July 29, 2021
Mission, Vision, Plans, Oh my!
It’s a familiar narrative in The Episcopal Church these days: the attendance numbers are shrinking, the children are fewer in number, and the people in the parish want to do something (anything!) to reverse the trend. The question that almost always looms large at the start of any such process is simple and, in its own way, profound: Where do we begin?
I entered a narrative similar to this when I accepted the call to serve as the next rector at Church of the Epiphany in Tempe, Arizona. In fifteen years’ time, the parish dwindled from an average Sunday attendance of 353 to an average Sunday attendance of 182 prior to the pandemic. It was clear that things were not going in the direction that any parish wants to see. It was abundantly clear that we needed to do something, but it was less clear what that something was.
After a lengthy discussion, lots of research, and even more prayer, the vestry discerned that they could do the visioning work without spending so much money on a consultant. Surely, we could find the resources we needed to launch a strategic visioning process that would fold in a good chunk of the parish. The thing that was less clear to us was whether we could do that whilst in the middle of a pandemic. After all, Zoom fatigue (can we shorthand this as Zoomtigue?) was already an affliction most of us suffered through on a daily basis.
Finding and Using the Congregational Vitality Assessment
While we felt that we could lead a visioning process internally (and without spending thousands of dollars), we also knew that we needed a really good starting place. The leadership of the parish rightly felt that we needed a more robust understanding of parish life than we could get from a rehashing of parochial reports.
The Congregational Vitality Assessment allowed us to measure our identity as a congregation, the role discipleship plays in the lives of lay people, formation, worship and spiritual life, context awareness, and financial sustainability of the parish for the longterm future. It provided us with a much more robust benchmark than we could ever hope to infer from a singular metric like average Sunday attendance or financial giving.
The online accessibility of the congregational vitality assessment helped us do just that without having to reinvent the wheel and without having to find our own benchmarks to compare our data. All we had to do was send the link to our members with a robust invitation encouraging parishioners to share their perceptions of parish life. It seemed like we found the exact resource we needed to launch a visioning process that would take several months to complete.
The Congregational Vitality Assessment Results
From the launch of the congregational vitality assessment, our vestry was able to host and lead three different Zoom-based listening sessions that lasted three hours each. We invited people to attend all three as we asked three different questions of the congregation: How do we show up for God? How do we show up for each other? How do we show up for our neighbors?
The framing of the listening sessions was a play off of our parish name: We were asking the people of Epiphany to discern how we could be epiphanies in worship, fellowship, and mission. Each session provided us with new insights to the parish and what was important to people sitting in the pews (or watching on YouTube). We learned that creation care was much more important than we originally supposed. We also learned that we had a lot more work to do around the question of racial reconciliation and becoming beloved community.
Now, our vestry is in the final steps of formulating a new vision statement for our parish. It will not mean that we have 50 new people every Sunday for the next year, but it does mean that we are getting clarity on where God is calling us in our vocation as a parish. The vestry understands that the work is still at the beginning stage and that we will need to look at how we use our resources in service of Christ’s mission of reconciliation.
With the congregational vitality assessment (and its newest iteration - the Congregational Vitality Assessment 2.0), we are able to return to the assessment for a new round of input. Our intention is to do so once every three to five years.
The Holy Spirit is urging us forward, and we know that the only way we can live into the vision statement being drafted by our vestry is to do so relying on God’s help.