I love being a pastor. There are some awesome perks – like leading God’s people in worship, having dinner at people’s homes, and being a visible advocate in the community. Although challenges abound, this is a vocation dedicated to loving and serving all of God’s people.
That is, except for one document that comes out in the beginning of each year: the parochial report.
I like administration – my office is usually tidy, records are kept in good order, and I tend to get things done long before their deadline. Yet the parochial report is a document which comes from the seventh circle of hell.
This is the yearly report, sent to the Bishop’s office, outlining how many members have been gained and lost, and how much money has been received and spent. It’s not as patronizing as it sounds – the Diocese and Synod offices really need to know where congregations are and what they’re doing.
Yet in spite of its good intentions, the parochial report forces congregations to remember who they were and forget who they are.
This is for two reasons. First, many congregations see a statistical decline year after year, and let’s face it – humans are motivated by statistics. Second, it gives us the false hope that we can define who is a member of the body of Christ.
Sure, the Canons include language about “Parish Members in Good Standing,” and the Constitution defines “Voting Membership.” After all, we are a non-profit organization with legal and ecclesial requirements. And those requirements create classes within the ekklesia.
The gospel is full of liberation stories – liberation from economic injustice, hunger, oppression. And, I’d argue, liberation from the parochial report.
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
While preaching to the crowds – all those who followed Jesus, or maybe those who witnessed some miraculous sign and wanted to learn more – someone interrupts Jesus and says “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside.”
Or, in parochial report terms, “Look, Jesus, I know you’re spending time on outreach and evangelism, but the members of this congregation – y’know, those who have contributed at least once within the last calendar year and who attend at least half of the principle celebrations of the Eucharist – they need your attention first.”
Well, unafraid of any ecclesial sanctions or discipline, Jesus responds like any millennial pastor would: “Who’s a member of this congregation? Anyone who shares the gospel is a member of this congregation!”
Let me interject here. This post isn’t a passive-aggressive attack on the Church’s ecclesial structure and requirements. And no offense is meant to my friends and colleagues in the episcopate. I respect the traditions of the holy catholic and apostolic Church. I’m simply suggesting that the old definition of “membership” no longer works. Instead of remembering who we were, we must re-member who we are.
The question of membership is a very divisive one. And it has real-life implications. There are people who worship every week, and yet, according to the “rules,” they are not members. For many months a resident of a local homeless shelter worshiped in my congregation – in fact, he had better attendance record than some regulars. And yet, according to the “rules,” he was not a member. Those are two examples, but they are not the only examples.
The fact is, we cannot define the body of Christ.
I stand at every celebration of the Eucharist and say, “whether you are a first-time visitor or a long-time friend, you are welcome in this place.” But that doesn’t change the fact that the Church is institutionally-minded, and we would rather remember who’s in than re-member who’s out. And some people are seen as first-class citizens while others will never be more than sojourners.
It’s time for the Church to hear Jesus’ words. It’s time for us to change the inward-focused mentality. It’s time for us to see all people as a part of the body of Christ. And yes, it’s time for us to 86 the parochial report.
Because it’s time for us to be re-membered.