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January 27, 2019: Canvass Reflections Part 4, God Gives the Growth

by Father Jadon

 

As we make our way together through the cares and concerns our church family revealed in the feedback harvested late last year during our every member canvass, one cluster of comments relates to our membership metrics in the present and in the future, our numbers. Some of you expressed concern about our worship attendance, which is lower now than it has been in the recent past.  Others of you expressed concern about our financial viability.  The worry, implicit or explicit, is that the parish is losing people, and pledges, in a way that may threaten our future.

 As you will hear in this Sunday’s special Parish Update adult forum, 2018 was a good financial year for the parish.  Not only did we end up with a surplus (after projecting a small deficit for the year), we did so while adding staff and programs.  Many of you gave more than you originally pledged and new members offered new (unbudgeted) pledges. If we believe Jesus when he said, “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also” (Matthew 6:21), then the financial metrics of the year just passed suggest that there is a strong and meaningful investment of heart among the All Souls family.

At the outset, our 2019 budget looks more worrisome. Even after cutting all the easy “fat” in our budget, we are looking at a relatively large deficit. The vestry began looking at this potentiality in December and will likely approve a deficit budget when it meets this Sunday, relying on cash reserves to get us through 2019 while starting an effort to identify a new non-pledge source of revenue on our property for the future. As we’ve considered the situation, we have looked closely at the drop in pledge revenue. Some have speculated that people are leaving and taking their pledges with them, upset about one thing or another.  And while it’s true that some have done that over the last several years, the numbers tell us that twice as much pledge revenue has been lost from people who have left because of things we (I) have not changed about All Souls rather than things we (I) have. But an even larger number, in terms of people and pledge dollars, can be attributed to those who have simply moved away in the last year or two. The fact is, many who came to All Souls in the boom of the 90s are now reaching retirement age and not staying in DC. We are also beginning to experience the other side of the bell curve as the large number of Baby Boomers who flocked to All Souls in its renaissance two decades ago now age and, in increasing numbers, depart . . . because of retirement or access to advanced medical care or because they want something different in a church than what they wanted before or than what All Souls is now becoming. And as we face that reality, part of what we are doing is very intentionally trying to build a more even age demographic across the congregation so that in years to come we not only reflect the generational diversity of our neighborhood but we also have a more natural flow of people in and out of the parish. But we are sailing into strong headwinds. On top of the high level of “churn” as DC professionals come and go from the area, nearly every church in every denomination is experiencing some kind of numerical decline. What every study has shown (and there have been many) is that fewer people are going to church (especially on Sunday mornings) and that of those that do, many are simply going less frequently, for a large variety of reasons.

As I consider all this it is easy to get discouraged. Even in two years I have developed relationships with people of whom I see less or not at all, and I miss them. I know that’s true for many of you too, and it can make coming to church depressing, if we let it, and actually exacerbate the reality.

But when I have found myself getting anxious about all of this I have turned to God to acknowledge it in prayer, and the answer I have received has been consistent.  It echoes the words of St. Paul, the original church-membership worrier: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Just as with plants in nature, the life of a church is not linear.  There are seasons for planting, seasons for watering, seasons for growth, seasons for pruning, season for rest, etc.  Our task is not to give up in any way but to faithfully tend the garden in each and every season, trusting that growth of any kind will come in God’s time.

Christianity is not about making or maintaining widgets. You can't stamp out new believers on an assembly line or simply keep existing ones oiled so they keep at it, “same as always.” The Christian enterprise is fundamentally organic. So we expend our resources, for what? Blind trust in a hope and a promise? Well, yes. And, no. Because the truth is that much of what we are about simply can’t be measured by numbers. Our average Sunday Attendance may be declining, but from my vantage point I can see that our average Sunday attender is growing. He or she is not the same person at the deeper, spiritual level. From year to year you are not the same congregation. I am not the same priest. God is absolutely giving us growth even if it’s not the growth we can easily measure. Our task is to keep planting, watering, weeding, pruning, and tending, and see what is actually growing among us.

 

This week’s Message is part of a series reflecting on the results of the Every Member Canvass.

If you’ve missed a week, you can find past Weekly Messages at www.allsoulsdc.org/events.

 

Last Published: January 23, 2019 3:32 PM
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