Assessment tools are used in congregational planning. Such tools are helpful in strategic planning, formation of new programs, improvement of existing projects and more.
There are internal assessment tools and external assessment tools. Internal tools help you learn about your congregation, its members, staff and other constituents who are part of your congregation. External tools help you learn more about your neighborhood and the community around you.
Here are five things to keep in mind when thinking about using assessment tools.
For many, the condition of United States congregations and denominations is worse than reported by sociologists. In sundry settings, the decline is now irreversible. See Jim Collins’ research about the irreversible decline of other once strong institutions, How the Mighty Fall.
It is upsetting to be the one who has to tell a congregation that a full time clergy leader is no longer affordable. It is upsetting to be a denominational representative reporting that the judicatory camp is closing. It is one thing to read a statistic. It is another to be the statistic. The social science research does not capture that pain. “My congregation is going to close. This feels so sad.”
Addressing the grief
There is anticipatory grief related to the decline. The grief is experienced by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. There is also loss that has occurred because of the natural desire to delay the deep pain that goes with closing a congregation. That is, the closing of the congregation has been hindered partially to fend off the understandable pain of actual loss. Perhaps this is inevitable. There may be no other way than the long way. There is much actual loss that has occurred that has not been lamented by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. We are not good at holding loss when it involves congregations. How could we be?
When decline is inevitable, let’s attend respectfully to grief so that the pain is not needlessly prolonged.
If there is any truth that the condition of congregations and denominations is worse than reported, it is also true that, in many settings, there is inspiring vitality.
For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule. This is an observable reality. For example, walk through the front door of the new congregation hosting 200 worshipers the average age of 22. Another exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.
These vibrant experiences are not commonly captured in social science surveys. Many thriving congregations are new. They aren’t included in the researchers’ databases. Also, their stories do not fit a normative pattern of problem and then solution. The stories are personal. The stories are idiosyncratic. They are signs of God’s free Spirit. They are about new creations. They are signs of leadership courage and maturity. Such exceptions often are dependent on a leader’s particular charisma and thus not replicable.
Sharing the stories
The story of such exceptions should be shared more widely. I visited a brand new urban congregation last year which welcomed 40 people in worship. This year, the average attendance at that congregation is 140. Besides worship, their primary activity is befriending the homeless. Everything they plan, everything they do, involves the question, “How can we include our homeless friends?”
There is plenty of bad news about the decline of congregational life in the United States. But there are even more stories we haven’t yet heard about congregations that are flourishing.
Increasingly, all kinds of congregations are actively externally focused. I’ve observed this since 2008. The change is remarkable. Really!
The energy is so powerful. The conversations exciting. The possibilities abundant.
At the Center for Congregations, we receive calls daily from congregational leaders and members inquiring about outreach.
“We want to start a partnership with the local public school.”
“Our congregation has started a new mental health support group.”
“How do we establish a separate 501 (c) 3 related to job training?”
The academic work of the missional church movement has filtered down to the local congregation in positive ways.
There’s a generational shift too
Many young adults find it deeply meaningful to be of service to others. Congregations with young adults are looking at social service and social entrepreneurship. I have been in contact with numerous congregations that have active young adult membership. The focus of these congregations is faith formation, relationships and community engagement. I’m convinced the appearance of these creative, often flourishing, congregations are underreported when we talk about the state of congregational life.
It is ironic that sociological studies report that congregations are declining when their social impact is increasing. Ram Cnaan writes about the effect of congregations on their urban communities. This kind of outreach must be intensifying across the country. Check out Cnaan’s book The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America at http://thecrg.org/resources/the-other-philadelphia-story-how-local-congregations-support-quality-of-life-in-urban-america.
Here’s a secret for you. The Center for Congregations in Indiana has learned something while working with 3500 congregations that we want to share with you.
Ready? Here it is.
A congregation that uses an outside resource in concert with its own creativity is likely to effectively accomplish the new things it sets out to do.
What is an outside resource?
An outside resource is just about everything you will find while searching the Congregational Resource Guide. An outside resource might be a book. It might be a website. An outside resource might be consultant, a coach or a workshop.
What is a congregation’s own creativity?
You know that! Such creativity involves the skills and talents of clergy and laity. It includes the ideas generated by a high-energy team meeting. It encompasses “aha” moments after a time of prayer.
Learning to do something new in congregations almost always requires both: an outside resource and the congregation’s ingenuity. The inventiveness to do something new is limited when your congregation gives too much power to a resource, or, likewise, tries to go it alone.
Let’s say you are working with an architect to design a portion of your property set aside for an afterschool program. Yes, you want to learn from the architect. You will listen carefully to what she has to say. And you want to make sure the architect understands your congregation and honors your ideas. God is at work in this exchange.
Continue browsing the Congregational Resource Guide. Remember that you have agency over the resources you choose. And while you want to learn from such resources, don’t abdicate the fun of adapting what you learn to your particular context.