It's not about the numbers. At least that's what priests will tell you even as they're totaling the Sunday attendance in their heads during the Epistle. Some clergy are obsessed with the numbers, as if their value in God's sight was directly related to the ir parish's Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). You'll be glad to know that mine isn't. I link my self-worth to the number of friends I have on Facebook.
Numbers are, of course, quantifiable. In a vocation where you sow more seeds than see tangible results, there's something comforting (or disconcerting) about the black and white quality of your ASA. While I've seen some clergy inflate their ASA like Vietnam body counts, most are as faithful and accurate as is humanly possible. I always figure if I'm slightly off, God knows the actual total and that takes the pressure off. The diocese gets as close to the truth as I can offer.
What you can't ever quantify is spiritual depth. You could count the number of programs offerred and balance it with attendance at, say, Bible Study or the Wednesday night Lenten series. Or come up with some other Bill James-like statistic for the back of your next clergy trading card. But this can never adequately tell the story of how many people have grown in their relationship with the risen Christ in the past twelve months.
I've been thinking about attendance figures as we sit on the cusp of another Program Year (generally post-Labor Day through Memorial Day, although I generally push it out through mid-June). Like most parishes we see a major surge in attendance on that first Sunday after Labor Day. The kids are back in school, families return to their regular routines, the choir returns, Sunday School starts, and everything cranks back up.
The problem with the ASA is that it doesn't take the Program Year into consideration. As much as I try to bang the drum about Summer attendance (and will continue to do so), it drops. Dramatically. And thus, the 12-month ASA figures don't tell the full story.
I propose that parishes offer more than just that single number as we try to determine just how many people attend church on an average Sunday. In addition to ASA, I'd like to see churches also share their PYASA (program year average Sunday attendance). This would give a better picture of what each church looks like during the church "season" (recognizing that God never takes a vacation from us).
Not every parish's Program Year is the same. Attendance trends at a church on Martha's Vineyard during the summer would look very different from the average parish whose numbers drop. And a parish with minimal summer dropoff may be doing some creative things to keep people in the pews. Such data may also shift among wealthier communities where more families, presumably, can spend significant time away whether on vacations or at summer homes.
Out of curiosity I tracked these numbers at my own parish, St. John's in Hingham, Massachusetts. St. John's is an affluent community on Boston's South Shore. In addition to the summer dropoff, there's a "ski factor." A good number of families rent or own seasonal ski houses and spend most winter weekends out of town. There are people I literally only see two seasons out of a given year. For this reason I've broken it down even further. The Winter ASA mirrors ski season -- the Sunday after Christmas through mid-March (12 weeks). In New England, winter attendance is also affected by those weekend snow storms which also impact Sunday attendance.
This is all just a measure of my own curiosity and needing some "labor" on this Labor Day weekend to keep me off the streets. So here goes:
2010 ASA: 222
2010-2011 PYASA: 251
2010-2011 WASA (Winter ASA): 198
So maybe it is about the numbers. At least to a degree. We all hope to grow our parishes not for our own egos (in parish ministry bigger is not better; bigger is simply different). But the main motivation for growth is to bring more people to know the power and peace that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts or see your figures if you calculate this at your own parish. Who knows? Maybe we'll learn something. And if not, it's been kind of fun.