The establishment of the U.S. Census by our nation’s founders was a genius move. While originally designed to help apportion members of the National Congress, later Census tallies helped us all to know more about our growing country’s population, its shifts from one region to another, its ethnicities, and its economics over time. A lot can happen in the ten years between the full Census counts!
We are now at a time when such a Census of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s membership is vital to understanding our capacity to serve. We have all heard about decaying Church membership – our “member prospect universe” – and the anxieties over whether or not some of the U.S. Catholic membership can rebound or is lost forever. A national pandemic that shut down Mass attendance along with so many other faith-based activities certainly did not help.
Within the Society, we are proud that during the pandemic, we kept going. It was for us a simple matter: people were still poor, so we kept serving them. We adjusted with virtual Home Visits and Conference meetings where we could, though we missed seeing the Face of Christ in person. What, though, has been the lasting impact on our membership numbers? Recruiting was more difficult when we could not meet with anyone interested in joining us, and many of the informal service opportunities that attract future Vincentians were suspended for weeks or months at a time.
Conversations among some of the Society’s English-speaking National Councils uncovered a disturbing recognition that up to 70 percent of their membership has not returned to serve. Some died, some moved away and others changed their contact information, and this happens all the time. The disturbing big change was that the habit of Vincentian service was so severely disrupted that some members “dropped out” either to express their faith in different ways, to retire from active Society services, or to fade away from the Society and perhaps from the Church itself.
For years now we have maintained a membership of approximately 100,000 Society members in the United States, serving in nearly 4,500 Conferences and other locations. For the first time, I’m not very confident that these numbers are accurate. You likewise should not assume that your local numbers, names, and contact data are the same as they were just three years ago.
We aren’t structured to perform a national Society Census; we are a grassroots organization at our core. I ask you to please be intentional in seeking out everyone you believe are your members, see if they are still willing to serve, and if you have all the membership data you need to operate your Councils and Conferences. We can’t assume this data any longer; we need to verify it to see where we truly are and then plan, likely much more vigorously, for member and Conference growth. While we pray that we have not lost 70 percent of our members, we should not be surprised that some loss has occurred at least temporarily.
A Society member census can be performed not just to count, but to re-engage our members. Consider the counting as a series of wellness checks on where our members are, and also what they need to come back into Vincentian service and regular meetings. Let’s work together to re-count, re-engage, and re-inspire our members toward their own spirituality through Society membership and service to others. And by the way, if you encounter potential new members along the way, invite them in!
We will only know where we are nationally with our membership numbers after we start to know more locally. In your counting process, please take the time to send the information up the line toward your local Council and the National Council with updated database input, improved Annual Report completion, and subscriptions to this e-Gazette. All this has benefit for your members to stay informed and to stay connected with all levels of the Society nationally.
With today’s inflationary pressures, which always affect the poorest the most harshly, we are needed in our neighborhoods more than ever. We don’t intend to be “small but mighty” to do our works. We prefer the “many hands make light work” approach! No matter our membership size, can’t we always welcome, or welcome back, someone else who desires to be closer to God?
Yours in Christ,