This fall, most congregations are still trying to assess their level of health and vitality. Leaders continue wondering why some people have returned and re-engaged and others have not. While all congregations were greatly impacted by the pandemic, some congregations did fairly well while others seemed to lose all 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. We started to notice that 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 one-third to one-half less than in 2019. According to Pew Research Center, “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 for the transformation of the world” is the guiding purpose of my own United Methodist denomination. I find that most congregational mission statements express some variation on the theme of 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 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! Let’s open 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 outcomes 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.”
Several folks in the field have pointed out that you can get some clues about your outcomes by evaluating one of your programs and deploying the “Five Whys” technique. Keep asking why until you arrive at the ultimate thing you are trying to accomplish. If you notice a big gap between the program and your mission/purpose, then you are out of alignment—your program is likely not getting the results you are hoping for.
A few months ago, our conference 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 for the next year. Needless to say, there was rejoicing across the land!
Looking in the mirror
Then we asked ourselves what we, as a denominational staff team, are trying to accomplish. What impact are we called to make? Instead of requiring numbers from our congregations, we decided to take a good look at ourselves. After we clarified our own desired impact, we pushed ourselves and asked what changes in our own behaviors would be called for if we were to make that impact.
This was not easy—it pushed us out of our comfort zone. Soon we were forced to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: As a conference staff, 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 the 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 next phase of the pandemic as we begin a new chapter of the church’s history, congregations also need a streamlined approach to setting their priorities and goals. Success Equations might be the right tool to help us succeed.
Rev. Susan Nienaber is director of congregational vitality for the Minnesota Annual Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church