Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What’s the Ideal Parish Size?

Photo of Skelton, North Riding of Yorkshire
Taken by Allen Barton at Vitrearum's Church Art Blog 
For years I’ve been interested in planting parishes and growing them. My deepest desire when I was in seminary was to plant a mission parish and grow it into a parish, staying there my entire ministry. Several parishes later and I still am attracted to that work. Consequently it ought not to surprise anyone that I’ve read several books about church growth and such. There is a lot of information in these studies that is helpful but I think they carry a peculiar cultural bias that I find  repugnant. All of these books have as their desire to turn every community into a mega-church. They often call these communities “Corporate churches,” which is part of what I find repulsive. Others call them “big box churches.”
What is the ideal size? We can certainly answer the question on several levels. First, let us approach it on a simply practical level. There are certain things that we want our parishes to have and that requires a certain number of parishioners to secure these things. For example, I think everyone wants to have a decent musical program. This will require the hiring of a part-time organist/choirmaster at the least. One will need to have at least 12 solid voices and sometimes this might require supplementing the choir with choral scholars (which are paid) for special feasts. A full-time priest is necessary for minimal parish life. A church building is pretty necessary if there is going to be a developed life with parish education and such. Practically, it is impossible to support even a simple parish with less than 150 or so active parishioners. This would mean the parish would have roughly 50 families and probably an annual budget of $100,000 to $120,000. I would call this the minimum size required to establish a relatively stable community.
Others like the huge churches because they can have large exciting programs. The youth programs are peopled with full-time staff, the church office may have two or three staff members. The music program may be larger with a full-time choir director and a full-time organist. A parochial school may be on site adding many more people who work at the church. As these sorts of programs and ministries increase, so must the size and income of the parish. These parishes can consist of 1,200 or more families.
There is a sense in which the size one prefers is not simply due to programs and such, but is cultural and I would suggest pastoral. Is it necessary for the priest to know all of his people on a first name basis? Is the priest to be primarily an administrator or pastor and teacher? If the parish truly wants the priest to be a pastor and a teacher in their midst, then there is an outside limit as to how many he can adequately care for personally. Most studies suggest that the outside limit to that is about 250 to 300 active parishioners. I personally prefer a parish around 250 or so. Otherwise the priest is little more than a combination administrator/sacramental pez dispenser.
I will whole heartedly admit to this being conditioned by my experience growing up in the Episcopal Church and in the Orthodox Church as a priest. But I think it extends further back too. And it is this distant past that I think may need to be brought forward to our consciences because I have an intuition that the loss of this is part of the fundamental loss of our cultural inheritance and has had disastrous consequences on our moral attitudes and beliefs.
All but a few of us are descendants of immigrants. Some have families who immigrated more recently, and some much further back. (The Winfrey’s came to the colonies from England to Jamestown in 1624.) Most of our ancestors came from a world that was primarily agricultural. The list of changes in our culture caused by the Industrial Revolution is long and tragic. The darkness of Charles Dickens’ works come to mind which describe the injustices of the Industrial age in Victorian England. There is a certain grittiness and sense of alienation that is part of the age. Industrialism has gave way to commercialism--which was equally depersonalizing, and this in turn has given way to a relativism that seeks to find personal meaning as individuals apart from community. It’s bound to fail, because individuals cannot exist apart from a community any more than communities can exist without a gathering of a collection of persons.
There was in the late 19th century a romantic notion of the agrarian society as being the noble society (I might suggest that the current green movement is no less a romanticized notion of civilization. It too is a utopian ideal, which as St. Thomas More who coined the word used, it means, “no where.” It’s a fantasy and illusion.) Yet behind even misguided movements there is often a little truth. The truth of this notion was not that society which is agricultural is more noble, but rather that communities that are fully integrated with each other are healthier and therefore have the capacity to act in noble ways.
Parish churches originally were geographically defined. Several hamlets may be joined together as one parish, or they may be joined to a villages parish. This parish was both sacred and secular in terms of governing and binding the people. Towns would have been divided into several parishes, with cities (properly called) having a cathedral as well as several parishes.
The loss of organic community through industrialization, of the division of Christendom into vying groups, and exaltation of one’s own individuality over community has been catastrophic. Christianity has not learned to function well as though it is a large corporation, because it is ultimately a real community of people joined in life before the Altar of Christ. The entire concerns of the parish (geographical area) are the concerns of the parish church. The essence of community is why I suggest that parishes ought to have something of a membership cap. Once parishes grow to over 500, they lose the character of communities and become corporate administrative units instead.
I would hope that we might look back to the source of our religious cultural experience and embrace what I would think of as a more vibrant and interconnected parochial life. Let our visions be directed more by the English parish church, than by the great French cathedrals as grand as they are. We need intimacy in our society now. We need to have the full experience of a healthy Christian community. The notions of Christianity as entertainment that are unspokenly advocated by the church growth movement will lead to bankruptcy and so many people will leave not just those communities, but Christianity altogether because they will not understand what it truly is.


