My guess is that most priests, when speaking of their seminary training, would say that very little, if any, time was spent in teaching or forming them to be a successful chief executive officer or business manager. This is certainly true for me. Yet, a significant percentage of my time is spent dealing with budgets, handling employee issues, and other administrative matters. Every year our parish files a parochial report and stewardship summary. These reports are, as a colleague of mine likes to say, focused on “nickels and noses.” We report the annual income, number of pledges, pledged amount, the number of members, new members, members who left, average Sunday attendance, and the number of Eucharists, daily offices, baptisms, weddings, funerals.
The business model of profit and loss has in many ways infiltrated the church. This is evident in the reporting requirements described above. It can be seen whenever the efficiency of Robert’s Rules of Order takes precedence over prayer and discernment. Sometimes the gospel truth is spoken softly, if at all, to avoid angering parishioners and losing attendance or pledges. The reality is numbers matter. While most priests and bishops would probably agree that numbers do not tell the complete story, the underlying and often unspoken assumption is that the larger the numbers the more successful the ministry. The numbers may be growing but are the people growing? Isn’t that the real question? Perhaps we should be asking what theosis, union with Christ, looks like in the parish and how is it manifested in the lives of our parishioners?
I am not suggesting that we disregard giving and attendance numbers. Those numbers are important and can offer useful information but can they or should they be the ultimate basis for establishing conclusions about the success of a priest’s or parish’s ministry when the aim of the priestly art, according to St. Gregory Nazianzen,
is to provide the soul with wings to rescue it from the world, and to present it to God. It consists in preserving the image of God in man, if it exists; in strengthening it, if it is danger; in restoring it, if it has been lost. Its end is to make Christ dwell in the heart through the Spirit, and, in short, to make a god sharing heavenly bliss out of him who belongs to the heavenly host.
St. Basil the Great says that the priest, as the shepherd of people, is to nourish them with doctrine, water them with living water, raise them up and nurture them until they produce fruit, and finally guide them to rest and safety. This is about more than nickels and noses. It means nothing less than a change of heart, a new level of consciousness in which people enter a new world, expand their horizons, and accept a new set of meanings. This change of heart is ultimately the choice to grow.
Growth is the ultimate criterion by which a true ministry to persons is measured. Spiritual growth is situated in striving for wholeness or holiness within oneself, and in one’s relationships to God and others. It does not merely refer to a process of intellectualization, an inherent mental capacity, or emotional maturation. It cannot be limited to facts in any shape or form. How then do we measure spiritual growth?
Simple numerical analysis of Sunday attendance and giving, though significant, is not the ultimate indicator of growth. The critical question is not how much money was collected or how many people showed up but rather, how effectively did we transform and affect lives. How well did we create what St. Basil called “the disposition,” the atmosphere, the environment, the ethos in which to cultivate and activate humanity’s tendency toward spiritual development and communion?
To the extent these questions can be answered the answers will be more qualitative than quantitative. We will need to look for evidence of growth over a period of time. More often than not we realize growth in ourselves or another only in retrospect. Such evidence might be found in asking the following:
- How is your life of prayer? What is it like today? How has it changed over the last year, five years?
- What is your participation in the sacraments and worship both quantitatively and qualitatively? Is your experience different now than it was three years ago? How?
- Describe your study of scripture, theology, spirituality? What are you reading? What are you learning?
- Do you participate in spiritual direction?
- How are you involved in outreach and social justice ministries? How has this changed? Where and how are compassion being expressed and manifested?
- Where and how much money do you give to ministry within and outside the church? Do you tithe? Are you progressing toward a tithe?
- Reflect on your marriage and family life, work life, and other relationships in light of the gospel and the life of Christ. In what ways are those relationships growing, deepening, changing?
- Where in your life is reconciliation taking place?
I offer these not as “the criterion” but simply as a way to begin thinking, and talking about how we might recognize and measure spiritual growth in the lives which God has entrusted to us. We do this not for ourselves but for those we are pastoring. It is a necessary part of our care for them and our obedience and faithfulness to God.