I’ve served as a pastor in three different UCC churches, ranging from California to Minnesota to Virginia. Each of the congregations I’ve served has had its own personality. Still, they’ve had something in common with a great many churches: an uneasy relationship with measurement. Should we track the effectiveness of our ministries in measurable ways? What methods might we use to observe impact over time? Could we make better decisions if we had good data? Where would we even begin?
In an effort to find actionable data, many churches turn to three metrics: membership, attendance, and pledging. Some of the most dedicated church leaders I know measure congregational health based on how many people joined the church this year, whether church attendance rose over last year, and how much money the pledge campaign generated.
These numbers are worth observing, but they don’t always offer information you can use. Consider church membership (though I could tell similar stories about attendance and pledging). I’ve had years when a church I served took in many new members, few of whom became regular attenders. I’ve had other years when fewer members joined, but those that did became deeply involved in the congregation. Which was the healthier group of new members: the larger one, or the smaller one?
Part of the answer has to do with knowing exactly what we’re measuring. In the case of membership, attendance, and pledging, we are primarily measuring church size. Churches often assume that bigger is always better, but I’m not sure that Jesus would say that. Sometimes he drew big crowds (Luke 14:25), but at other times, his words whittled down his audience (John 6:60-70). Knowing your church’s size matters — just ask Alice Mann — but let’s be honest: a church can be functional (or dysfunctional) at any size. If Jesus didn’t think bigger was automatically better, then perhaps church size isn’t the best metric for congregational health.
Instead of church size alone, what if we drilled deeper into measuring the work to which Jesus calls us? In the gospels, Jesus tells his followers to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34), to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). To my eyes, such teachings ask us to focus on the care of souls. According to theologian Ronald Rolheiser, the care of souls necessarily means prayer, community, justice, and joy (i.e. mellowness of heart). These four, Rolheiser writes, are non-negotiables of following Jesus. And isn’t that what we’re trying to do in church – help people follow Jesus?
If so, then perhaps we should measure how we’re doing with the care of souls. Is that possible? Could we put numbers around prayer, community, justice, and joy? A few years back, I decided to do so. I developed a questionnaire, and once a year for three years, I asked church members to assess how they (and our church) were doing in each category. Here’s a sample:
Congregants filled out surveys anonymously. I compiled the results, calculated averages, and reported back to the congregation.
The replies I received helped me to focus on specific areas for spiritual growth. The congregation reported in Year 1 that they were doing well on community (personally and corporately), but struggling with joy. I therefore focused ensuing sermons on the joy that comes from following Jesus. In Year 2, the congregation reported personal growth in joy but continuing struggles with joy as a congregation. I shifted my preaching to help us be more joyful as a church community. In Year 3, the church reported an increase in both personal and congregational joy.
Did the sermons lead directly to more joy? It’s hard to say with certainty, and any credit belongs to the Holy Spirit. Still, I honestly think this approach produced greater spiritual growth than if I had made strategic decisions based on traditional metrics alone.
Like any pastor, I care about attendance, membership, and pledging. These three metrics help us measure church size, which gives us the chance to “right-size” our approaches to ministry. These metrics, however, are not inherent predictors of spiritual health. We also need to attend to the quality of our church’s life of prayer, community, justice, and joy. So why not find ways to measure how we’re doing with the care of souls?