Lao-tzu, as he begins the Tao Te Ching, says that the Way (Tao) that can be accounted for, or explained, is not the real Way. Remember how Jesus used parables, and only parables, to express the deepest concepts behind the Christian life? As I practice my craft of photography, I am surrounded by numbers. F-stop, shutter speed, and length of lens are recorded in the file of each image. I often review these statistics to see if I am handling my camera the way that I should. This work of the thing, is not the same process as the pursuing of light. If any of the numbers are off, I may fail to capture this or that image.
Simone Weil said, “A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.” Fortunately, many church leaders know their church’s image is not her reality. Well to do, suburban, congregations often are deluded into believing that their church’s charismatic pastor and modern facilities makes it a great church. Intuitive and theologically aware church leaders know that the congregation’s mission, hope, and strength, lie elsewhere.
Every good, or should I say, surviving pilot watches their altimeter. The very definition of flying involves being above the ground, and the very definition of being a church involves having a number of people in the pew. In an airplane, the number of feet above sea level is a statistic, a number which we are glad someone is watching. In the church, the number of people actively in worship, is also an important statistic. Some airplanes have a smaller gauge beside the altimeter labeled “rate of climb” (it also measures how fast you are falling). Churches, especially small churches, need to be aware of how quickly they are gaining or losing worshipers.
In last week’s blog I speculated on how productivity varies over the thirty odd year career of the average clergy person. Let us be blunt; the United Methodist church, and other mainline denominations, are moving towards a system that reduces professional productivity down to one factor, the capacity to add members or grow a church (sometimes called ‘metrics’). Elsewhere I have cautioned that we need to read this as an institutional concern, which may have little correlation to God’s calling on a particular pastor’s life or the God-given vocation of the church that they are serving.
The life cycle of a congregation is often described a bell curve, mapping out membership growth over time. Martin F. Saarinen (The Life Cycle of a Congregation -Alban.org), and others, chart how a congregation is born with enthusiasm, has significant yearly growth for a decade or so, enters into a long period of stability, then falls into decline, leading in time to death. My first response to seeing this curve was to ask, what about Canterbury Cathedral? Obviously there are outliers, that is churches whose lifespan is so unexpected that it skews the chart.