February 10, 2010

Warning: This is long. It will seem irrelevant at first, but it gets interesting (I hope) below the fold.

EDIT:Val read it and she said it was definitely not interesting. Read at your own risk, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I love baseball. I always have and I always will. More specifically, I love the Seattle Mariners which is one of the least successful franchises in all of sports. The Mariners haven’t just been bad. Their badness has set records. Just two seasons ago, they set a record when they became the first team to ever lose 100 games and spend 100 million dollars on payroll. It was during this season where I took my love for baseball to new levels.

I desperately want to see the Mariners win a world series in my lifetime. Two years ago, it was apparent that the people running my favorite team were doing something very wrong. Thanks to a lucky google search I discovered a couple of blogs run by fans who wanted what I wanted. Only these guys were way ahead of me. They were evaluating the mariners in ways I had never considered, based on a system of statistical analysis called “Sabermetrics.”

The original Sabermetricians began by challenging conventional wisdom. They looked at the statistics that were used to evaluate players and asked, “Is there a better way we can do this?” There was a better way. Consider Earned Run Average (ERA). This statistic had been used for many years to evaluate pitchers. It is the average number of runs that a pitcher gives up in 9 innings. A good ERA was seen as 3, and a bad ERA was around 4.5 and above.

But there was a problem with ERA, and the sabermetricians were all over it. They noticed that there were other variables that determined a pitcher’s ERA that weren’t being considered, primarily defense. They made the obvious observation that if a pitcher had a better defense behind him his ERA would be much better. So they developed a series of statistics known as Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS). This series of statistics only factored in data that the Defense had nothing to do with; Home Runs, Walks, Strike outs, and hit batsmen (the statistics varied based on which weight they gave to each piece of data). I learned that the Mariners were spending millions on pitchers who had great ERAs, but very poor DIPS. Other teams who had begun to apply these statistics were spending much less on players with bad ERAs and good DIPS and getting much better results (they were winning more games).

ERA was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Conventional wisdom of every aspect of the game was under scrutiny. The more I read about these statistics, the more I became interested in how this knowledge could be applied to other things. Naturally, I wondered how it could be applied to the Church. I asked many questions. Can we judge whether or not a parish is successful? Which indicators have we been using to judge this? Are these good? Are there better indicators?

I have thought about these questions an awful lot, and I think I’ve gone as far as I can for now. The rest of this post is only my thoughts. I am not saying that this is what I’m going to do if, God willing, I am ordained and placed in a parish. I am not saying my thoughts are correct, either. At this point I consider them experimental. Theories might be a better word. So you shouldn’t see them as anything else. I’m merely floating them out there to see if anyone finds it interesting and to see if anyone has anything else to offer. Ideally, a Catholic sabermetrician will come along and help out. That probably won’t happen, though, but if you’re interested, click below the fold to read on…

Can we judge whether or not a parish is successful (or healthy or improving)? I think most would agree we can, although there would be much disagreement as to how we would determine that success and if there is any empirical data we could use. I believe there is empirical data we can use, although perhaps some will feel as though we should just be open to the spirit and not care about such things. What I’m not sure about, however, is whether or not we can compare parishes or whether or not we can merely judge whether or not a parish is “improving” or not. I would tend to lean towards the latter. I believe that there are things pastors can look at to try and improve their parish, but I don’t believe there is any data that can be used for them to say, “My parish is best” (nor should they).

Which indicators have we been using to judge success of a parish? There are many things that pastors and parishioners use to judge whether or not their parish is successful. The most obvious is Mass attendance. If pews are empty, most people would probably say that something is wrong. If the pews are packed, people would most likely say everything is wonderful. Another indicator is money. Whether or not people give (and how much they give) is probably going to indicate how much ‘ownership’ they feel of the parish. Although many would say that religion exists solely to “scare” people into giving up their hard earned money, the reality is that people do not give if they don’t want to. Still another indicator is how much participation there is in various parish programs and ministries. In my experience, this is the big one. A lot of bulletin space and homily time is used to try and increase the number of volunteers and lay ministers. One other area that most parishes look at (though rarely more than cursory observation) is demographics, particularly of people under 40. If they are missing, many people recognize that the parish could be better.

