The main problem with Spiritualism is that most church committees are unaware that there is a problem. That’s because – as our national leaders have told us – we are far too inward-looking. We don’t really know what is happening outside our own churches and, in many cases, we don’t really care. God is in his heaven, we are on the committee, the congregation is much the same size as it was last year – what could possibly be wrong with the way things are?
Well, quite apart from churches who don’t know that their first duty is to grow, grow, grow, a good deal is going wrong and some figures have emerged which tell us clearly just what is going wrong. Some, however, tell us what is going right. And, as bad news (and statistics) tend to turn people off, maybe I should start with some good news that most people will have missed.
4,242 reasons to be cheerful
Each year, just before its AGM, the SNU issues a record of the memberships of its churches over the last five years. I have to focus on those because other Spiritualist organisations do not publish comparable figures. They would probably tell a similar story. Don’t worry, I shall just give you membership numbers as at the end of the last two years – figures for 2010 will not be ready until June 2011.
They are typical of the annual net decline over the past 20 years or so:
|Year end||Full members||Associate members|
It shows that in 2009, 14,629 had renewed their membership – a net loss of 341 from the 2008 figure. This may seem reasonable, but there is much more going on than that. The 2,121 associate members were new recruits. This is a huge growth of 14 per cent over our 2008 figure. But it is easy to miss that — because people remain associates for only six months — this 14 per cent is only a half of our new recruits, from July1 to December 31. What about the recruits signed up in the first half of 2009? As these figures are not yet collected, let’s assume another 2,121. That’s 28 per cent!
I doubt that any other religion is recruiting 28 per cent of its adherents each year, as the SNU is. Is this down to superb marketing skills? Or is it one of those instances where the spirit really does move people? I think we know the answer but we need more detail. Especially at a time when the SNU is putting together a 10-year strategy.
4,583 reasons to be glum
Sadly, we seem to be record-breakers at losing members, too. You will also see that, instead of SNU membership now being a healthy 19,212 at the end of 2009, it has dropped to 14,629. We lost the same number of our established members as we had recruited new ones – plus another 341. That’s 31 per cent – almost a third of SNU members. Not even the beleaguered Methodists can lose members at this rate.
Much of the fault can only lie with our churches. Revolving door recruitment is no good to anyone. Perhaps we need cheering up again?
32,404 more reasons to be cheerful – and counting!
In the middle of 2008, we had a late bit of welcome news from the 2001 census. There were, it turned out, 32,404 Spiritualists in the UK – far more than our figures led us to believe. And that was the England and Wales census – it didn’t include Scotland and Northern Ireland. But let us not get complacent with cries of “We’re the eighth largest religion in the country”. That sort of talk may be good for morale, but only feeds the delusion that we are on some sort of roll at a time when an occasional dose of reality is called for. At number seven, incidentally, are the Buddhists at 144,453. So we are the biggest of the little religions, I suppose.
52,041,920 – The whole population: time to be glum again. Sorry!
Out of a population of just over 52 million, our 32,404 stacks up as just 0.06 per cent. Which means that a massive 99.94 per cent of the population is, well, not impressed. Put another way, after 162 years of Spiritualism, just one person in 1,666 claims to be a Spiritualist. It’s not very good, is it? In a Wembley-sized crowd of 100,000, you will find just 62 Spiritualists. Just 28 would be SNU members. The orthodox have recognised in their figures that loyalty lasts much longer than actual involvement. At least the current SNU members are paid up to date and involved…
This is either a soul-destroying figure or an inspiring challenge at how huge our list of prospective recruits is – once our complacent, inward-looking churches wake up and learn how to stop driving away the huge number of recruits we sign up! So that’s another 52,009,516 reasons to be cheerful, if you are thinking the right way. Think how many undiscovered natural mediums that number might contain should we ever start to put our message across in a savvy and strategic manner.
Unlike most movements, the SNU has no trouble attracting people. All their churches have to learn is how to keep them. That means training our church leaders – not in just ‘running’ a church – but leading and growing it. This is something we have never done. Church leaders are doing their best, but without training and know-how, their efforts come to nought.
341 SNU churches – 341 net loss of members
It is just a neat coincidence that the Union ended up with 341 churches at the end of 2009 and the same net loss of lapsed members. Simplistically, we each lost a member, so might shrug our shoulders at this – if we even noticed. As we have seen, the loss was actually much greater, but this has been masked by those remarkable recruitment numbers. Those who have gone have been replaced by those who have arrived. Yet, each church has – in the round – lost one more member than it has taken on board. And we have been doing something like this since 1992, the SNU peak out of the past 58 years.
A movement with all the attributes that we have should be growing, not shrinking.
Five simple things the movement should find out before we start to strategise
There are a lot of important figures we just don’t collect – that churches of all affiliations could easily provide – which would give us all much more insight into what is really going on.
Here are just four, based on the above, and one extra much-ignored number:
- A simple return of associate members as at June 30 to give SNU leaders a fuller picture of recruitment.
- An annual lapsed members return. A list of members who did not renew their membership could be provided. Apart from how many had actually died, how long had they been members? Had they been recent or long-standing members? Was cost a factor?
- Why did they leave? A questionnaire from national level would be invaluable for highlighting what our ex-members really expected from their church and didn’t get. Locally, this might not tell us much, but nationally a more meaningful picture would emerge.
- What caused new members to come to a Spiritualist church? Again, invaluable information which would help us to market our movement to the general public much more effectively.
- Church attendance. We know our membership figures, but no-one knows the size of our congregations. The orthodox churches have a regular census, which tells them a great deal about the ongoing trends in churches. Most of our churches count heads in their services, but do nothing with the figures. Totalling them and dividing them by 52 – or however many services were held – could easily show the average congregation and build up to show the trends both locally and nationally. (See our spreadsheet offer at the end of this article.)
The root problem of our movement is that most of our churches are too small to be much more than slightly pious social clubs with messages. Small congregations cannot support a range of activities varied enough to engage those who need to be fed by more than just constant demonstrations of mediumship. And talents that do exist in small churches can only be enjoyed by that small congregation – and then only if an activity can be built around them.
Hopefully, the upcoming 10-year strategy will assist and incentivise a move towards larger churches. Otherwise, eventually our number really will be up. Heartache indeed.
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