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Re-Envisioning the Parochial Report

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I begin with a huge confession: one of the benefits of being a bishop is not having to fill out the annual Parochial Report form. In my 20 years as a parish priest, it was the yearly accounting I looked forward to least. And compared to today, looking back, I realize we had it easy. The four-page document printed in quadruplicate seems primordial compared to the current eight-page document that is filled out and submitted online.

Recently, a friend serving a parish in Baltimore described a Zoom parish meeting for the purpose of discussing what to put in the “narrative” section of the 2020 Parochial Report. This roused my curiosity enough to have me seek out—online, of course—not only the report form, but also the instruction booklet. That’s when I really gasped. The instruction booklet went from four pages in 2019, to 27 pages in 2020, leading me to think that I’d rather work on my taxes. Yet the questions, in the narrative section in particular, were surprisingly prescient and helpful as the Church grows into a new future.

  1. What were the primary opportunities, innovations and challenges in conducting worship during the pandemic? What did you learn?
  2. What are the primary opportunities and challenges your church is facing as it plans for the future?
  3. What three things have changed the most in how the church conducts its ministry?

It may sound a bit cynical, yet one of the not-so-obvious benefits of our being forced into isolation by the pandemic, is that the Episcopal Church has been dragged into the 21st century, technologically speaking. Without the pandemic, the practices of live-streaming worship, Zoom meetings, webinars, podcasts, and a host of other tools would be rare rather than commonplace. The necessity of networking has given us new partnerships the world over. Online Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline have infused a fresh appreciation of liturgies of the Word. Lay ministers have stepped into roles that were rare to non-existent previously. And the designers of the Parochial Report—the House of Deputies’ Committee on the State of the Church, intentionally comprised of younger members of the church—have given us the gift of changing some of the metrics, and encouraging a more collaborative process. Clergy, Vestry and Staff are encouraged to participate in answering these questions. (page 6 of the 2020 form)

Not only that, but there are separate sections on Racial Justice and Reconciliation; Languages in which worship is conducted; and Outreach Ministries and Volunteer Activity of this Congregation. These sections help the Parochial Report reflect more fully the life of the Church and motivate us all to reenvision it. Who knew that the Parochial Report offered such gifts? Who guessed that this annual exercise might provide some signposts of growth? How could I have ever predicted that I would write an article extolling the benefits of the Parochial Report? Perhaps the best way to sum it all up has already been written in the instructions for responding to the narrative questions:

In order to help congregations, dioceses, and the whole Church tell the story of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, congregations are asked to provide narratives reflecting on the opportunities and challenges of this time, how the congregation has responded and is looking ahead. Please collaborate with congregational leadership in writing these narratives.

Let me hear an AMEN!