Finally, the Parochial Report is done. For those of you not engaged in full-time Episcopal clerical ministry, the Parochial Report is the yearly statistics and figures conglomeration for the National Church (lovingly called the Vatican among certain circles) and Dioceses. It asks questions about annual budget; average Sunday attendance (insert comment here about the number of rectors who pad that number); the number of Holy Eucharists, Baptisms, Confirmations, and other sacraments celebrated, among other things. Useful data, all in all. And required, because if we don't get them in on time, we get pointed emails reminding us if we don't get the reports in, our hair will turn an unattractive shade of liturgical green.
Parochial reports and their denominational cousins give us a picture of the outerwear of our churches. They show us the outside numbers of our churches. Were our pledges up or down? Are fewer people coming to church on a Sunday or more people? Hey, look, we prayed the Daily Office 127 times last year - aren't we spiritual!
And therein is the danger, that we allow these outerwear numbers to be the whole picture of our faith communities. We wave the numbers on these reports around in the air as merit badges of faith. We draw conclusions from those numbers that might or might not be correct, like seeing a lovely Burberry trench coat on a man and assuming he's a well-heeled British royal who shops at the finest stores, when in fact, upon closer inspection, the Burberry is really an illegal knock-off he bought in Brooklyn, and the guy can barely speak American slang, much less the Queen's English.
Outerwear is, of course, just the shell, the most visible part of ourselves. Outerwear is the easiest part to see. We don't have to do much work to get that information - it's right in front of us. We and our communities are composed of deeper layers.
The whole value of a faith community is never limited to outerwear, the mere surface view that can be quickly attained from a few graphs and reports. Numbers are information. Faith is about imagination, love, and hope - all massively unquantifiable elements. Information salves our anxieties. The more we gather, the better we feel about our decisions and truthfully, ourselves. Imagination is about risk, about embracing uncertainty. Information is having the answers, then asking the questions. Imagination is daring enough not to even know the questions, but to surrender to the movement of God. Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Joseph, even Simeon and Anna, did not engage in task forces and review ten-year graphs about God's trajectory before falling into God.
Holy imagination invites us, if not demands, that we look deeper within and challenge the world view that bigger is always better. Information allows us to assume that because our average Sunday attendance is increasing and we have scads of money in our coffers that we are most certainly a 5-star parish, but what does imagination say about Jesus' comments about the least of these? Information gives us the easy way to say that because we had 789 services this year, we are a very spiritual church. Imagination coerces us to accept that spirituality is not quantifiable, but certainly observable in our day-to-day lives in a faith community.
This is not to say that all churches should strive to be broke and have diminishing attendance. Not at all. But the outerwear data of our faith is just that - outerwear information that will never, ever give us the complete picture of who a faith community is. Use information carefully as data, not as a replacement for imagination. We can collect all the data we like, but it will never give us the sure and certain faith that we humans want, which is that we are wholly in control of everything. We are not. We are mostly in control of ourselves and our willingness to fall into God's loving imagination. That confidence of living in love comes from actually living, actually recognizing that the big tells of who a community truly is cannot be entered in a box on line 4a.