As a child of active church people in the 1960s and then a young church leader in the 1970s, I have filled a lot of envelopes in my time and applied a vast number of address labels.
Yesterday I was at it again—preparing a mailout to the households that are connected in some way with Christ Church Cathedral in Grafton.
Very late in the evening, indeed while still filling the final few envelopes, I posted the image above to my personal Facebook page, with this comment:
Parish dynamics in one photo. The envelopes on the right are people who come often enough for me to know their names and predict they will be at church this Sunday. The other pile of envelopes is for people who come once a year or maybe once every two or three months. What is wrong with this picture?
That whimsical post was partly a statement of “look what I have been doing today” and partly an unformed theological reflection on the missional dynamics of serving as priest to a small church community in a regional Australian city.
That post triggered an unexpected set of reactions, with some people fixated by the small number of ‘regulars’ in the short stack, while others noted the familiar dynamics of a larger base of people with lower levels of participation relative to the small number of people who I could anticipate seeing in church on any Sunday of the year.
Well, not without some trepidation, let me revisit this seemingly innocent photo of two piles of envelopes. There are several sets of ministry dynamics that might usefully be pursued in relation to this data. I will address just a few as a stimulus for conversation in various contexts.
One aspect is that even ‘regulars’ in Australian churches now mostly come to worship just once a month. This is true also of Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations. It is one reason why I had such a small pile of envelopes for the “No need to post, I shall see them on Sunday” category. The sporadic nature of participation even by our core adherents is problematic as it undermines our cohesion, reduces the capacity for faith formation, limits the people available to assist with worship, and generally gives the impression of us being a much smaller community than we really are. It doubtless also has some financial impacts as few parishes that I know about still have a strong envelope system with recording of pledges and follow up of those who are behind.
[As it happens our “cash (non-pledge) offerings” are up along with the numbers coming to church each week, even though we have a systemic decline in the number of times each month when most individuals will be in church on a Sunday.]
Another aspect for my reflections is what kind of contact with people is welcome and appreciated these days? I encounter members of the congregation in all kinds of social settings around this small regional city of about 10,000 people. One of the privileges I have as Dean of Grafton is a civic profile that goes far beyond my role as Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. I am actively seeking to develop, foster and exploit that profile for the sake of the Cathedral and the special ministry we have as ‘cathedral’ in a small city whose very status as a city largely rests on the Cathedral being here.
For sure the majority of the envelopes represent older households, for whom social media is not a major point of connection. But there are other implications related to our age profile. Increasingly our events are scheduled to meet their needs, including not driving after sunset. Younger people—and families with work and school commitments—are excluded from the few events we still have, and we offer almost nothing that suits the schedule of persons who are not enjoying a healthy retirement.
Happily, about half of the envelopes—yes, really, about half of them—represent families with young children who have overcome all the obstacles we inadvertently put in their way to ask for their children to be baptised at the Cathedral. Increasing we can connect with them via social media, but until very recently the Cathedral did not collect email addresses. We do have that data for about a third of the 100 families with young children. Typically both parents work during the week. Weekends are for sport, family time, friends, home maintenance, etc. The missional challenge that I see here is how we equip parents to nurture faith and compassionate living in the family context, rather than seeking ways to lure them into our liturgies.
This catalogue of reflections does not even touch on the challenges of rebuilding our reputation in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, or our almost total disconnect with our community’s acceptance of gender diversity and marriage equality. I am so proud that our small Parish Council has taken a courageous and generous position on the blessing of civil marriages.
Nor does it touch on the impact of secularisation and a healthy disdain for pre-modern expressions of religion that simply fail to connect with our children and grandchildren, nor even with ourselves if we are honest.
Despite all these challenges and maybe because of them, I find parish ministry absorbing and challenging. It does not require me to set aside my knowledge and skills as a critical religion scholar, but rather to hone those skills for application to the practical context of parish life, liturgical preparation, and weekly preaching. These days it even includes the obligation to craft a short daily message that goes out every morning via the Cathedral app.
The small pile on the right are my biggest supporters and they want my ministry in this community to flourish and succeed. They are backing me in.
I am also grateful for the large pile.
It gives me the names of real people who have done the hard yards in years past and now are at a stage in their journey where they cannot be so active, even though many of them wish they could be still.
That large pile also reminds me that there are many more people in the local community who value their association with the Cathedral and may just be waiting for the right moment to reconnect.
Then there are the active grandparents who are often away from church several Sundays a month because they are investing time and energy into the nurture of their adult children and the growing band of grandchildren.
And about half of that big pile represents families here in Grafton who have young kids and have not given up on the Cathedral, even though we have not been very effective at supporting them in their critical mission as parents.