Accurate measurements are critical to a congregation’s wellbeing.
Numbers represent people. A change in membership count means the congregation is serving more or fewer people. A change in Sunday attendance means greater or lesser impact on people’s lives. A change in non-Sunday participation means something is at home, or at work, or in how church matters to people.
In trying to understand such numbers, you are taking a big step in understanding your people and in understanding your congregation’s effectiveness.
While every manager in every organization is tempted to fudge the numbers, you gain far more by measuring accurately and consistently.
Numbers signal critical transitions. A change in young children’s participation, for example, will signal not only next year’s Sunday School staffing needs, but long-term space requirements, potentially disruptive shifts in average adult age, and new faces in leadership.
Numbers are a key indicator of outcomes. For example, your congregation added a third service to relieve overcrowding. To know if it worked, you need to measure how many you anticipated at the new service and how many participated. Should you be adding space instead?
In dealing with limited resources, congregations need to allocate money and staff time to ministries and activities that work. Positive or negative trends in measurable outcomes must guide that assessment. Otherwise, you find yourself in personality conflicts. The measure of a ministry isn’t whether a few opinion-setters liked it, but did people respond to it and did their response justify the cost and effort?
Long-term trends in key metrics like attendance and membership offer important insights into the overall effectiveness of staff, lay leadership, programs, facilities, and other variables. Decisions about future spending need to take those outcomes into account.
For numbers to work for you, two things need to happen.
First, parish leaders need to avoid any hint of defensiveness about the numbers. A decline in Sunday attendance could have a dozen explanations. But no causes will be sought, or remedied, unless leaders agree to value the numbers.
Second, the numbers need to be painstakingly accurate. “I guess we had 500 in church today” is meaningless. Was it 520 or 475? Numbers should be accurate, consistent, and measured in the same way every time.
Over time, numbers tell the congregation’s story. I remember a congregation whose leaders were convinced their parish was on a plateau. In fact, by every metric I could examine, they were in a seven-year decline. Big difference.
I remember another congregation that thought paying its bills was the best measure of health. In fact, financial giving is a lagging indicator. Attendance changes first, then membership, and then giving. By the time a decline hits giving, the original causes of systemic decline are difficult to discern; blaming and cost cutting follow.
This is a good time for churches to train their counters. They need instruction in how to count crowds, methods for assuring accuracy, and appropriate tools for entering data and transmitting it to relevant staff.
It’s also a good time to get creative about what you measure. In addition to the basics — attendance, membership, enrollment and giving — you can measure age makeup of current under-21 population, numbers of baptisms, wedding and funerals, turnover in education staff, no-shows for Sunday duties. And more.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant, and leader of workshops. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. The church wellness project may be found at www.churchwellness.com .