Are these indicators good? In short, sort of. Consider each one individually:

-Mass attendance: Mass attendance is good, but it is not perfect for a few reasons. One, is that many people do not attend for the right reasons. That might sound judgmental, but it seems true. For the first twenty years of my life I did not attend for the right reasons. I usually went because I was forced to attend. Sometimes, though, it was because I believed that it would score me points with God to let me into heaven, which is also not the right reason (because Catholics are not pelagians, who believe we can earn our own salvation. The fact is, we can’t). Some people never really grow out of this, unfortunately. Many attend because they feel like they can earn their way into heaven. Others, because their wife makes them attend. A reason I went to a non-denominational Church in college was to meet nice Christian girls, which is not a great reason either. There is some good in all of these reasons, but they are not perfect. So, Mass attendance can sort of tell us things, but it has its flaws, too. I think it should definitely be counted, but not relied on heavily to judge whether or not a parish is improving.

-Money: This one is actually better than Mass attendance I think, although its still not too good. I think improvement can be measured by increases in the percentage of parishioners who give (even if it’s a blank envelope) and increases in how much individuals give. I think this measures hope. People aren’t going to want to spend money on a sinking ship, but they will if they think it will improve their community in some way. It has its flaws as well, though. Some people give, unfortunately, because they think that their influence in the parish might increase. In other words, if a person gives a large amount of money to a remodel, they might feel as though they have more of a right to influence what that remodel will look like. This data should be counted and considered, but again, I don’t think its perfect.

-Youth Demographic: I believe this is an incredibly important indicator and should be weighed more heavily to any metric used to judge the vitality of a parish. I remember when I was in college and attended daily mass with some of my friends older parishioners would sometimes come up and say, “I haven’t ever seen anyone your age at daily mass before.” EVER! And I don’ think they were exaggerating. Young people bring hope to the Church, and when young people come out in large numbers morale in the parish across all demographics increases (at least in my observations… I have no empirical data to prove this). Consider Mars Hill Church, which I’ve previously blogged about. One blogger (link coming) says that by his estimation 80% (80 PERCENT!) of Mars Hill Churh is under age 40, and they are rapidly growing. I’d be willing to bet that every metric they use to measure their success increases right along with it.

-Participation in various ministries: I know many priests who use this metric as their be all and end all indicator of how vibrant their parish is. Although I respect these priests and consider them friends of mine, I think this one has the most limitations. The reason is simple, and its tied into the Youth Demographic. Some very holy and committed Catholics fall through the cracks, especially young families with children. I have some very close friends who are extremely faithful and devout who would not be seen as contributing to the vitality of the parish, if that vitality was measured by how much time they spend at their parish outside of mass. And, unfortunately, I believe that an unintended yet implied message is being sent to these young people which is that if they aren’t volunteering in a ‘ministry’ they are not good Catholics. When we send this message, we wind up alienating what I have argued to be our most important demographic (and I would suspect other indicators like Mass attendance and giving will go down as well).

Are there better indicators? If so, which should we use? If we could measure anything at a parish to judge whether or not we are successful at fulfilling the mission entrusted to us by Christ, it would be how many parishioners are entering into heaven. Unfortunately, we aren’t God, so we can’t measure this. But there are some things we can measure that can give us an indication of our success in our mission.

-Confession: I believe this is the most important indicator, because it directly pertains to salvation because the forgiveness of sins is involved. In confession, the penitent not only confesses their wrongdoings, but they confess to God’s mercy and his salvific work including his dying on the cross and rising from the dead. If numbers of confessions are going up, something is going extremely right in the parish. In my opinion, the actual number of confessions should be counted each week, simply by confessors keeping a tally in the confessional. This is easy to measure and easy to compare progress (although there will surely be plenty of statistical outliers like during Lent and Advent). There is also a big enough sample size that we can really glean some serious conclusions from data we collect.