  1. I've been researching Winfrey/Winfree for years. So far I have been unable to find a first Winfrey that came from anywhere to America. I'd be interested in any information you can share as to the family's origins and migrations. Probably a cousin...

    Jim Winfrey

  2. Proffesor Thomas O'Loughlin (now of Nottingham) performed an experiment once to see how many communicants could be communed based upon the size of extant early communion vessels. He also calculated the number of people early churches (France, Ireland, etc.) would have been able to hold. I think the number averaged about 120 persons with both experiments.

    This seemed to tie in with what I learned from my uncle (teaches at an Evangelical college) - that the average minister can effectively pastor about 120 souls (the number goes up for a man of great ability, but not up as high as 300 - certainly not to 1000.)

    PS - your ancestors were sure to have known my ancestors. We Adams were in Jamestown quite early. I think in 1624 we were still in Jamestown, though within a generation had moved south into 'Rogue's Harbour'. Enough that an ancestor was born in what would be the Carolinas in 1690. Bath, NC was built on our creek (Adams Creek, now Back Creek) - and we were associated with St. Thomas, Bath. Interesting that the first clergy in the area (SPG missionaries) were Messr's Gordon, Steele, and Adams.

  3. Ari,

    I'm not sure that basing parish size on the capacity of early chalices is a solid base from which to spring. Remember that until recently, very few parishioners actually received communion every Sunday which is why the canons required them to receive at least once per annum--usually on Pascha. This was the custom in both East and West.

    The older custom, as regards parish size to priest, really had to do with villages, towns and cities. A village had one parish for the entire place and often it only had one priest and a clerk (an, often non-ordained, assistant to help out with the chant of the offices and more). Medieval villages could reach up to about 1,000 residents. Towns were often divided into two or more parishes each with their own priest and clerk, and the same in cities with many more parishes.

    I can understand your uncles position, but I'm not sure that it guides what I've said either as the assumptions of what an evangelical clergyman does in a community v. what a priest does in pastoring a parish are not identical either. Not that less is required at all, but rather it is approached quite differently.

  4. Yes, Father - though I wasn't referring to looking for parish size based on archaeological measurements. I think the point was that in ancient times they had the same natural limits as we do now (that might be a human constant) - though I think Dr. O'Loughlin was not referring to Catholic parishes in the period from 12th-19th c. He was referring to the the size of parishes and liturgical implements before the 10th c. Of course, he has some assumptions - such that they took a full mouthful from the chalice, that the Host was of a larger size than the later wafers. (During the same talk, he pointed out that the rubric for scraping the corporal with the paten is a remnant of when the Roman rite used leavened bread.) I think Dr. O'Loughlin is with the Neo-Catechumenal Way - so, do what you will with it. Just offering what I've heard elsewhere. Not being prescriptive.

    I only offered Dr. Wakefield's position as it seemed to agree with Dr. O'Loughlin's conclusions (though coming from a total different approach to the same subject: pastoral care.)

  5. As someone who has had a bit of experience in two local mega-churches in Grand Rapids, I can readily attest to the lack of community in these and their transformation into a place to go to hear a sermon (like a lecture or inspirational talk) and very little bit of community. I used to go with my friends and leave with my friends like a movie theater.

    I heard from a lecture by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, who podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, that Willow Creek Church (in Chicago), one of the largest mega-churches in the nation, did a study which found that the members of their church which were most involved were also the people most leaving. This is definitely true for me. I was very involved in Mars Hill, a local mega-church, but eventually the very essence of what was being preached led me away from the church.

    On the other hand, I do believe that these mega-church "lecture halls" become "good soil" in which to field a lot of open ended questions that would never be whispered in the pews of traditional protestant churches (those that are left, at least, very few are, the LCMS, or ultra-Reformed, I think). In this sense, it provides for some (including myself when I was with them) a good place to question the essence the Protestant model and God willing, find some answers. There are many Orthodox converts from mega-churches. Perhaps because those churches gave them the context to really probe into these things like never before. This is the essence, I think, of what they call "emergent" Christianity. It has obvious flaws (and will inevitably destroy itself, as you said, Father, much faster than any other Protestantism before it probably), but it also has a benefit: there is no further place to schism, it cannot be divided anymore (unless people retreated to their homes, which they do do), and can only renounce the Faith altogether, or turn around and start moving backward towards the Church.

    Thank you, Father, for your thoughtful remarks.