By Ed Thompson

If I could go back and talk to my younger, college-age self, I would say, among other things, “You really ought to take a course in statistics.” My younger, college-age self, being somewhat pigheaded (probably closer to my current, older self than I care to admit), would probably respond by saying, “Why would I want to do that?”

I’m not sure of the source of that reluctance. I have always liked statistics. I have enjoyed pouring over baseball batting averages and earned run averages since I was a child. I have been intrigued by some of the newer, more analytical baseball statistics like wins above replacement. Although to be fair, some of the other, more recent baseball statistics like fielding independent pitching make my eyes glaze over.

I will somewhat sheepishly admit that one of the best days of the year for me, almost like a holiday, is the day I get to see the results of the Annual Statistical Reports filled out by each church. It doesn’t rank up there with Christmas or Easter, but I’m more excited about that day than I am St. Patrick’s Day or Groundhog Day. Those may be legitimate holidays, but while I mark them, I don’t really get excited about them. I do get excited to see the number of members each church has.

The results of this past year’s report contain good news and bad news. The good news is that 13 of our churches gained members in 2021. The bad news is that 53 of our churches lost members. Overall, we have 375 fewer members at the end of 2021 than we did at the end of 2020. In terms of the presbytery budget, that means we will have $7,027.50 less to work with next year (375 members x $18.74 per member). That’s not necessarily a lot of money, but it’s also not an insignificant amount.

In some ways, it was a good year. From 1987 when this presbytery was formed and there were 23,889 members on the rolls to 2021 when we ended up with 6,351 members on the rolls, our churches have lost an average of 516 members a year. If we keep up that average, there will be no Presbyterians left in a little over 12 years. On the other hand, if we could limit our losses to an average of 375 members per year, we would be able to stick around for about 17 more years.

That’s where a better understanding of statistics would be helpful. Part of the losses we have experienced is due to congregations leaving the denomination. Part of them is due to churches closing. There should be a way to take those differences into consideration. I don’t know how to do that. (Or maybe I do know, and it’s more work than I’m willing to do.) Nevertheless, I’m thinking that a better understanding of statistics would give me a better understanding of these trends.

Still, we have 13 churches that gained members last year, and again, that’s good news. It becomes better when we recognize that 7 of those churches are larger than the median – which remains at 26 members for another year – and 6 are smaller than the median. These churches are scattered throughout the presbytery. All that gives me hope that it’s possible for any church and realistically for every church to gain members. You could argue that gaining members is not and should not be our goal, and to a certain extent, I agree. We don’t want to become so obsessed with numbers that we forget or ignore that we are called to share God’s love and to care for one another. On the other hand, if we continue to ignore these trends, our churches will continue to lose members, some will chose to close, and as a result, the work of the presbytery will be even more limited in the future.

What can we do? I think first of all we need to pray. We can ask God what we need to focus on and what we need to be doing differently. If we keep doing the same things, we will get the same results. When we look at those results, most of us probably need to ask ourselves what has become known as the Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working for you?” Honestly, for most of us, it’s not working really well. We may be content, even self-satisfied (also known as complacent), but I wonder if – and probably doubt that – we are being faithful. Maybe each church could set a goal of overall adding two more members a year. I say overall because for most churches in most years there are also going to be at least a few deaths. Two more members a year seems like a pretty low bar, but if every church met it, we would have 240 more members a year. Even if we only added 120 members a year, that’s still better than losing 516 or 375 members a year.

I hesitate to ask churches to set a goal of adding two more members a year. It’s hard enough to keep the doors open. But I think it’s time to take a hard look at what we’re doing. At least consider what you need to be doing differently. And definitely, definitely, begin to pray for guidance about what that might look like in your situation.