A few months ago, members of First Parish Needham were asked to complete a quantitative survey that asked congregants about their background and priorities for First Parish. Nearly 150 friends and members actually spent 30 minutes or more answering 50 questions about their relationship to First Parish. What can we learn about who we are and what ties us together? And how have we changed from five years ago, when we collectively answered a nearly identical survey?
I analyzed the surveys and I’m here to report my conclusion. In short, we are a thriving, healthy local church. Nearly 85% of us live within 15 minutes of the sanctuary. As such, we reflect the community of Needham: the vast majority of us are white, have gone to college, are married or were married, and pull in a median household income that is in the top 15% of all Americans. However, there are some key differences; compared to the town, we skew older, as is typical of church populations. Confirming our commitment to be a Welcoming Congregation, 16% of us identify as something other than heterosexual – a proportion that is over three times the state LBGTQIA average. Yet we have fewer people of color in our congregation (3% vs. 16% for the town) – something I hope we continue to address.
Beyond demographics, we are united in our commitment to the church and to each other. Although a large proportion of us (65%) initially came to First Parish because of the Religious Education program, most of us reported that we continue to attend because of “community” (84%) and “celebrating common values” (81%), followed closely by “intellectual stimulation” (75%), minister (71%), and fellowship (70%). Three-quarters of respondents said First Parish was central to their identity. Spiritually, many lean more towards personal independence in our “quest for spiritual truth”; whereas 34% of respondents identified with creed-based religions (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism) as one of their spiritual traditions, almost 70% also self-identified as Atheist, Agnostic, or Religious Humanist. Speaking of which, 88% thought our covenant was a good reflection of our commitment.
An overwhelming majority (84%) think we are doing a good/great job in achieving our mission. Importantly, when all of the survey questions were analyzed across subgroups (analyzed by age, gender, parents, large donors, active volunteers), there were no obvious factions or subgroups that were unhappy. Across the board, parishioners want us to continue our mission, especially by creating a religious/spiritual community of people with similar values, providing religious education activities for our children, and working as a community to pursue social action goals.
Yet, the survey also identified areas of concern. Compared to the responses from five years ago, we are getting older, primarily due to our stable and committed attendance as we age together, but also due to a reduction in new families and younger adults. Although our overall membership numbers are stable, the congregation is concerned about the future and is receptive to growth to bring new energy, skills, and pledges to First Parish. Fortunately, we are actively addressing some of these worries. Our Membership Committee is currently re-thinking how our website and social media presence helps bring in new visitors, especially new families and adults in their 30s and 40s. And we are looking for ways to re-invigorate the RE program and our multigenerational programming, led by interim DLRE Roberta Altamari.
Overall, I think it is telling how much of the 2018 survey looks similar to the 2013 survey. Our values and goals have remained consistent as we head into the fifth year of Rev. Catie’s ministry. One of the final questions of the survey asked, “how much [spiritual/religious programs, music programs, social action, family programs, fellowship activities] should First Parish strive to do over the next five years compared to recent levels?” On a scale of 1 (much less) to 5 (much more), the average answer was between 3.0 and 3.6, suggesting we could always do a little more but the current level is about right. I think this is precisely where we want to be.
I look forward to speaking more about the survey results and incorporating these lessons into our future strategy. In particular, I’m working with the relevant committees to address specific comments that, although not representative of the entire congregation, were important to individual respondents. If you are interested in more details or w to know how a specific committee or program was reviewed in the survey, please contact me.
-Darren Zinner, President (on behalf of the Committee on Ministry)