Growing Episcopal congregations, Part II

By John B. Chilton

This essay is the second half of my review of FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth, authored by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research for The Episcopal Church. FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth is based on a 2005 survey. The survey was completed by 57% of congregations surveyed, usually by clergy. The 4,102 responses were weighted to reflect size and location in the population of Episcopal churches as a whole to improve the representativeness of the sample.

Growth in membership can be measured either as a rate or as a change. Small congregations can show large growth rates (or decline) even if it is just a change of a few members. And large congregations can have large growth in numbers with a small growth rate. Congregations were therefore classified as growing if they had “substantial growth in numbers” and at least a 5 percent rate of growth comparing 2000 membership to 2005.

Hadaway’s results are presented in five groupings of characteristics of congregations: demography, worship, orientation towards growing, conflict, and clergy leadership. In Part I of my review I focused on demographic factors. Here I consider the other factors. I find it curious, though, that one of the factors asked about in the survey, outreach, is not covered in the report. Wouldn’t be interesting if churches with focus on mission were among those that were most likely to grow? Why outreach is not discussed is not explained.

Purpose, spiritual vitality, and openness to change. Churches that view themselves as fitting any one of these descriptors were very likely to grow.

Joy. Congregations that affirm their worship is joyful are more likely to be growing.

What direction, though, is the causation? Growth surely increases self esteem, sense of purpose and joy of the congregation. No doubt joy is attractive and causes growth. But can you choose joy?

Can a congregation choose to be open to change, or is that a characteristic that’s in its DNA? Likewise, spiritual vitality. All organizations face such questions. A course of action for growth may be clear to the leadership but it’s another thing to change the culture of the organization.

Conflict matters. Two sources of conflict were examined, (1) conflict over the actions of the General Convention 2003, and (2) conflict over the leadership style of the priest. Conflict is not conducive to growth (Hadaway writes “apparently even minor conflict tends to lead some people to leave the congregation”). Leadership conflict appears to have been more debilitating than conflict over GC2003. That is intriguing.

I wonder, though, if some respondents reported conflict over GC 2003 even though conflict was not so much within the parish, but with the diocesan or with the national church. Conflict with an external group could cause growth. Conflict within a parish over GC2003 could be worse than conflict over leadership style. The survey question on GC 2003 does not distinguish internal and external conflict.

Drawing a conclusion about the effect of leadership style of the priest is also problematic. It could be that decline or slow growth causes conflict and blame is placed on the priest. Alternatively, it could be that congregations that are falling below their potential are more likely to be confronted by the priest – it’s not the style, but the context.

Nevertheless, we all know of anecdotes where it was the rector’s style of leadership and failure to adapt a new style that was harmful to the health of the congregation. The survey result is consistent with this anecdotal evidence.

Clergy Enthusiasm. It helps.

Cooperation. Congregations whose rector or vicar “knows how to get people to work together” are most likely to grow.

For both enthusiasm and cooperation above causation could go both ways.

Clergy Tenure. Growth is unlikely in the priest’s first two years. In this sample, the likelihood of growth improved with tenure up to the fifth year. Thereafter it falls off.

This is useful to know. Your new rector cannot replace your old rector. Not everyone in the congregation will find the old rector suits them. This pattern is normal: there’s nothing necessarily wrong if it happens.

Number of services. The more services, the greater the growth.

Size is related to number of services so this could be saying that larger congregations are more likely to be growing rather than that the number of services causes growth. Smaller congregations more likely to be in rural locations and smaller towns that are not growing, or not growing as fast as urban and suburban areas are.

Contemplative, formal liturgy, absence of percussion, predictable. Congregations affirming any of these characteristics were less likely to be growing. (Yes, even contemplative.)

Could it be that “stuffiness” hurts church growth and should be avoided if your desire is growth? Or could it be that churches do desire grow and are choosing the character of worship most conducive to growth but that “markets”- mission fields – where formal liturgy (for example) is best are not likely to be growing? The data cannot tell us. What we are alerted to is that if you want to grow it’s worth asking the stuffiness question and even to experiment to find out what works in your market. (As long as it doesn’t cause too much conflict in the congregation!)

Variety. Among churches with more than one weekend service the ones where the services differed considerably were most likely to be growing.

There is the suggestion that adding variety would help growth. And several services makes it easier to experiment and compare which service attracts newcomers. But again we cannot exclude the possibility that churches are making the best choice given their mission field and some mission fields aren’t growing.

Children’s participation. Churches in decline seldom have children or youth speak, read or perform during worship.

How much of that is due to choice as opposed to lack of children is not stated. The survey did also ask about the age distribution of the congregants. Thus the question of availability could have been addressed.

Desire. Congregations that affirm they welcome growth are more likely to be growing.

Evangelism. The greater the participation of the laity in seeking new member the more likely is growth.

Communications. Among congregations that opposed a website only 12% were growing.

That’s not to say websites make a difference; it could be that lack of a website is a better signal that the congregation isn’t interested in growth than asking the congregation if it is.

Visits. Churches that don’t make phone calls or visits to newcomers or visitors aren’t likely to grow. Half of all Episcopal churches make 2 or less such contacts per month. The number of ways of following up with visitors also matters (mail, phone, email, visit, handouts).

Family enrichment. Congregations offering parenting or marriage enrichment as a key program were much more likely to be growing.

Correlation, again, is not causation; it could be that these programs are not a draw to newcomers, but rather exist because the congregation is comprised mainly of younger families.

Throughout this essay I have taken a skeptic’s perspective on what a survey of this sort can tell us. There is the question of the direction of causation. There is the question of what things are within the control of the congregation. I have pointed out that correlation can arise because of an omitted factor (such as the underlying conditions of the local market).

At the level of the congregation it would be easy to take these arguments and take a complacent attitude, or an attitude that the status quo does not need to change, or that whatever we do it’s not going to make a difference. Or that surveys like this simply aren’t useful to a congregation.

My conclusion is different. My conclusion is that there are no easy answers. Surveys like this are useful. First, they permit some degree of benchmarking for the congregation. How are you doing in comparison with similar congregations, be it similarity in terms of demographics or in terms the factors discussed above? Are you lagging behind similar congregations? If so, are there local conditions that might explain that? Are you ahead of other similar congregations? If so, this is something to feel good about and to share.

Second, while such a survey cannot tell you that, say, adding percussion to the worship service will lead to growth, it does plant the suggestion that it might. In conjunction with local knowledge of the congregation and its mission field the congregation must decide what course of action to take if it wants to grow.

I’m no expert in evangelism nor do I think of myself as a good practitioner. I’ve offered my thoughts on some of the research available from The Episcopal Church and urge you to take a look for yourself if you are interested in seeing your church grow. Here are some links to follow:

Studying Your Congregation and Community

Research & Statistics

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist specializing in applied game theory. In January he will conclude six years of service at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) and return home to Orkney Springs, the location of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia.

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