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Maggi Durran: Diocese in the numbers game

29 June 2012

In our diocese, there is an increasing emphasis on numbers and attend­ance, and on counting what we achieve. The process is logical, but disquieting: it seems to have little to do with the gospel.

WHEN people start operating on the basis of numbers, there seems often to be an agenda of cuts. Govern­ments, boroughs, and all sorts of agencies used this kind of yardstick 20 years ago. But, like the Big Society, it is often a poorly disguised sticking plaster over the prospect of swinge­ing cuts.

In the late 1990s, the voluntary sector began to recognise - led by the Big Lottery - that quantity does not equal quality. In depth, but fewer, may be just as valuable as many.

The language now used by charities is that of "outcomes" and "beneficiaries": in outcomes, we measure the good that is happening in people's lives; and in the bene­ficiaries, we measure the variety of people, as well as numbers. In this scenario, there is a leaning towards the poor, the left-out, the dependent, and the disadvantaged: those in our culture who need support.

How would we measure the outcomes of our churches? Out­comes are measured by regularly reporting the impact of our activity in people's lives through anecdote, questionnaires, progress in edu­cation or training, ability to cope, friendships made, confidence, and so on. This could, of course, translate to church settings, with a little work to find out what qualities we want to measure, and the creation of the means to measure them.

And how do we evaluate the quality of people's Christianity? We ask them. Spending 40 years with your life built around your faith and your fellow Christians accrues experi-ence and wisdom, the ability to cope with downs as well as ups, and with death as well as life. A death in the family is understood as part of our journey, just as much as a birth. There is a depth of faith and faith­fulness which can be recorded, but not easily counted.

Life commitment? A congregation of 15 may have members with 400 years of church commitment be­tween them, and may have almost as many years in engagement and volunteering. A congregation of 60, of whom one third are children, may have far fewer years of commitment and understanding.

It is great when new people be­come Christians and church mem­bers, but we need the old lifetimers to model faith and faithfulness, to share experience and coping, and to be stalwart and supportive during adversity. They help to avoid a fair-weather faith that is shallow and transient.

If tempted by the need to make financial sense, let us not just use simple numbers. When I was a vicar, the average giving among my impoverished congregation was just over two per cent, although with an average income of £100 per week that was a great sum. The diocese was aiming for five per cent.

The richest parishes in the outer-London commuter belt were aver­aging something like £6 per member, but, with an average weekly income that was nearer 0.02 per cent of income, who were the most generous givers?

I could list the parables of mites, lost sheep, lost coins, and all the rest. Yes, dioceses do need to make financial sense, but they have to apply the principles of the Gospels, not just numbers, even though we live in a different world from Jesus's. The present methods tend to use a sledgehammer to crack the weakest, and give to the noisiest. Let us push for a better wisdom.

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