By Kirk Petersen
Parish priests throughout the church are working toward a March 1 deadline to submit the annual parochial report of membership, attendance, and finances for 2021 — a task that has grown considerably more complicated because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Executive Council on January 27 approved an outline of a form for the 2022 report, adding some questions and refining others.
For the first time, the form will ask for ethnic and racial data about the congregation. The council approved the addition after an extended debate that may foreshadow the sensitivity of the query.
The Rev. Chris Rankin-Williams, a California rector who chairs the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, told the council the data would be helpful in various ways. For example, it could enable congregations or dioceses to seek grants for Hispanic participation, and to benchmark themselves against the surrounding local community.
“My first thought is, this is long overdue,” said council member Russ Randle, Diocese of Virginia, at an earlier committee hearing. But “I’m nervous about having the rector and senior warden guessing about people’s ethnicity.” He urged the church staff to support congregations in helping members self-identify, such as through an online survey, which could be anonymous.
“We’re not asking churches to call parishioners and say, what are you,” Rankin-Williams said. He said different congregations will collect and estimate the information differently, acknowledging that some parts of the parochial report are necessarily imprecise.
Nobody raised any objection to the idea of collecting racial and ethnic data. The disagreement was whether churches should be asked to provide raw numbers of members in each category, or express the data in percentages.
“There’s a completely human propensity to either over- or under-represent when guessing at percentages, depending on the race or ethnicity of the person doing the guessing,” Graves said.
“I assure the committee that there is no comfortable way to ask about race,” said Diane Pollard of the Diocese of New York. “So then the question becomes, what is the more accurate way to ask,” she said, advocating for raw numbers.
“If the intention is to not have the church volunteer calling everyone, then the percentage is an easier entryway into that data,” said council member Sarah Stonesifer Boylan, Diocese of Washington.
The council chose the via media, and voted to ask for both percentage and raw numbers.
Regarding the more familiar aspects of the parochial report, there was discussion about “communicants in good standing,” a term that is referenced more than 30 times in the canons, and is used in some dioceses to establish things like minimum salaries for priests. The canons say communicants are in good standing if they have received communion at least three times in the past year and “have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented.” The pandemic certainly qualifies as “good cause,” but that doesn’t solve the issue of how to measure communicants in good standing.
Rankin-Williams said the committee added average weekly attendance as a metric, recognizing that “the church cannot rely on Sunday morning as its ‘thing’ anymore.” The form also will ask for the traditional average Sunday attendance (ASA) for purposes of historical comparison. Both measures include only in-person worship.
The committee specifically declined to define a standard method for measuring online worship, because of vast differences among churches in terms of platforms, definitions, and units of measure. The form will continue to ask churches to report in-person and online participation separately, adding “hybrid” as a third category. “Standards may develop, but we’re not there yet,” Rankins-Williams said.
For 2020, the form attempted to compare apples to apples by asking for attendance just for the months of January and February, recognizing that everyone’s ASA tanked in March. Even so, the 2020 report showed a decline of 11.7 percent when the report was released in October, compared to a 2.5 percent drop the prior year. January and February typically are low-attendance times of year, and the 2020 averages did not include Easter or Christmas.
“I think the Episcopal Church has had a bit of an obsession with average Sunday attendance [ASA] as kind of the marker of vitality,” he said. “We’re really trying to come up with a much broader vision of congregational vitality and sustainability.”
But ASA is another metric some dioceses use to establish clergy compensation, and while it may not measure vitality, historically it has been a handy way to measure the size of a church.
Those days are gone. Council member Anne Kitch from the Diocese of Newark, where some churches have not worshipped in person since the pandemic began. “I heard from a really, really fine priest and colleague last week that in doing their parochial report, they ended up with an ASA for 2021 of seven,” she said.