There are many ways to measure the value, quality, or success of a pastorate. A pastor’s tenure in a congregation can be quantified in terms of years, months, weeks, and days or even in minutes and seconds, if it happens to be a really long sermon! A pastorate can be measured in numbers of baptisms, confirmations, professions of faith, weddings, funerals, worship attendance, and membership. It can be evaluated by budgets, offerings, mortgages paid, buildings erected or programs being funded. Ministry can be tallied through all sorts of objective and subjective means, with evaluations of the various statistics being the most subjective factor of all. What one person judges a success, another views as a failure; what one believes to be important, another thinks irrelevant. That’s the danger and the blessing with all such statistics: they’re open to a wide range of interpretation.
As I come to the close of my pastorate at St. Stephen United Methodist Church, I’ve found myself looking back over my four years as your pastor with an eye toward these kinds of statistics: those categories listed above all of which seem to be of greatest interest to the “powers that be” as well as those numbers which might not be as tangible as the before-identified figures but which, in my estimation, are of far greater interest.
The temptation exists to look at the success or failure of a pastorate in terms of the growth or decline in members, and I will admit that there is much to be gleaned from this kind of “bottom line” data. For instance, during the four years of my pastorate we have added 53 people to the membership, an additional 26 to the constituency list (those who are not members but who attend regularly), and have celebrated 24 baptisms. At the same time we have paid off our long-standing mortgage, met all our bills, increased our budget by 11% and our pledged income by 13%, performed a significant amount of repair and upgrade work to the Church buildings, and paid a huge pledge beyond our budget to UMC's critically important mission initiative: the Imagine No Malaria Campaign. Financial times have been very hard for the nation, region, and membership of his church, but the stewardship of the congregation has been amazing and humbling for this shepherd to behold and I praise God, and thank all of you, for your faithfulness.
These kinds of gains, while small, are nevertheless reflective of vitality in mission and ministry. Should these figures have been higher? Yes! However, these numbers not the only way to evaluate a ministry, nor are they the way in which I prefer to evaluate ours. Growth in terms of numbers of people or dollars spent are important, but I prefer to look at the spiritual growth of a church, and its faithfulness to its mission and ministry, as the true measure of its vitality.
Stewardship is critical to understanding spiritual growth: the health of one’s faith can be discerned through one’s willingness to give of one’s time, talents, gifts, and service. Please keep in mind, it’s not the dollar amounts that are important but, rather, the level of spiritual-faith commitment and service that is critical in the stewardship dynamic. And, here the statistics are truly impressive. The number of people in this congregation who are actively involved in its mission and ministry in some way is unprecedented, totalling nearly 70% of the membership! This was true before I came, and it is still true today. We are involved in multiple outreach and mission programs that churches three times our size would be proud to call their own. To be sure, St. Stephen will face many challenges when it comes to future mission and ministry, but your commitment to living the Gospel is strong and I have no doubt that you’ll continue to move forward.
I rejoice in the growth and vitality of the Pastor’s Bible Study. As such studies go, it has been very well received over the course of the three years that I have conducted it at St. Stephen UMC. In our evening and morning sessions we covered Philippians, Romans, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and John, as well as a short overview of the History of the Church. The morning session, especially, was exciting in that it offered an opportunity for many who had not had a chance to participate in Bible Study to join in. The growth in learning about our Bible and our faith among all who partook of our stuides was exciting, and I am thankful for, and proud of, each and every person who participated. I did a head-count and, if one limits the tally to just those who were in regular attendance for the majority of just one of the above books, it comes to a very solid 32 people. Many of these individuals attended and participated in all, or a substantial number of, class sessions. And this doesn’t even take into account those that came on a more hit-and-miss basis, nor the very large number of people (several hundreds) who have been listening to the Bible Studies on the Internet!
