This fall many congregations are trying to assess their level of health and vitality. Leaders wonder why some people have returned and re-engaged, and others have not. Some congregations did well in the pandemic, while others seemed to lose all of the air out of their balloons. One large-church pastor said, “I feel like I am leading a very different congregation than the one I was serving back in 2019.” While Covid still spreads, folks have moved on with their lives. Church is back in business, but it is still a perplexing time.
Years ago, the number of members was one of the top metrics used to assess a congregation’s size, health, and vitality. Over time attention shifted to average worship attendance (especially in Protestant churches). However, even before the pandemic, many were beginning to question whether average worship attendance was a good indicator of how many lives had been transformed. Active members attended less often, making attendance figures less useful.
How to Measure a Congregation?
The pandemic certainly exacerbated this trend. Now many congregations are seeing in-person attendance is between 1/3 and 1/2 less than in 2019. According to Pew, “In July 2020, roughly four months after Covid-19 upended life in America, 13% of U.S. adults reported having attended religious services in person during the previous month. That figure rose to 17% in March 2021, 26% in September 2021 and by March 2022 27%.”
In Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt estimates that “12% of formerly regular churchgoers say they’re not attending in person or watching online.” It will be interesting to see how data on in-person and online attendance trend this fall.
All religious organizations want to make a big impact and are pretty good at articulating that. “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World” is the guiding purpose of my own United Methodist denomination. Most congregational mission statements express some variation on “transforming the lives of others.”
Jumping Right In
The issue I often see is that pastors and leaders jump right from their mission or impact statement right to picking strategies and programs to fulfill their purpose. The thinking goes something like this: “We all believe that we are to transform lives through our faith. But to survive as a congregation we need more young families and children in order. Let’s open up a nursery to take care of young kids during worship and put a sign out front.” Caring and faithful members of these churches usually then have no idea why that strategy didn’t work.
In 2014, Gil Rendle took on the challenge of trying to measure congregational vitality in his book Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics. The following year, the Harvard Business Review published “What to Measure if You’re Mission Driven” by Zachary First. First tells the story of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, and its efforts to develop a different set of metrics. Both of these resources talk about the importance of measuring outcomes to align a congregation with its mission and evaluate success.
Outcomes can be defined as intermediate goals we must achieve in order to fulfill our purpose of transforming lives. Defining oucomes is a necessary step between articulating our mission and choosing programmatic strategies. Rendle writes, “an outcome is not for all time but the necessary next step of development toward the larger dream that God has but which we cannot yet fulfill.”
Jason Saul, in Benchmarking for Nonprofits: How to Measure, Manage and Improve Performance defines an outcome as “a desired change in behavior or condition brought about by a particular set of activities or processes.” Outcomes must begin with verbs: If our purpose is to “Raise the Next Generation Together in the Faith,” one of our priority outcomes might be to “Improve community awareness of our summer youth program.” After clarifying our outcome, we can begin to figure out how to measure “increased community awareness.”
Saul points out that you can get some clues about your outcomes by evaluating one of your programs and asking why you do it. Keep asking this question until you arrive at the ultimate thing you are trying to accomplish. If you notice a big gap between the program and your mission, you are out of alignment—your program is not getting the results you say you hope for.
A few months ago our middle-judicatory staff took a bold step: we stopped requiring congregations to report weekly metrics. We went one step further and told our churches they could take a break from denominational reporting altogether. Needless to say, there was rejoicing across the land! Many of our pastors and churches were already questioning the value of these metrics.
Then we asked ourselves what we, as a denominational staff team, are trying to accomplish. What impact do we mean to make? Instead of requiring numbers from our congregations, we decided to take a good look at ourselves. After we clarified what our own desired impact, we pushed ourselves ask what changes in our own behavior would be called for if we were to make that impact.
Looking in the Mirror
This was not easy—it pushed us out of our comfort zone. Soon we were forced to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: As a middle judicatory, we exist to help congregations and pastors thrive. But, like many congregations, our pattern over the years has been to make assumptions about what pastors and congregations need and throw “programming spaghetti” at the wall to see what sticks. We were not aligned to make the impact we wanted to make. We had not done the work to clarify our own intermediary steps—defining outcomes and articulating what we had to measure to determine if we were successful.
This process, called Success Equation, was developed by Jason Saul of Mission Measurement, and it came as a revelation to me. Many leaders in religious institutions are not trained to think in these ways. Most congregations try to figure out how to determine their impact informally, but we need to learn to do it better, so we can communicate the difference we intend to make, especially to those who support our work financially.
In this new chapter of the church’s history, congregations need a streamlined approach to setting our priorities and goals. Success Equations might be the right tool to help us to succeed.
Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.