Guest commentary by Nicole Farley
In 2017 the Presbytery of Milwaukee received a grant, which made possible new ways of attending to church vitality within our congregations. One branch of this support has been to make Holy Cow! Consulting (an assessment tool for churches) affordable for any congregation in the presbytery. And one way that’s been done is to train leaders in the presbytery to serve as volunteer interpreters of the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) report.
I was trained to be one of the presbytery’s team of Holy Cow! interpreters, and have since walked alongside six of the 18 churches who have engaged Holy Cow! so far to consider how they might make themselves more vital. Below are some reasons you might consider engaging in such an assessment, especially in a time of transition (but, really, any time is good to learn more about a congregation).
One of the things I say in opening any interpretation is that knowing where you want to go, but not knowing where you are, is the functional definition of being lost. For churches who know what, where and who they want to be, but don’t have a clear understanding of what, where and who they are now, getting to that new destination can be extremely frustrating and maybe even impossible. The CAT serves to help churches understand their starting points. Perhaps the church wants to bring in and involve new people and make changes to attract younger folks and families. (Pro-tip:95% of churches have these as two of their top three priorities.) But what if most folks in the congregation feel like the church needs to change little to accomplish that goal? Or most folks feel the church is not particularly receptive to change? Until the congregation begins to work on this culture, any changes needed to reach greater vitality (and change is alwaysrequired) are going to fall short of their potential.
The assessment helps churches name their strengths and identify growth areas with a concreteness that is derived from input from the larger congregational body, not just a sense gleaned from comments made by a subset of vocal members. Knowing these strengths and growth areas allows a congregation to lean on its strengths and work on areas where it needs growth in order to move towards new goals. For example, if the results indicate that a congregation has skills in conflict management, utilizing those tools with intention when introducing new changes will allow people to speak in ways and use language that’s already familiar, which can reduce anxiety that naturally accompanies change. If a church is struggling with significant unresolved issues, naming and addressing them before seeking to grow the community will make for a healthier, more appealing and more sustainable congregation.
Within our presbytery, we are encouraging church bodies to engage in this assessment every three years to understand and address their health in an ongoing manner, much as we strive to have regular physicals for our human bodies. But, you might ask, what if we still have the same pastor, budget and programs as we had three years ago (or the last time we did an assessment)? The reality is, even if the church has exactly the same members as it did when last surveyed, it is in some ways a different church, as people’s lives constantly change. Some people will have retired or found new hobbies or switched careers or moved to a new house or welcomed grandchildren or had babies or bid farewell to loved ones. That means their interests will have changed, and the way they spend their time will have changed, which means the heart of the church will to some extent have changed. Being aware of who the church is in this moment helps the church of today move most adeptly into who the church will become.
A couple of years ago Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke at a Milwaukee Presbytery meeting and, in talking about change in the church, she teased about people in the early cave churches asking: “Why aren’t young people coming to the cave church? Maybe if we had better music we could bring them into our cave church.” Her point was that the church lives even as churches change. Holy Cow! assessments can help churches be the living church amidst all the changes individual congregations will face.
There are exceptions, as with anything. The Congregation Assessment Tool is intended for churches of all sizes, and the data Holy Cow! draws from comes from churches of all sizes. What they found over time was that a special group benefits from a modified assessment tool. Worshipping communities with fewer than 35 members are encouraged to engage with the Conversations tool in place of the CAT. It has a smaller cost and a less intensive, yet equally valuable, assessment survey designed for smaller communities.
Very infrequently, the assessment reflects that much deeper work needs to be done in order to restore health to a congregation. For most churches, however, the patterns and priorities the tool identifies help the community shape what they attend to with their fullest energy, and what they set aside as no longer a top priority with confidence, knowing that certain areas, while still potentially valuable, have less impact on the energy and satisfaction of the members overall.
Whether your community is one in active transition or one that seems to be clicking along smoothly, the Congregation Assessment Tool provides a reading of strengths and growth areas which can help any congregation move more confidently and purposefully into its future. More details can be found at holycowconsulting.com.
NICOLE FARLEY is an ordained pastor in the PC(USA), who serves as the founder and pastoral artist with A New Creation, an arts ministry that brings communities into the creation of worship-ful art together. She and her husband, Scott, live in Gurnee, Illinois, and together they have an adult son named Jim, and a soon-to-be-daughter-in-law named Casey. Besides art and lived theology, she’ll gladly have a conversation about books, podcasts, music and movies.