Data is not Destiny!

FaithX and MapDash in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

by Mary Sulerud

Ever since my first training in using MapDash, the words spoken by the Rev. Ken Howard, FaithX founder, have echoed in my head every time I opened up my laptop and connected it to a projector to introduce the program to another congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

“Data is not destiny,” he said.

I always start with those words; then I quickly add something he also shared that day…

“It really helps to begin with dreams
that have some relationship with reality on the ground.”

I graduated from an Episcopal Seminary in the 1980’s, amid several successive ambitious national evangelism campaigns by the Episcopal Church. The prevailing truism of the time was: Attract young families with children and your congregation will be sustained and you will thrive in ministry. Our congregations learned that lesson all too well.

The trouble was that while that may have been true in another era, it was already losing ground in many places by the time I graduated in 1988. In effect, we were sending people out to find the membership equivalent of the Holy Grail. But we rarely asked congregational leaders to look at the reality of their own neighborhoods and to discern if the demographic reality of our neighborhoods was in any way related to the characteristics of the people who sat in the pews on Sunday.

What is changing in the congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is that they are employing MapDash to explore neighbors and neighborhoods. And while MapDash is an important and useful tool in a wide variety of settings, I am increasingly finding that it is most helpful to congregational leaders who are undertaking strategic planning in their congregations.

Recently, I spent time with the strategic planning committee at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hagerstown, Maryland. The committee was composed of vestry and non-vestry members. I was struck first by the depth of the bench in the room. All of the members had both strategic planning experience and had used a variety of economic and marketing data in their professional lives. It made my task an easy one in presenting MapDash because they were eager to see what might be offered.

Viewing population, income, and education data as well as looking at the proximity of other mainline churches, the group learned that they were surrounded by a much larger group of younger people (Millennials and younger) than they previously had thought.  As they began to think about what sort of mission their congregation might have for this group, they viewed the news about the challenge of income, opportunity, and to some extent education in a modest-sized town in which most people get on a train or in a car and head either to DC or Baltimore and their suburbs for work.

It is really early days in the work of this strategic planning committee. However, two important issues emerged as they discussed the MapDash data and learned how to go deeper into its meaning for them. 

First, this group reconnected to the history of St. John’s as a congregation distinct in its mission to be a church for working class folks and supportive of people with lower incomes. While the congregation already has strong outreach efforts in their neighborhoods, they began to shift in their understanding from outreach to the community to outreach with the people, embracing folks in need as part of their community, too. 

Second, rather than worrying about the proximity of other churches, there was curiosity and conversation about how to be mission partners in the city of Hagerstown. 

Truly, “Data is not destiny,” but an opportunity. An opportunity to open up a conversation about what it means to be a faith community and letting the Holy Spirit do the work of examining the past, renewing the present, and discerning a course for the future.