Thursday, April 29, 2010

DOR Spin

Fr. Bill Spilly at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Hamlin attended the most recent diocesan Priests' Council meeting.  The subject of DOR's ongoing decline in Mass attendance was on the agenda and Fr. Spilly is now relaying the information he received to his parishioners ... 

At the last meeting of the Priests' Council with Bishop Clark, a report was given about the decrease in Mass Attendance in the Diocese of Rochester over the last 10 years. Most of that decline began in 2002 and continues to the present day. Among the many reasons, including laziness and lessening priority of Sunday Mass as very important, are the following:

* Demographic shifts: people relocating out of the diocese due to jobs, retirement, and illness

* Church renovations: people disliking the renovation plan, process or fundraising

* Parish planning: people dropping out of church because of the elimination of a Mass, the changing of a Mass time, the clustering of parishes, the closing of parishes and schools, the appointment of a new pastor, the appointment of a parish leader not a priest, the appointment of an extern (a priest from another country) who is difficult to understand

* Church practices: people drop out of church because Mass is too long or not reverent enough; homilies are too bland, too long or too political; the Church's annulment requirements; the parish or the priest/administrator is not traditional enough or liberal enough; the Church is unwelcoming to the divorces and remarried or to homosexuals

* Alternative Catholic churches: Within Monroe County, people attend Mass at St. Ann's Home (700), Cherry Ridge (100), Jefferson Road Carmelites (203), SSJ Motherhouse (100), RSM Motherhouse (45) and various campuses. Elsewhere in the diocese, people attend Mass at the Canandaigua VA (250), Abbey of the Genesee (125), Mt. Saviour Monastery in Elmira (200), etc.

* Sex abuse: The fact that the precipitous decline begins in 2002 is indicative of the effect this has had on Mass attendance.

In the Diocese of Rochester in the year 2000, there was an average of 106,483 people going to church during a given month. By 2009, there was an average of 75,376 people going to church during a given month. That is a decline of 30% in just the past 10 years.

Dr. K. at Cleansing Fire has already ably commented on several of these points (see here) and I would now like to pick up where he left off.

First, to the best of my knowledge it's only been within the last two years that the diocese has made a concerted effort to count every last nose in our collective pews on each weekend in October.  Along with parish churches, places like prisons, nursing homes, campus chapels, monasteries, senior living centers, migrant ministries and motherhouses are now being asked to report their October weekend Mass attendance.  While the effort to be as accurate as possible is commendable, one has to wonder if this might also be an attempt to put as much lipstick as possible on that pig which is our corporate decline in Mass attendance.

Second, at the beginning of his remarks Fr. Spilly writes that most of our decline in Mass attendance "began in 2002" and later states, "The fact that the precipitous decline begins in 2002 is indicative of the effect [the clerical sex abuse scandal] has had on Mass attendance."

This is DOR spin, pure and simple.

It is nothing other than a lame attempt, apparently on the part of those who fed Fr. Spilly this data, to put the blame for our Mass attendance collapse in a place where it demonstrably does not belong.

Yes, DOR's 2000, 2001 and 2002 Mass attendance numbers were, respectively, roughly 108,000, 110,000 and 103,000 and so, at first glance, it would appear that our slide began in 2002.

But what DOR would like us to forget is that these are average OCTOBER numbers and that a certain event happened on September 11, 2001 that drove nationwide church attendance substantially higher for the next several weeks, including all the weeks in OCTOBER of that year.

In fact, the Barna Group, a highly respected religious research organization, reports that nationwide Catholic weekend Mass attendance was up by 10% during this period, while other sources mention numbers in the 5 to 7% range.

Were not for the attendance spike caused by September 11, DOR's 2001 Average October Attendance number would most likely have been somewhere in the 100,000 to 105,000 range, thus making it obvious that DOR's Mass attendance tailspin started well before the sex abuse scandal hit the newspapers and that our rate of decline has not increased one iota due to this scandal.

That said, I must note that when I first began reporting on our Mass attendance decline I mentioned that the DOR was putting the entire blame for it on factors totally outside of its control (see here). 

Now they are at last admitting - grudgingly, I suspect - that at least some of the causes (church renovations, school and parish closures, Mass eliminations, etc.) are all actions they took themselves. The real question is whether DOR will now be more conscious of the potential effects of its contemplated actions on Mass attendance than it has been in the past.

I suspect that Bishop Clark's impending decision on St. Thomas the Apostle Church will be our first indication.

3 comments:

Dr. K said...

"But what DOR would like us to forget is that these are average OCTOBER numbers and that a certain event happened on September 11, 2001 that drove nationwide church attendance substantially higher for the next several weeks, including all the weeks in OCTOBER of that year. "

Yeah, the whole 'it began in 2002' statement seemed a little suspicious. Almost every parish in the diocese noticed a bump in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. The decline began way before then.

~Dr. K

Lee Strong said...

Here in Sunny Gates, Average weekend attendance at St. Theodore's was in the 1,800 range in the mid 90s. It's now in the low 900s.

Some of the possible causes: changes in pastors; an African-American pastor (sadly, some people admitted that they did not like having one of "them"); a controversial renovation project; the taking over of the the parish grade school by the diocese, which turned it into a junior high, then closed it; demographic changes in Gates; general societal trends.

The decline here began at least in the 90s. I was not here earlier to know if it began even earlier.

Mike said...

Lee,

It sounds like your parish Mass attendance is collapsing at about the same rate as DOR's, and for many of the same reasons.

Here at Holy Cross we're down ~14% since 1998. While we, too, have lost our school we have also had the same pastor all that time which, I think, is critical.

Interestingly, our 2008 AOA was down 76 people (7.2%) immediately following the loss of our school, but last year we went up by 57, meaning that we're now only down a net of 19 folks (1.8%) post school closure. I credit an increased emphasis on what were already extensive family-oriented programs for this.