Thursday, March 3, 2011

Quantifying Outreach

There is some distress in the congregation that St. Paul’s supports no outreach from its general funds. This is not to say that the parish does no outreach. Feeding people at Shepherd’s Heart doesn’t show up in our financial statement, for example, because the labor and food involved are contributed by parishioners directly. One cannot deny that this is serious outreach, however. Various fund raising events have resulted in donations to such organizations as Habitat for Humanity and the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. Parishioners also contribute money to organizations such as Episcopal Relief and Development and United Thank Offering.

In other words, we are more generous than we seem to be if all one looks at is the Operating Fund Revenues and Expenses in the annual report. The way we account for income and expenditures, however, makes it difficult to quantify outreach from St. Paul’s, particularly because outreach to the likes of Shepherd’s Heart does not appear at all. Nonetheless, it would be interesting if someone would total up all the outreach that can be accounted for, even if it does not flow through the Operating Fund. (One could generate a figure from the annual report, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Alas, the pie chart that occasionally crops up in St. Paul’s publications only represents the Operating Fund. It shows that we give 15% of our money for outreach, but this is actually “mandatory outreach,” which is to say, no outreach at all. It is basically church overhead, being made up of our diocesan assessment and the payment to the Growth Fund needed to obtain loans from the fund. (See “Report from the Treasurer Q&A.”) Actual outreach in that pie chart should be shown as 0%.

The complaint that our parish does little outreach got me thinking of what we do or have done or might do that could be construed as outreach. For example, we used to sell snacks to children after school. I don’t know if we made money on this enterprise, but we were certainly showing the flag and giving an opportunity for the kids to interact is meaningful ways with the staff. That, I think, was outreach.

Other activities are not so clear. I have been inclined to consider events such as organ recitals as outreach, sharing our magnificent instrument and visiting organists with the community. I’m not so sure that this belongs in the same category as feeding the hungry, although it may address a certain spiritual need. Likewise, allowing outside groups—various support groups come immediately to mind—to use our building is outreach, although we don’t account for it as such. Arguably, this is just what churches do, but some churches clearly do more than others, and to call it outreach doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch.

Such considerations led me to ask a question I had not asked before. Certainly, worship services are not outreach in the sense that the church usually uses that term. What about a service like Refuge, however? Is it just another worship service, one of those things churches do? Or is it outreach to an under-served population, perhaps even to the unchurched? I don’t really have an answer to that question. Lou has emphasized that we have many services that address different tastes—I’m not sure that’s the word he would use—and Refuge, like the 8:45 service, is one item on the St. Paul’s worship menu. Most of the people who attend the Refuge service seem to be parishioners who see Refuge as offering a different worship experience at what for them is a convenient time.

On the other hand, perhaps Refuge really does represent outreach. If it does, we can be excused from missing that fact, since we never really got a proposal for what the service was supposed to do or how its impact was to be evaluated. I find it difficult to distinguish Refuge from, say, the 8:45 service, as we marketed the services in much the same way, even though we spent more money on Refuge. But Refuge really is different, and, whether or not it is attracting a very different demographic from our other services, I think it is at least intended to do so.

The question about Refuge is important because our parish—any parish, in fact—has to set priorities. Supposedly, when diocesan funds for Refuge run out, if Refuge is to continue, the parish will have to finance it 100%. At that point, if we see Refuge as just another worship service, no matter how innovative, we have to ask if we can really afford to have six weekend worship opportunities, some of which attract few worshipers. If we see Refuge as outreach, we have to ask if money on Refuge as outreach is well spent, or whether our limited outreach funds—presently $0, in fact—should go to supporting Refuge or to supporting the likes of Habitat for Humanity or the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank.

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