In an article in the Anglican Journal, General Secretary Michael Thompson asked, “How can we understand what’s going on in the lives of our congregations and dioceses, and how can we use that understanding to make good decisions about how to allocate resources and spend energy in ministry?”
These are good questions and probably resonate with any rector or churchwarden who has had to fill out statistical and financial reports. What do the numbers mean and how are they used? Some people in the pews may not realize that such records are obligatory and have to be reported each year. Those who do send them in and perhaps never think about them again until the statistics come back years later when their parish is looking for a new rector.
Sometimes statistics are sobering, but not always. I was glad to read in my church bulletin that our Christmas attendance went from 253 in 2013 to 400 in 2014. That’s something to celebrate.
How well do we keep records about the families and individuals in our churches? For many years, those statistics were probably kept in people’s heads. If we were progressive, the records graduated to a spreadsheet. In such a format, a surname was followed by a first name and sometimes a second one. Other family members were listed by first name only. This was better than nothing, but it made it hard to have an accurate count, and if the second person on the list had a different surname, we create mailing labels that read Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary Smith Brown.
As a former small business person, I experienced similar problems and eventually discovered a type of software called contact management. Such software is now customized for church use, and there are many options, varying in sophistication and price. Putting better information in the program means getting better information coming out – not only for reports to be sent to the Diocesan Centre, but also for the parishes themselves. The programs are well worth exploring and using.
These are some of the factors that parishes should look at when producing statistics:
- Does your record systems count individuals by full name as well as grouping households or families? (Members living in the same household may have two or more different surnames. A mother and her children joining us on Sunday may have different last names and we don’t even know it.)
- Do you keep track of detailed information, more than just where people live? Can you classify people by age? (If 50 per cent of our parishioners are over 80, this points to the needs of a particular group. If we have over 40 children but no staff addressing their needs, that tells us something, too.)
- Can we communicate meaningfully with people, especially in sub-groups? (If a beloved parishioner has died and we need to assemble servers and a choir quickly for a funeral, is it possible to do so from within the system? If we need help on short notice for any reason, can we get it?)
We are surrounded by businesses and institutions that rely on collecting information and using it – not always to our advantage. Any tool must be used wisely and intentionally. At their best, good parish databases that are well structured and consistently used give us realistic and useful information to learn more about ourselves.