July 29, 2015

The Numbers Also Get You There

Not surprisingly, a tangential remark led to a rich conversation at one of the many meetings we’ve been having among the Episcopal churches in southern Maryland. “The fact is that the numbers get you to understand the need for institutional collaboration very quickly,” said the treasurer of one of the congregations represented. “In our congregation,” he added, “the pledging and giving trends are skewed toward complete unsustainability: older, more established members are giving at levels so much higher than younger, newer members.” 

This is an undeniable trend, he was saying, and this numerical fact, alone, should speak to and spur on our work with real haste and creativity. At this rate, The Episcopal Church in southern Maryland will look radically and fundamentally different when my daughter (now almost 7 years old) will enter high school. We’re not talking about another generation or two; we’re talking about a few more years. As any casual church leader might suspect, statements like this can kick off passionate conversation.

It also kicked off an investigation and further research. Joey Rick, canon for congregational vitality in our Episcopal Diocese of Washington, has been sitting with us at these meetings in southern Maryland, helping facilitate and give guidance to our discernment. Later that week, Joey sent this very question out to clergy and leaders in our wider diocesan community: If you were to analyze giving and pledging trends in your congregation, what trends and patterns would you realize?

The numbers and trends are not comforting. To be fair, Joey only got 16 responses; it was early June when she sent out that email. Nor did all of them quote numbers; some gave rough percentages. She called it a “Compilation of Responses,” not an analysis, per se, but here’s what she found:

  • In the sixteen communities, there was a variance in which the single top pledging unit gives as low as 5% of total pledge income (TPI) to as high as 11%.
  • The top two (2) pledging units gave between 16% and 18% of TPI.
  • In one community, the top six (6) pledging units give 31% of TPI.
  • In another, the top ten (10) pledging units give 31.2% of TPI.
  • The top 25% of pledging units give, on average, as low as 47% to as high as 66% of TPI.
  • In one community, the top 20% of pledging units gives 54.2% of all income.
  • In another community, the top 40% of pledging units gives 80.3% of all income.
  • In another community, the top 50% of all pledging units gives 84.1% of TPI.

Joey’s findings uncovered that the typical trend is that the top two (2) pledging units give 10% of the total pledge income, and the next four (4) pledges fill in an additional 10%. Further, she found, the top 20% give 80%, and the top 30% give 70%.

I don’t want to hold out institutional collaboration as the sole and only hope of the institutional Christian church, but it is shocking to me that, given these very real and very pressing numbers (a further, even more frightening addition would be to add average age of givers and tenure of membership) we are acting as if every congregation should and can go it alone; we just need stronger stewardship drives and a greater push. 

I have long been convinced by purely theological and missional reflections of the value of collaboration, but these numbers convince me all the more that an unquestioning allegiance to the “one parish / one priest” system – a norm, by the way, which was devised only relatively recently in Christendom, let alone American institutional Christianity – will lead in the next ten years to a certain and seismic shift in the way The Episcopal Church appears and functions in huge swaths of this country. 

That treasurer was right: the financial numbers, in fact, will get you to the desired outcome of ‘doing business differently’ quicker and in better ways than these other, more airy discussions of missional leadership and entrepreneurial clergy.

Which is not to say that the hope for the local congregation is all but vanished. Not at all! St. George’s, Valley Lee – the congregation I have the pleasure of serving – is a vibrant and strong congregation. Year after year, we are showing signs of growth. Numbers of people who participate in ministries, as well as numbers of people who are actively supporting this congregation through regular financial giving is increasing. To help us get a better grasp of the latter, we’ve created a worksheet which has helped us reflect upon and better refine our conversations around stewardship and giving and generosity. Total giving is up. More people are contributing, and contributing regularly, through the use of the Open Pledge Campaign we now use compared to the traditional pledge card-based system we used to use. Nowadays, we can realistically compare current giving to previous trends, and we can look more closely at who’s giving what without anyone on any leadership body connecting Pledge Box Numbers to actual women and men. To put a finer point on it, now, for the first time we can have and are having straightforward, honest, hard, and careful conversations about what we need to bring in, financially, just to achieve a basic level of health and competency and what we need people to give.

But, still, the larger numbers and more global trends are tilted in the opposite direction. No matter what we do, we’re working against a cultural shift and tide. This is, for me, the nuance moment: real institutional collaboration (creating systems beyond ‘one parish / one priest’) will not stem the tide, nor will it solve the problem, but it will put us in a better position to discern our greater hopes and collective vision for a more abundant future. It’ll put us in the place where we can have those same conversations we’ve been trying to have with our diminishing pledging bases with our leadership bodies; specifically, what we, the leadership, really need to do in order to help our future hopes come more quickly into reality.

It’s a little bit of a wake-up call, but high time for it, I’d say.

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