If meaningful planning is to happen, dioceses need to start gathering reliable and useful statistical data from their parishes. This was the central message of a presentation made to the Council of General Synod (CoGS) Nov. 14 by Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Statistics should not simply be about the number of names on the parish rolls, Thompson told CoGS at its fall meeting. “How can we understand what’s going on in the lives of our congregations and dioceses, how they are relating to the context in which they are called by God to minister?” Thompson asked. “How can we use that understanding to make good decisions based in that understanding about how to allocate resources and spend energy in ministry?”
In response to these questions, a commitment has been made to update the statistical return of dioceses across Canada. Bishop Geoffrey Peddle, of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, is taking leadership in creating a revised statistical return for 2015 that asks a smaller number of questions about things that parishes might have concrete data about.
Thompson said that there has been some “very strong interest” in a congregational life survey that would help the national church understand the characteristics of its membership, their concerns, the reasons that lead people to participate in congregations and even some of the “disincentives” to participation.
Though this survey is still in its early stages, Thompson suggested that the national church would be looking for dioceses in each ecclesiastical province to develop and test such a survey. The long-term vision, he said, is to have a core national survey that dioceses can tailor to their local contexts to gather information about their own projects.
In addition to the survey, Thompson also drew attention to a “missional census” that is being developed to allow local ministries to report on their activities in a measurable way.
Using the example of a foot clinic for the homeless being operated out of the Cathedral Church of St. James, in downtown, Toronto, Thompson noted that while this has been an ongoing mission, there is no data about the impact it’s been having on the community – how many feet, for example, are treated in a given year.
For Thompson, this speaks to a larger imperative. “To represent ourselves in Canadian public life, it would be important to capture some of that information about the ways in which the church is actively making a difference.”
Thompson also argued that the survey and census might reveal some pleasant surprises. “I suspect we may discover that while we have been measuring some of the things that have diminished, like average Sunday attendance, we have not been measuring things that I suspect may be growing, which is the active commitment of people in our congregations to engage in the life of the world in a life-changing way.”
A third project being considered is an ethnographic approach to information-gathering. Thompson spoke of fostering an “official curiosity” on behalf of the General Synod to generate a greater understanding of how different dioceses exercise their ministry in advance of the 2016 General Synod. This ethnographic approach would look at differences such as record-keeping practices and documents considered to be important as well as conducting extensive interviews with members to gain an understanding of the character and sensibility of each diocese.
The final project being considered, which remains “in a certain state of vagueness,” is the development of a process that would encourage dioceses to develop an “official curiosity” about their own missional context. Fostering a self-consciousness on the part of dioceses about how their work is meeting the needs of their communities, Thompson suggested, is an “important factor in the vitality of those congregations in God’s mission.”
In the conversation that followed Thompson’s presentation, many of the questions revolved around the difficulty of getting parishes to gather data. James Sweeny (ecclesiastical province of Canada) explained some of the difficulties in getting small parishes to care about the process.
Bishop Jane Alexander expressed support for the idea but cautioned against “reinventing the wheel,” noting that The Episcopal Church already has some excellent tools for gather data that the Anglican Church of Canada should look into before creating its own.
When asked in an interview after the presentation about how these projects will move forward, Thompson stressed that working with a couple of dioceses in each ecclesiastical province is the way to begin, and also noted that there is support in the House of Bishops for a more facts-based approach.
“There hasn’t been a complete set of diocesan statistical returns this century,” he said, explaining that this was partially because the national church was not sure what it would do with the data. The new strategies for using information, however, provide a very positive reason for gathering statistics.
“We’ve been measuring the discouraging things,” said Thompson. “Let’s measure some things that are about the people of God getting engaged in God’s care for the world.”