-Adult Baptisms and Converts: This one is obvious and is usually kept, at least in the minds of pastors and RCIA directors. A priest I know once said the words, “People aren’t converted into the Church. They are loved into the Church.” Yeah, that’s sort of cheesy, but it is true. People become Catholic because they meet holy and vibrant people throughout the course of their ordinary lives. The more holy and vibrant parishioners there are, the more people they will come in contact with, and the more people they come in contact with, the more people will be loved into the Church. The main problem with this, though, is sample size. RCIA groups are typically small enough that the difference between 10 and 20 people really doesn’t give us much. I think you’d have to look at trends over longer periods of time to really guage this one well, and even then, conversion can take a long time to take hold. It is important, however, because baptism directly pertains to salvation because it is incorporation to the body of Christ and those being baptized confess to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and enter into his death and resurrection.

– Vocations. This one is extremely important although, again, we run into small sample sizes when we are dealing with this. It is true, though, that young people in every parish are being called to follow Christ into either the priesthood or the religious life (nuns and monks) and very, very few are responding. If a parish does have young people responding to this call, it is an indication that something is going right. Take for example the Texas A&M Newman Center, which has as many as 12 (TWELVE!) religious and priestly vocations each year. That is amazing, and it is evidence of a ‘successful’ ministry. As for why young people don’t answer the call, I think it is largely due to the fact that they don’t feel their parish wants them to be priests. I wish I didn’t believe that were true, but I think it is. I can honestly say that I have been looked at by some regular mass attending and money giving parishioners as some sort of a sexually deviant freak. I’m not the only seminarian who has been asked by a fellow parishioner (Catholic, mind you), “Why don’t you just become Episcopalian so you can get married?” That attitude isn’t helping, people. The fact is, vocations do not arise in parishes as a result of a rare or deviant virtue of an individual who happens to like Church. They arise because the culture of the parish is one that realizes their need for the mercy of God and the sacraments which Christ offers through his priesthood.

– Marriages of parishioners in the Church: I qualified this one as “parishioners” because there are some churches that have more marriages due to aesthetics. That’s certainly not wrong or bad, but it does skew our data an awful lot. The indicator works for the same reason that vocations to the priesthood and religious life work. Because Catholics are called not only to marriage, but a particular way of living life as a married person, and this needs to be appreciated and lived out by other married Catholics.

So that is really all. In summary, it is my theory that parishes should keep track of a few stats in order to gauge the effectiveness of the parish at continuing the mission of Christ. Mass attendance, money, and volunteers in parish ministries should be downplayed in favor of confessions, conversions, vocations, and involvement of young families, which give us a better indicator of a parish’s vitality. This data can be useful in helping priests spend their precious resources of time, which are already scarce. All resources of the parish need to be rationed, and perhaps, if I am correct, parishes will change their approach to some things. Not even I know, and I wrote this long thing. Congratulations to those of you who stuck it out. Please tell me where you think I screwed up or where you think I ignored something.



  1. I think you have some good points, however some other things factor in. If your parish happens to be in an area of town whose demographics are made up of seniors then you’re not going to have a lot of new vocations. Also, some people just don’t go to confession at their parish. I don’t, just because it’s less convenient.

  2. Yes, Val. Thats why I said that I don’t think we can or should compare parishes to each other. And yes, not all people go to their parish priest for confession, however the sample size of Catholics who should go to confession (which is every Catholic) is large enough that an outlier like that won’t effect greater trends.

  3. All great points. Regarding youth. We as a Church do a rotten job with youth. Saying”well we invest time and money into catholic education” does not cut it. I work in a public high school and let me tell you our Catholic youth are easy pickings for all the Evangelical groups who run great after school programs. One afternoon at the Protestant church playing basketball and eating pizza with your Protestant school buddys is sometimes all it takes for them to jump the Catholic ship. We need to start by admitting we as a Church are a failure in this area and we need to investigate and employ successful models.

  4. Jim: I agree completely. We’ve let a lot of people down, and sometimes when we think we’re doing a great service to the youth (by making everything hip) we really just embarrass ourselves and turn people away. I’ve been thinking about Youth Ministry an awful lot, and there is a good shot I’ll be posting something more in depth later. I’d appreciate more of your thoughts.

    Luckily, I’ve been around some great Youth Ministers who know the faith and can explain it well, but even having a great youth minister isn’t enough. There are a lot of other things that need to happen. I’m not sure I know what all those things are, but I have some ideas. Do check back, and thanks for your comments.

  5. Um…excuse me. I did not say it was “definitely not interesting!” Ha ha ha! Misquote!

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