By Kirk Petersen

The Episcopal Church has required parishes to file an annual parochial report since the General Convention of 1804, according to the Episcopal Archives. That’s also the year when priests started complaining about having to fill out the report.

The report collects data for the year such as services held, baptized members, pledging members, plate and pledge income, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and more. Out of all that data, the one number that gets by far the most attention is average Sunday attendance (ASA).

“It’s become a bit of a gold standard by which we judge each other, and part of the problem is it’s not a gold standard at all. It’s important, but I think we’ve overemphasized it,” said the Rev. Chris Rankin-Williams, a California rector who chairs the State of the Church Committee for the House of Deputies, as well as its subcommittee on parochial reports.

“What we measure communicates what we care about, and that’s one of the issues with the parochial report right now, a lot of people think the only thing we care about is what’s your ASA, and what’s your money,” he said. “Can we actually change our behavior by changing what we measure?”

The observations were part of a May 5 webinar titled “Change is Coming: The Parochial Report and Your Parish,” sponsored by the CEEP Network (formerly the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes).

Rankin-Williams told the participants that his committee had been asked to reimagine how to collect and use the data. “We began working on a full revision of the parochial report, and then the pandemic hit, and we shifted into doing a special edition for 2020 addressing issues around the pandemic.”

That special edition included a section for narrative entries describing how the parish had adapted to the pandemic conditions. The narrative section generated “thousands of pages of text of your amazing stories of life in this last year, and we are excited to dig into that information,” said the Rev. Molly James, deputy executive officer of the General Convention, who among other things oversees the parochial reports.

A parochial report data tool available online

The 2020 form asked parishes to report ASA only for the period of January 1 to March 1, just before churches started shutting down. That will make the number somewhat comparable to prior years, although numbers likely will be lower because the period does not include Easter or Christmas.

The 2021 form, currently in development, will be similar to 2020 in that it will ask pandemic-related questions. Parishes and dioceses will be given some guidance about how to measure online “attendance,” recognizing that some parishioners will view the service at a later time.

Some parishioners have told him that “being able to watch the recorded version of a service at a different time on Sunday has been huge for them,” Rankin-Williams said. He added, “online-recorded isn’t less participation than being there live, in my opinion.”

One of the reasons ASA has become the most-cited metric is because it’s a simple, objective, easily collected number. “Membership” is a more nebulous quantity – if the rector doesn’t remember seeing the Smith family for a while, should they still be counted as members?

Some data points require considerable estimation and guesswork. The form defines “communicants in good standing” as “Baptized members of the reporting congregation who ‘have received Holy Communion at least three times during the preceding year’ and are faithful ‘in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented,’ and ‘in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.’”

The Rev. Carlos de la Torre, a Pennsylvania rector and member of the parochial report subcommittee, asked rhetorically, “What happened if you didn’t [receive Holy Communion] at all during 2020? Did you stop being a communicant in good standing?”

“We don’t want people to freak out about this stuff,” Rankin-Williams said. “We know, a lot of people – including my own parish – we don’t have all this data. We can get some of it, but we haven’t always been tracking it.”

The Rev. Kate Wesch, a Connecticut rector and subcommittee member, noted that some of the data collected on the parochial report is canonically required. The definition of communicant in good standing is from Canon I.17.3. Changes to the canons may be recommended as part of the process.

Webinar participants also heard from Iris DiLeonardo, the data specialist who actually compiles and publishes the aggregated parochial report data. She demonstrated a number of powerful resources buried deep in the menu structure of the Church and the General Convention websites, including:

  • The most recent full-year data, from 2019;
  • The “Study Your Neighborhood” tool, created by a vendor, which allows users to examine data for any individual church or diocese, or any combination of churches or combination of dioceses;
  • The “Explore Neighborhood” feature, created by another vendor, which provides demographic information about the entire population within a 15-minute drive of any individual church; and
  • An 18-minute webinar demonstrating the various available assets that are generated by the parochial reports.

The subcommittee’s goal is to finalize a “full revision” of the parochial report by October, for the Executive Council to review and approve, so that churches can begin 2022 knowing what data will be requested from them at the end of the year.