Priorities aren’t the answer

“We’re narrowing our list of priorities,” a church leader said the other day.

If she had meant budget priorities, I might have nodded in agreement. Limited resources must be leveraged to get maximum benefit. Inevitably church leaders must set priorities, such as funding one program that has a good track record but letting go another that has fallen short.

Unfortunately, she meant more than budget. She meant leaders were narrowing the range of activities, initiatives, interests, and goals they would pursue. It sounds so reasonable, but in the end a balanced approach to all of the factors that matter will work better.

In the Church Wellness Project, we name seven factors that contribute to a congregation’s health:

•           Membership development

•           Leadership development

•           Communications strategy

•           Spiritual development

•           Young adult ministry

•           Listening church

•           Metrics (outcome-based decision-making)


It is tempting to target one or two of these factors, such as membership and leadership. However, new members won’t stay where they aren’t being fed, so a third focus needs to be on feeding. Leaders can’t lead effectively without adequate tools of communication; parking-lot chatter doesn’t count. Programs won’t succeed if they don’t respond to actual questions and needs. People are flying blind without ways to measure outcomes and a commitment to deal with outcomes.

Other than the costs of a modern communications strategy — Web site, e-mail system — these wellness factors don’t have much budget impact. Best practices aren’t costly. Wellness doesn’t require the setting of budget priorities. Wellness requires a commitment to do all of the work that is required for health.

In our opinion, the usual order should be reversed. Instead of starting with a budget discussion, perhaps preceded by a priority-setting exercise designed to manage expenses, church leaders should start with an examination of best practices and current practices, a candid evaluation of balance and depth, and a determination of what is needed to go forward.

A bold wellness project won’t require huge increases of spending. It will require the will to seek health.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus, and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.