Filing an annual parochial report is a constitutional expectation of every congregation in the ELCA. It is an opportunity to be accountable to the community and to the wider church how certain aspects of the ministry of a congregation can be measured. Of the various things that are asked to be reported is weekly worship attendance. In an era in which membership in institutions is less valued this number, weekly worship attendance, has become far more relevant in accessing the trends of a congregation’s life and also its potential for future growth and sustainability.
For many years I have advocated that the ELCA parochial report needed to include a space for reporting online worship participants. Many congregations across our church and in NT-NL have been live-streaming and archiving worship services for individuals and communities to participate in the liturgy at their convenience or from distance. Several of our congregations now have followings online whose only connection to a worshiping community is through that online experience.
Congregations have, because of this, begun to report in their worship attendance figures these online participants. This is why the ELCA parochial report needed to be revised. Statistics and trends become meaningless when there is not consistency. So when congregations who count online attendees are reporting numbers in the same space as those only counting in-person worship attendees (despite many of them having online presence) change is needed.
But to make that change a standard of counting is also needed. This is why the new parochial report will be helpful. In that report the traditional number of attendance will remain and be for in-person worship. There will then be a line for online participation. That of course begs the question of how to count those online attendees. How much engagement in watching a broadcast indicates attendance? Certainly a 3 second Facebook “view” does not count the same as someone who watches the entire service. And given that many people may watch on the same device is there a multiple needed for unique engagements?
The ELCA office of the secretary has decided that for the parochial report form they will ask congregations to take the number of unique views and multiply by 2. This assumes on average the number of people engaged in a unique view is 2. There is much debate over this number and if it is accurate. Some would argue that each unique view should simply be reported as a 1. Others advocate for something in the range of 1.2-1.4X the unique views. Others for numbers as high as 3-4X assuming that small groups are gathering to watch the service together and as such 10 or more people would be under-counted by a significant number. Also length of view matters. Facebook can give you some metrics on how long individuals watch. Pay services like Boxcast and Re-stream can give you even more information. However, again, there is no universally established standard for how you measure engagement.
So what should we do? In conversation with several of our pastors here in NT-NL with significant experience in the live-stream online worship experience I have received a lot of information. That information has been supplemented by conversations with bishops and larger church pastors in multiple denominations as well as articles from church leadership consultants and full-communion partners. Here is what I have learned. No one actually knows what number is accurate. Some simply state it as “X number of households.” Others have polled those watching to get a figure. However, those polls require the response of the participant and, as anyone who has taken a general statistics class knows, are skewed towards the more committed. As such this is my counsel for 2020 for our communities who have not already set their standards.
- Learn how to read the metrics from the platforms you are using. Facebook, as the most common resources, gives you good information. Pay services will give you more.
- Don’t count any views less than 10 seconds. Those are folks scrolling by and while it might feel great to have 500 views that doesn’t mean engagements.
- Find ways to connect with those viewing. If using a social media platform engage them during the stream. The number of unique comments on a post can give you a sense of engagement. A Facebook video with 500 views might have 10 or 15 unique comments supplemented by 40-60 comments generated by your engagement. That is important information.
- Offer ways for folks to get more connected who are viewing. Provide links for them to click and give contact info, make a gift to the ministry, or make a prayer request.
- Most important, be consistent!!!
While the multiply unique views by 2 rule will overestimate significantly the actual number of individuals the most important thing is to be consistent. If you have not already established protocols you are using to report online attendance I expect you to follow the ELCA’s guidelines on this as published in this document. If you have been tracking online attendance as a part of you annual worship attendance number for the past years I would appreciate you communicating that to us so we can have appropriate changes made to parochial reports. For this to have any statistical validity consistency will be key. Don’t change your way of calculating year over year as that will render trends, which are the most valuable piece of statistical information, meaningless.
Finally, why all this time spent on numbers? We spend time on these numbers because each of these numbers represents a person. When we were counting in-person attendance this was simple. That human body occupied a place in our sanctuary for a time each week. We have now entered a new realm where online engagement with faith communities will grow and I believe eventually become the way a majority of people get most of their connection to their community. These are God’s beloved people and it is our call to engage them. It is also essential we are honest with ourselves and accountable to one another to report our trends of engagement. It helps us measure what is effective in ministry and is an issue of stewardship in where we spend our time and resources.
I look forward to seeing these new reports from this year of 2020. If you have questions please call my office and I would be happy to discuss this and provide further resources.