If raw statistics are of interest to you, I can offer up some interesting quantifying figures on my sermons figures that might surprise a few (they surprised me). One of the advantages of recording my messages and posting them on the Internet is that I have a detailed and readily available catalog of my preaching over the years. The active and ready-to-play sermons on my website go back to 1999, however for our purposes I went back and tallied up the following statistics just from my sermons over the past four years (since my first Sunday at St. Stephen):
Number of Sermons Preached: 182 Average Length of Sermon: 17.2 minutes Books of the Bible Preached on: 33 books Old Testament Books Preached on: 16 books over 37 sermons New Testament Books Preached on: 17 books over 145 sermons Book Most Preached on: Luke - 28 times Second Most: Matthew - 26 times Third Most: John - 20 times Number of Pauline Epistles Preached on: 9 (I somehow missed 4) Number of Sermons on Paul: 43 Most Preached-on Pauline Epistle: Galatians - 8 times
Of course, even these statistics are misleading, for most of these messages were preached twice on Sunday morning. So, in all fairness you could easily say that I preached about 364 times in 4 years at St. Stephen. This doesn’t count most of the funerals, nor the occasional special services, that I missed recording, but it does include several Holy Week and Christmas Eve messages, so the figures balance.
And, finally, I thought I would share a few statistics concerning the world-wide reach of St. Stephen UMC through Grace Incarnate Ministries -- my online presence. I will cite only the figures for the 182 sermons which I have preached at St. Stephen and for which I have statistics from my website administrator (as of 05/24/11 at 12:01 am).
My first sermon at St. Stephen UMC was preached on Sunday June 24, 2007. Since then, all of the sermons I have preached at St. Stephen have been listened to a combined grand total of:
by people in over 75 different countries on every continent on the planet, including Palmer Station in Antarctica, as well as by members of the US Armed Forces on ships and bases as far away as Japan and the Persian Gulf. I don’t think any of my sermons have been listened to by anyone up in orbit, but who knows? The International Space Station is linked into the Internet, so it is possible!
1,413,933 total downloads averages out to just a fraction over 7855 times per-sermon. If these figures seem impossibly huge, keep in mind that they reflect multiple downloads and repeat plays across as many as 4 years. Some have not been played as many as 7000 times, while some have been played more than 10,000 times.
During my tenure at St. Stephen the internet-based listeners to my sermons have gone from 6,934 to 8,453. These are people who have either subscribed to my iTunes Audio-Sermons feed or who click-through directly to my Sermons on my website. Some download my messages to their iPods and listen to them while driving, working out, gardening, etc. Others listen to them directly on their computers. And these are not all faceless people: over the past 4 years we’ve had literally dozens of them visit us from all over the world some for protracted periods of time, some repeatedly but for shorter stays, some over the course of 3 years for Bible Study and occasional Sunday Morning worship, and a couple of them have actually joined the church. Additionally, there are some members and friends of St. Stephen who live at a distance, or with physical challenges, who have found our online presence a means for participating in the life of the church.
In short, St. Stephen United Methodist Church has been an amazing place for me and for my ministry to flourish and grow these past four years. You have blessed me in so many ways, and especially by providing a wonderful platform for the message of the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ to go forth to the whole world.
I want to thank you for allowing me to serve among you as your pastor. It has been my honor, privilege, and joy to travel with you along the road of this life, to share and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ with you, and to be part of your loving family of faith. These years have been good, fruitful, faithful, and meaningful for me … and, I believe, for you as well.
May God bless the mission and ministry of St. Stephen United Methodist Church as you now move forward under the able pastoral leadership of my friend and colleague in ministry, the Reverend Ann Barton. I challenge you to listen to her, learn from her, and follow her as she follows Christ Jesus our Lord. Know that, while I will no longer be your pastor, I will always be your friend and I will always pray for you. And, know that I expect to hear great things from and about St. Stephen United Methodist Church in the months and years to come!
 It is also true that, during this period, we removed 21 people from membership by death, withdrawal, transfer, and Charge Conference action. The additions, however, more than off-set the number of people removed.
© 2011, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved