Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ten Year Trends

It was one of my grumpy-things, a place of trivial complaint that would surface every now and again.

The source of my concern: Ten Year Trends, a resource my denomination had provided for years, one that allowed church leaders and anyone who was even faintly interested to check in on the progress of their church against a set of quantitative metrics.

Oooh.  Quantitative metrics.  The Presbyterian heart goes pitter pat.

Meaning, you could see how your worship attendance numbers were trending.  How your membership was trending.  How your budget and giving was trending.  And while I am convinced that the spiritual health of faith communities is primarily qualitative, having that data isn't a bad thing.

We'd send our information up to the denomination, and every year, it would be updated.  Only when 2014 rolled around, nothing happened.  Then 2015 came and went.  The site remained un-updated.  Then 2016.

As we dug deeper into Twenty Seventeen, I got to wondering if that resource was one of the things that will inevitably go by the wayside as my denomination continues to retract institutionally, as the tides of cultural Christianity recede.   Ten year trends, I thought, might be just another symptom of a church body in the slow, fading throes of decline.

I thought, for a moment or two, about writing just such a blog post, because that would be easy.  Just pitch out an opine about the woes of the fading oldline, a post this one...will only be read by a handful of souls, and then primarily as a convenient non-narcotic sleep aid.

But I felt, in this era when speaking out of opinionated ignorance and with malice aforethought is increasingly the norm, that I needed to do more.

Rather than spinning out something to reinforce a preconceived narrative, I actually kind of wanted to know what really happened, in other words.

So I sent an email, and I politely asked, in my capacity as the Reverend Doctor Williams, Senior Pastor of the Fifth Largest Church in Poolesville.  "Hey, what happened to Ten Year Trends?"

I got a call back within a few hours, and after a short round of phone tag, talked with folks at the denominational headquarters.  The system is in the process of being remade, I was told, during a perfectly pleasant and informative conversation.

I was given a link to the pre-beta version of the new online tool, which...while clearly a work in progress...was actually on track to being much more useful.  It provided not just congregational level data, but also aggregated data against several helpful measures.  How does your congregation compare to communities of similar size?  How does your congregation compare to other congregations in your state and/or region?  That means meaningful benchmarks, which are always a handy thing.

The Church Trends resource, I was told, will go live once the 2016 data is entered.

So.  Two lessons learned:

First, there is a resource in the works, for those who care about such things, that will prove a useful tool for measuring the organizational health and well-being of communities within the Presbyterian Fellowship.

Second, and more importantly, it was a reminder how vital to the service of truth it is to actually seek out information, to try to really get a sense for the reality of a thing, rather than to just spout off whatever I might be thinking/feeling at the moment.  

Hard as that might be, in this age of internet bloviation, it's a lesson worth learning.