Before going to choir rehearsal this morning, I looked in on the 8:45 service. I counted 21 people in the pews—rather spread out from one another in a typical Episcopalian fashion, I might add—only one of whom was a child at this service that is supposed to be the “family service.” From my seat in the choir, I had a hard time getting an equivalent count at the 10:30 service, but there seem to have been about 65 worshipers in the pews. Additionally, lots more people were involved in putting on the 10:30 service; there were 22 choir members alone.
What is my point here? Simply put, I contend that the current 8:45 service is an unmitigated failure. People are avoiding it in droves.
Perhaps people don’t like the time of the early service. That seems unlikely. When St. Paul’s had an 8:30 and a 10:45 service, the services were similar, but the earlier service, like the present 8:45 service, was designed to be briefer. The concern of the church at that time was that the 10:45 service, despite its richer liturgical content, was attracting fewer and fewer worshipers, whereas attendance at the earlier service kept growing. The obvious conclusion is that a large number of parishioners prefer an earlier service. They also want a relatively mainstream Episcopal service, however, and they are willing to give up their time preference to avoid the band and eclecticism provided by the current early offering.
Why haven’t we given up on the disastrous experiment that is the present 8:45 service? Because, I suggest, this is the rector’s baby, and it is embarrassing to admit to having made a mistake. (In his defense, I should say that the rector may not believe he has made a mistake.)
What is worrisome is that the Refuge service is being initiated in the same way as the 8:45 service. The service does not come as the result of parishioner demand. The rector first brings in musicians to give us a glimpse of the coming attraction. He doesn’t ask what people think or try to achieve widespread buy-in. Instead, he forms a committee of supporters to plan the service and moves forward despite significant skepticism within the parish.
The questions about the Refuge service are legion:
- Are parishioners behind this service? I see no evidence of it.
- What are the competitors? (We’ve been told that there is nothing like this service in Pittsburgh. There are certainly services enough like it to be a threat, however. Where are they and how much of a threat are they? Television and sports may be a bigger threat, of course.)
- Where is the market research supporting Refuge? Who is the audience, and where is it coming from? How do we expect worshipers to get to St. Paul’s on a Sunday evening?
- Where is the cost-benefit analysis for the service? It may be unreasonable to expect the church to make Refuge into a profit center, but could the money spent on the service be put to better use? Could clergy time devoted to the service be put to better use? Apparently, we are doing a poor job of pastoral care—the proposed campaign looks to spend more money on that item—so perhaps the clergy time expended on Refuge would better be spent visiting parishioners in distress.
- What intended or unintended effects will Refuge have on St. Paul’s and on other Episcopal churches in the diocese?
- By what criteria will we conclude that Refuge is a success or failure? Judging from our experience with the 8:45 service, I suspect that the very existence of the service will be taken as a sign of its success.