Studies in the self-help genre are notorious for their bad science (i.e. for their poorly constructed research designs) – even when they seem to rely on good data. One of the most common traps is to rely on truncated or “survivor” samples.
To see how easy it is to fall into that trap, let’s do some research ourselves:
Let’s pretend we’re interested in what make marriages joyful and resilient. How can we get some leverage on this? One strategy would be to go and talk to all the couples in happy and long-lasting marriages. We’d collect background and demographic data and talk to them about their habits, how they communicate, etc. and figure out what all of them (or a significant portion of them) have in common. As long as we can specify a plausible mechanism that would lead that thing to make marriages joyful and resilient, we’d be able to get a publisher to publish our work, start spreading the word, and begin helping people get more joy and distance out of their marriages.
Sounds great, right?
Not so fast – this is a trap, remember? Let’s say that we learned from our research that forgiveness and communication were the two things that all the happy, long married couples had in common. There is a plausible explanation (i.e. mechanism) for how both forgiveness and communication can improve relations, and it is hard to imagine how marriages could possibly last without them; but does that mean we can just tell couples to talk more and forgive one another?
No, it doesn’t. At least not based on the results of our research. Why not? The problem is that we only looked at happy, long lasting marriages; we did not look at lousy marriages and/or those that ended in divorce. In other words, we had a sample of data that was truncated; we only looked at “survivors”. If we had added bad marriages to our sample, we may well have learned that many spouses from bad marriages forgave their partners and that many couples in bad or broken marriages spent quite a bit of time communicating with one another. Looking into those cases might have shown us how forgiveness (of a type) can lead to miserable codependency and communication (of a type) can lead to polarization and even violence.
So what does this have to do with vocations and parish leadership?
The sample we have to work with in our parishes, and especially on our parish boards, is truncated; it contains only those people who have stuck around (i.e. survived). This could well mean that they are immune to whatever led former parishioners to leave and keeps potential members away altogether.
For example, if a parish has limited (or no) off-street parking, those who are still around may be inconvenienced by the lack of parking, but not enough for it to affect their participation (at least not permanently). Psychology may well lead these survivors to mirror-image their own attitude towards parking rather than looking at its effect in an objective way; moreover, it will probably lead them to precongitively discount its importance. Ditto for language, warmth/openness, service books, the quality of the chanting, preaching, iconography, architecture, politicization, and so on. And priests are as vulnerable to this poor judgment as anyone else (although with us it is worse as we can dress up our prejudices with theological words, scripture, quotes from the fathers, and ecclesial authority).
As with spiritual discernment, objectivity and good judgment in “practical” parish matters requires kenosis, humility, and a willingness to seek out and consider data that are formed outside our own experience … even when that data might speak against the rationality of our own preferences and opinions.