IT IS clergy numbers that are associated with the likelihood of church growth or decline, rather than the number of churches in a benefice, new research suggests.
Going Deeper: Church attendance statistics and clergy deployment, by the Revd Dr Fiona Tweedie, a minister in, and the Mission Statistics Co-ordinator for, the Church of Scotland, builds on her 2014 report Stronger as One, which argued that there was no “simple ‘straight-line’ pattern” that linked decline in church growth with more churches in a benefice.
Stronger as One was disputed by the Revd Dr David Goodhew (Letter, 24 October, 2014) who, in an earlier report for the Church Growth Research Programme, had concluded that “the fewer the number of churches that an incumbent oversees, the more likely that those churches are to grow. . . The overall trend is that amalgamating churches encourages them to decline.” He concluded that: “Amalgamating churches has been, all too often, an exercise in managing decline, in kicking the ecclesial can down the road. It does not solve the problem of decline and it tends to make decline worse.”
Dr Tweedie has used a larger data-set, and has taken into account a range of “fixed factors”. She concludes that geographical location has a significant impact on the likelihood of growth or decline, but that benefice structure does not. Growth is highest in a large urban conurbation, but parishes in towns show significantly greater decline than parishes in other areas over ten years. Other findings are that, particularly in urban areas, population increase has a positive effect on church attendance. In urban areas, larger congregations are more likely to grow than smaller ones, but the reverse is true in rural areas.
The summary note concludes: “An increase in the number of clergy over time is associated with a greater likelihood of there being attendance growth. A decrease in clergy is associated with the greater likelihood of there being a decline in attendance growth. The number of clergy per parish is associated with a greater likelihood of there being attendance growth. . . It is changes in clergy resource rather than benefice structure which are associated with the likelihood of growth or decline, albeit that reductions in clergy resource are often implemented through the amalgamation of parishes.”
The percentage of parishes in multi-parish benefices has increased from 17 in 1960 to 71 in 2011. Amalgamations and team ministries now constitute two-thirds of parishes, and tend to be found in rural areas. The summary note does acknowledge “problems” with multi-parish benefices, including the burden of administration and challenging of managing several buildings. It notes that diary studies of clergy working in a multi-parish context suggested “a slightly more negative experience for such clergy, such as a greater experience of doing things out of guilt, experiencing fewer positive events during the week, and more time spent on travelling”. It suggests four possible ways forward: carrying out amalgamations “in a way that intentionally seeks to facilitate mission and growth”, focusing instead on “church revitalisation and church planting”, focusing on a “hub” within an amalgamation, and increasing the number of clergy.