EDITOR’S NOTE: Journalist David Paulsen volunteered to serve on the advisory board that helped suggest some of the questions Episcopal Pulse is using in its first round of surveys.
[Episcopal News Service] What if Episcopalians and Episcopal leaders could get near real-time data on the state of the church and its congregations as they grapple with some of the greatest challenges of the day, from navigating the pandemic to the fight against racial injustice?
This is the idea behind Episcopal Pulse, a mini-survey experience supported by TryTank experimental laboratory and developed by the FaithX Project. They launched the surveys in January with over 1,000 people receiving weekly questions via email. The developers were encouraged by the initial response rate; approximately 500 to 600 participants answer questions each week.
“It’s a critical thing to be able to do,” said Reverend Ken Howard, executive director and founder of FaithX, a nonprofit consulting firm. “The church is horribly handicapped by its traditionalist view of things. We don’t like change too much and we’re not very agile.
As its name suggests, Episcopal Pulse aims to regularly take the pulse of the Church. Its polls are designed to take no more than two minutes and are often focused on a single question, yet they still produce statistically significant pieces of data and analysis – in a fraction of the time and effort it would take large polling agencies to conduct more robust surveys.
The first question in the survey, released Jan. 31, asked respondents, “In what areas of congregational life are you having success?” In what areas of congregational life are you having difficulty? Worship and spirituality are among the top successes identified by respondents. They said they had the hardest time with evangelism.
“What if we could think of evangelism not as pressuring someone to convert, but simply living our relationship with Jesus out loud among our neighbours,” FaithX said in an online data analysis. “If we did, we might get a little more traction in the evangelism department.”
That kind of instant feedback is all the more valuable as the Episcopal Church looks to the future after two years of pandemic disruption, Howard told Episcopal News Service. “We thought if we could start getting people to be data-driven, to have a sense of reality in the decisions they make – instead of doing it on an intuitive, instinctual or based on their own prejudices – this could be a real improvement.
TryTank, a joint initiative between Virginia Theological Seminary and General Theological Seminary, invested $7,500 in the experiment, to hire FaithX and recruit an additional web developer. Beginning in 2021, FaithX recruited volunteers who would be a cross-section of the Episcopal Church demographic. The group tends to lean more toward ordained clergy, but also includes lay people, as well as those involved in the Episcopal Church at the parish, diocesan, and church-wide levels.
Anyone interested in becoming a survey respondent can apply online. TryTank and FaithX are share some of the data within their own circles but does not publish Episcopal Pulse results more widely yet, in part because investigations are still ongoing.
“It was a real learning experience,” Howard said. “We had things that we had to adjust.”
One example was the second Episcopal Pulse poll. He first asked respondents what they expect from attending worship in person after the pandemic is over. FaithX canceled that survey midway through accepting responses, so it could follow up with a modified survey the following week that combined the in-person attendance question with a question about online worship trends.
This survey received 558 responses and suggests that Episcopalians are somewhat optimistic about the future of in-person worship, with 86% predicting the return of at least the majority of parishioners. The online worship question generated the opposite results, with 77% of respondents predicting that online attendance will be cut by at least half once people can once again fully worship in person without worrying about the pandemic.
“Is it too optimistic” for in-person worship, Howard wondered at ENS, “and is online worship too pessimistic?” Some people across the church may “overlook online worship as a true ongoing activity that has evangelistic and outreach positives,” he said.
Respondents seemed to offer a more pessimistic view of diversity and inclusion in Episcopal congregations. In the third survey, they were asked about the gap between their congregations and the demographics of the wider community. Result: 95% said that “some” or “many” of the groups found in their communities were not as well represented in their congregations.
“We didn’t think [the perceived gap] would be that high,” Howard said.
Online congregational worship and the lack of diversity are topics that will likely be explored further in follow-up questions. This is another expected benefit of Episcopal Pulse mini-surveys. The latest results can guide future surveys, sometimes short-term if the church needs quick data on an urgent issue.
This trial phase of the Episcopal Pulse polls is expected to last six to nine months, until FaithX has “fixed all the bugs,” Howard said. After that, TryTank hopes to roll it out more widely as a church-wide resource.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].