A Toronto seminary is hoping its new institute for church research and data analysis will be a “game-changer” for understanding how societal trends affect church decline and growth.
In December, the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College announced the establishment of the Canadian Institute for Empirical Church Research after receiving a grant of $1.27 million. The grant was one of several similar-sized grants the Lily Foundation, a U.S. philanthropical foundation, recently gave to North American theological schools.
Wycliffe’s institute will partner with WayBase, a Burlington, Ont.-based company that markets a platform intended to help churches grow their ministry through data analysis. The focus is on setting up a portal that will allow researchers to access WayBase data on 34,000 Canadian charities, tracked over more than two decades, to help them more accurately discern patterns of decline and growth for churches.
“Church research traditionally has been very slow, expensive and narrow, because it’s a big undertaking,” Wycliffe program director Stephen Hewko says. “With this aggregate data set and with machine learning, we’re going to be able to do things on a scale and speed and comprehensiveness that just wasn’t possible before … I think it has the potential to be a real game-changer.”
Stephen Andrews, principal of Wycliffe College and former bishop of the diocese of Algoma, says he’s eager to learn what the project might tell us about the relationship between data and the life of the church.
“The most exciting part about this project for me is bringing these two worlds together—the world of data, sociology, but really also the world of spirituality and the theological assumption that God is at work in the world through the church and how we understand that,” Andrews says.
Canon Neil Elliot, the Anglican Church of Canada’s statistics and research officer, welcomes the establishment of the institute.
“Establishing an institute, particularly one with a very ecumenical and open intent, is a really good thing,” Elliot says.
“They’re talking about having seminars, places where people can get together,” he adds. “I think that’s really valuable, especially for [church] practitioners … We can really start to cooperate and work better with statistics that we’re using [and] how we’re using them.”
The Montreal School of Theology (MST), which includes the Anglican-founded Montreal Diocesan Theological College, received a grant to help identify and support pastoral leaders. These efforts will include a new internship for aspiring ministry leaders, a revised field education program and a renewed mentorship program, which MST hopes will allow ministry leaders to better reach people in their own communities.
“While traditional pastoral competencies oriented towards congregational leadership continue to be important, leaders today need skills for contextual analysis and community engagement, together with theological reflection,” MST said in a news release.
Vancouver School of Theology (VST) received a Lilly grant to support its theological field education program with teaching and learning practices more responsive to current ministry challenges. Principal the Rev. Richard Topping said the grant would help VST develop “a network of experienced practitioners that will prepare and inspire students for ministry in our time.”
Trinity College, also at the University of Toronto, received a grant to fund a faculty of divinity project for responding to challenges facing pastoral leaders. This program includes four components: innovative ministry projects, spiritual direction, “advisors in residence” from underrepresented ethnic communities, and an introduction to Christianity to orient new theology students.
The Rev. Christopher Brittain, dean of divinity at Trinity, said the project would strengthen the school’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.