Small Size Parish Homes and the Episcopal Future
This blog is the result of an in-depth analysis of a small Episcopal congregation identity using a cognitive consensus mapping methodology known as metaphor elicitation. The method is grounded on the findings of neuropsychology and linguistics, “Metaphors stimulate the workings of the human mind. By one estimate, we use almost six metaphors per minute of spoken language… For example, although both halves of the human brain enable literal and figurative language (which includes metaphor), the right half is more strongly associated with metaphoric language.” (Zaltman, Gerald, How Customers Think, p. 37-38)
According to most estimates, about 95% of thought, emotions, feeling and learning occur in the unconscious mind. Most studies of denominational attitudes towards church selection and congregational worship, educational and formational needs are based on information gathered through verbal protocols (telephone calls, group meetings, verbal focus groups and questionnaires) that rely on self- reflection and self-awareness. These methods, even if conducted extremely well, only open up 5% of thoughts, emotions and feelings about people towards religious and spiritual issues.
Therefore, advanced methods of cognitive consensus maps are the single most important way of eliciting individual and collective attitudes about just why people are attracted to the Episcopal denomination or a particular parish. Furthermore, it is especially necessary when exploring the nature of such a right brain issue as religious preference to use the methodology of metaphor elicitation.
This study was conducted in a small Episcopal parish with a dwindling weekly attendance of between 50 to 60 members with a statistical mode age of 70 years. The statistical mode age is used rather than the mean or median because it is more descriptive of the aging sketch of the congregation. The congregation had been at one time an established pastoral congregation from the fifties, but it began to decline rapidly in the nineties. It was located in an urban middle class neighborhood that had slowly become a working lower class community. After experiencing a series of deaths of members, it appeared that the parish would soon close. There was a final effort made to stabilize the situation with an interim and then a new rector. Although the parish was aging, it had an extremely youthful spirit. Under the guidance of the interim, the new rector and vestry, a courageous plan for stabilization was designed.
Before this study could begin, it was necessary to spend two years attracting some new members. It was decided to target baby boomers 55 plus who were, for various reasons, looking for a church. It was necessary to make radical changes in liturgy, music and educational programs to achieve this immediate goal. After some new members had become active in the parish, the new vestry decided that it was time to ask three questions in order to grow: 1) How do we perceive ourselves? 2) How does our local community perceive us? 3) How do we want to be perceived?
In order to answer this question, the parish began a study in metaphor elicitation and consensus mapping. A representative sample of members was asked to become participants in the study. Each member was instructed as to how to gather visual images over the period of a couple of weeks about their likes and dislikes for choosing a spiritual and worshipping community. Then in a one to one metaphor elicitation technique session each participant engaged in a one hour to two hour image description probe. The purpose was to gather data on shared parish archetypes and core metaphors that allow for the development of a shared deeply felt parish spiritual identity.
The study is presently in stage two where we are connecting the lines between core metaphors by means of participant construction of collages. In stage three, we will then load these collages into digital program and present the findings to the congregation. We will then begin to construct the congregational narrative and target-seeker strategy. I am not able in this very short blog to outline the various core metaphors and narratives findings, but I will offer a few emerging findings.
1) It became apparent in the study that people find it easier to communicate what they dislike when selecting a particular Christian community and style of worship.
2) The most predominant core metaphor that has appeared is personal friendship. It appears that in a small parish the meaningful glue was the metaphor of the TV show Cheers, especially the phrase “Hi Norm.” New people are attracted to the parish because they sense the gentle presence of soul friends, as one participant found in the lyrics to the Cheers song, “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
3) If there is a metaphor that expresses how the congregation does not perceive itself, it is the church with the huge stage, electronic screen and over bearing electronic music. However, there were other metaphors that expressed delightful openness to more mellow modes of contemporary music. It appears that this congregation and the new members it is attracting are somewhat counter-cultural when it comes to electronic approaches to worship.
4) Several of the participants offered, what we named, “In Your Face” metaphors. There was a strong dislike for a congregational atmosphere that is overbearing with controversial issues either on the left or right of theological, ethical or social issues. Yet, there were many metaphors that stressed the need for the parish to reach out to the needy, especially persons and situations within the local community where the congregation is located. These were metaphors of a loving, compassionate touching of those in need.
5) It has become apparent during this study that there is most often a critical disconnect between the traditional theological language of the church and the unconscious longings of the soul for an inspiring and metaphoric language of the deep structures of the human mind where we hear the whispers of the soul in a small, spiritually intimate community.
6) Finally, I suggest a certain triangulation between this study and the study by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research, The Episcopal Church Center, “Congregation Size and Church Growth in the Episcopal Church.”.This study is a must read, but it demands a careful read. He clears up several misconceptions about what size of Episcopal churches grow and where we find promise for the future. Good analytical triangulation happens when we find touch points between qualitative and quantitative analysis. Hadaway’s work is highly reliable because it is an excellent work in descriptive statistics based on sound categorization. The conclusions seem to verify that there is a unique identity and promise in small congregations, “In general, the larger the congregation, the less likely to grow-except for the largest churches (those over 800 in average Sunday attendance). These very large churches have added substantially to the growth the Episcopal Church since 1995, but because they are very few in numbers they do not add as many attendees as churches with ASA of 100 or less…even though small churches are more likely to grow than larger churches, not all small churches are likely to grow. Small rural churches are most likely to decline and newer small churches are most likely to grow (especially those in new suburban areas). The typical Episcopal congregation has average Sunday attendance of 80 persons. It is the typical Episcopal Church that has been our primary source of growth during the last decade.”
This study indicates that there is something in the Episcopal cultural DNA that forms into small church growth. Perhaps it is the energy of the Cheers metaphor? Perhaps our tag line and brand identity is the metaphor of a spiritual home something like Ernest Kurtz describes it, “Home is ultimately, that place where we find the peace and harmony that comes from learning to accept the imperfections of others. Such a place, such a home, can exist in various settings, but its ultimate foundation rests jointly within self and within some group of trusted others. Some places are more conducive to this experience than others. But wherever and whenever we do attain that sense of being at home we experience a falling away of tensions, a degree of balance between the pushing and pulling forces of our lives.” (Kurtz, Ernest, The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 232)
In conclusion, we might say, “The parish home is where the heart is.”