified two themes in its work:
- Parish treasurers often say the finance page is too complicated and confusing.
- Diocesan financial officers say that critical information about debt and endowment use by congregations is missing.
As part of its assignment, the task force would review practices for reporting congregational operating income and expenses. The resolution’s explanation notes that “Those issues bear particular scrutiny because both the [parochial] report’s operating income and expense lines are used by various diocese to set diocesan assessments.”
A related resolution, A132, would establish a task force to study congregational vitality indicators.
“We did a lot of work and concluded that instead of our committee trying to define vitality for the entire church, we needed a task force with broader representation (rural/urban, racial, etc.),” Rankin-Williams explained. “What do we mean? What are the proper questions? Each year, a church could look at its vitality and compare it year to year. That could help the local congregation.
“We can’t just collect data to collect data,” he said. “The parochial report has to be useful for the local church, the diocese and the wider church.”
Making the changes happen
Beyond considering these specific changes, the committee concluded that broader changes in how the church gathers data and make decisions are important.
McKellaston has helped craft Resolution A099, which calls for the church to “establish and fund professional research expertise and capacity to collect, aggregate, analyze, and publish data” to support the work of the church.
“This will allow the General Convention, Executive Council, commissions, committees and other church bodies to have a central resource for collecting data, analyzing data and storing data for use and study,” she explained. “Currently, committees must craft and distribute their own surveys and analyze their own data — and then that data isn’t stored when membership turns over. By establishing this research office, we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a group wanted to learn something. Anyone would be able to request data, and everyone would have access to the same data.”
To help the church make decisions differently in the future, the committee focused considerable effort on the area of “adaptive challenges.”
Rankin-Williams explained that adaptive challenges involve situations in which “you have to adapt to be able to address the challenge — the solution isn’t necessarily clear. What’s the data that supports a proposed solution? Is a new kind of solution needed?”
For example, declining numbers in affiliation and attendance is an adaptive challenge. What does it mean to be a member of the Episcopal Church? How do people understand their connection to their community?
“The definition of member might not match how people identify themselves — denominational connection often doesn’t matter anymore,” he noted.
Resolution A097 proposes that the church conduct a professional evaluation of the online process legislative committees and resolution hearings used in advance of General Convention. The evaluation would help the church “learn more about how to adapt its structures and governance to the post-COVID world.”
An accompanying resolution, A098, would direct Executive Council to “oversee the development of collaborative online tools to facilitate the work of interim bodies in the church committee to leading adaptive change.”
McKellaston noted that the State of the Church Committee was able to adapt the 2020 parochial report to include opportunities for congregations to share feedback regarding how the pandemic has affected their life, work and worship: “Since we were given a ‘bonus year’ with General Convention being postponed from 2021 to 2022, the committee was able to see the fruits of its work in the responses to the 2020 parochial report, and then apply feedback received from the 2020 parochial report to the 2021 version.”