By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
It has been my experience in ministry that often the sharing of stories of “successful” congregations can elicit feelings of grumpiness in some, eyerolling in others and even skepticism on the part of those who may not have shared in the same ministry experiences.
Sometimes these responses are followed with comments such as: “right, that’s the ‘trendy’ church” or “if only we had their resources” or even “well, don’t they think highly of themselves.”
Comments such as these reveal an underlying trend of congregationalism and competitiveness amongst the parishes in our Diocese. When one neighbour looks to another with growing resentment at the contrast between the perceived blessings of one church and experienced hardships found in another. Sometimes this is described as “the grass is greener effect” – greener for them, not us.
I have also struggled to understand why feelings of resentment can be so prevalent in the Anglican Church. What is wrong with celebrating the places where ministry is flourishing? Surely the definition of a “successful” congregation or parish differs according to various contexts and scales of ministry? Instead of fixating on the jealously found in thinking “the grass is greener” for others, shouldn’t struggling congregations ask the question: “I wonder what type of fertilizer they might be using?”
All of these questions were front of mind for me when designing a survey that would be filled out by 1044 participants from twelve Anglican congregations (six in Huron, six in Toronto) identified as having grown numerically over a ten-year span of time. I wanted to further explore how congregations that had been identified according to one single element of “success”, this being their numeric growth of membership, reported their reasons for their vibrancy. Getting to the very heart of the debate about what makes for a growing church was to ask those in the pews: “what keeps you coming back here?”
Before diving into the results of the survey, let me say that over the years I have heard lots of opinions on this topic. I’ve heard arguments that certain styles of church are more attractive than others. Others have suggested that church politics play a large role. There have also been studies published that focus solely on clergy leaders, many of them concluding that the charismatic gifts of our clergy are what make or break a congregation. It is also very important to state that numeric growth is not the sole indicator of a healthy faith community, but only one indicator of congregational vitality. But what did the folks in the pews have to say?
Just under 500 respondents in the Diocese of Huron reported the following: 58.67% of them shared that they keep coming back to their church of choice because they believe their congregation to be welcoming and supportive. When asked to further expand on this statement, participants described their welcoming church in various ways: “it feels like a family for me,” “I belong here,” “when I am missing, others notice,” “as a newcomer I felt included,” and my favourite comment: “personal relationships really matter in my congregation!”
The second most reported reason for coming back to church, at 33.53% of respondents in Huron, was that they like their priest. When asked to further explain what they like about their priest, the vast majority of responses described the pastoral side of ministry: “our minister remembered my name on the second visit,” “Fr. X actually came to visit me in the hospital,” “she is like an adoptive grandparent to my children,” “our priest is authentic – a real person!” and “she makes me feel like I belong here.”
The third and fourth motivating factors for attending a particular congregation were a preference for Anglican Liturgy (12.4%) and “feeling God’s presence” in connection to that particular church (11%).
Considering these responses in light of the many possible answers that participants in growing Anglican congregations could have offered (like preaching, theology, music ministries etc.) there is a commonality in the top four responses that should be encouraging to each and every Anglican church in our Diocese – they really don’t have anything to do with the “grass is greener” effect.
Any congregation can choose to be welcoming and supportive, if they are intentional about practicing Christian hospitality within their community. Churches don’t need to have vast resources to welcome others and care for their existing members. In fact, sometimes a fixation on resources can become a stumbling block for congregations seeking to be more welcoming.
Likewise, having clergy leaders participate in the welcoming and supporting atmosphere of a congregation can be a goal for any church, if the congregation allows for these individuals to have the time in their routines to do so. (Some of our clergy are so bogged down with administrative tasks that parishioners rarely have a chance to see them at all outside of Sunday worship!).
I am also deeply encouraged by the feedback that a love of Anglican liturgy and an experience of God’s presence in their congregations are listed as top reasons that draw others to become regular members. I would argue that an absence of these characteristics might suggest the Church was straying from its vocational purpose or missional identity – as being communities where the worship of God leads others to experience God’s presence in their lives.
Lastly, in a time of the year when many congregations reflect on their growth strategies, mission plans and agendas for Vestry, perhaps the timing is ripe (even in a pandemic!) for us to be reflecting on the following questions: Do we, as congregations desire to foster new relationships and grow? If so, how might we become more welcoming of newcomers and supportive of our existing members? How might we free up our clergy in ways that allow for them to be pastoral, personal and more relatable to people in the community?
Being intentional about deliberately fostering congregational relationships isn’t expensive, it isn’t ‘trendy’ and it doesn’t have to be hard work. I encourage you in this 2021 year – to adopt this as a priority in your congregation if you aren’t doing so already!
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others.
He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains.