What Difference Does the UCC Make?

This article is dedicated to Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, in gratitude for her faithful service to the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data.

As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, I believe that the UCC makes a real difference in the world. But what difference, exactly, is that? And how do I (or any of us) know that?

For nonprofits (including the church), one way to describe the difference that you make comes from statistics. And last month, congregations across the UCC shared some basic statistics with the wider denomination. Our churches filled out annual reports about average attendance for worship last year, how many new members we received, how many children participated in faith formation, what our income and expenses were, etc.

This exercise is common to most denominations, but it’s capacity to give meaningful information about the health of a church or a denomination has been questioned in recent years. In 2010, Stephen Sterner, former Executive for the UCC’s Local Church Ministries, said, “We’re not looking at church membership as much as we used to as an indicator of vitality.”  Pastor Carey Nieuwhof writes, “Having been in church leadership most of my adult life, tracking numbers has done a number on me too, both positively and negatively.” More recently, the UCC’s Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi published an article based on extensive research which revealed that size, growth, and numbers do not equal church vitality.

Are categories like “attendance” and “income” the right things to be counting? In addition to these categories, might the wider church also want to count numbers related to mission activities (e.g. how many meals did your church serve at a local homeless shelter last year)? And is counting this stuff even the best way to assess what difference the UCC (or any denomination) makes?

Church consultant Gil Rendle offers some perspective on this debate in his recent book Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics (click here for a brief review). In this book, Rendle advocates for a three-fold approach to assessing the health and vitality of a church. He argues that we must consider input, throughput, and output.

Source: http://www.pixabay.com
“Counting attendance in the pews is important. But is it the only metric for church vitality?

Input refers to the resources that the church has. This category is full of nouns: how many members do you have, how much income do you receive, what is your weekly attendance, etc. These are the kinds of things that churches can and often do count, and that frequently go into annual reports. They are also the numbers that the UCC recently asked of your local church. Rendle argues that we have to do this kind of counting. Without this information, he writes, we cannot fully assess how we’re doing.

But Rendle argues that we cannot stop there. After all, just because you have 25 people showing up for a program doesn’t inherently mean they are doing anything Christian! To contextualize input, then, Rendle suggests a second category: throughput.

Throughput refers to the activities you do with the resources you have. This category is full of verbs: how many meals we cooked, how many hours we volunteered, what new programs we created, etc. These activities can also be counted, yet congregations and denominations rarely do so. To my knowledge, the UCC has never asked its local churches to send in this information on an annual basis. Imagine what a sight it would be to see our General Minister and President going around to Conference Annual Meetings each year, joyfully celebrating the millions of volunteer hours that hundreds of thousands of UCC members gave to their congregations in any given year. And the number could be known, if churches were just asked to report such hours along with worship attendance each year!

Still, Rendle argues that we cannot stop there. After all, a group of volunteers can do an activity without it necessarily being a fruitful Christian ministry. How do we know if an activity is having any kind of vital, faithful impact in the world? According to Rendle, we need a third category to assess such vitality: output.

Output refers to the difference or change to be accomplished via input and throughput. In grammar terms, output is where you talk about purpose with phrases like “so that …” and “in order to …”. This is where, to use Rendle’s distinction, counting ends and measuring begins. Up until this point, churches can put numbers on their metrics. At this point, however, the quantitative (i.e. numerical) analysis of your church ends and the qualitative (i.e. descriptive) analysis begins.

This is the point, Rendle argues, where the church almost invariably falters. Christians of every denomination and of no particular denomination frequently do church just to do church, because “it’s what we’ve always done,” and not because there is a specific and compelling change we are pro-actively trying to make in the world. Yet to be considered a vital church, Rendle argues that we need to be able to name and claim (with vibrant, descriptive language) the difference God has called us to make in the world. And Rendle argues that any analysis of a church, a conference, or a denomination’s vitality is not truly complete until input, throughput, and output have all been assessed.

Lest this seem intimidating, let me show you how you can do this work in a single sentence. Consider the following example that you might see in a church newsletter:

“23 volunteers packed 500 meals at last Sunday’s program so that fewer children in our neighborhood will go to bed hungry this summer after the school year ends.”

Source:www.pixabay.com

In this one sentence, we see the entirety of Rendle’s approach to analyzing church vitality. We have the input (“23 people”), the throughput (“packed 500 meals at last Sunday’s program”), and the output (“so that fewer children in our neighborhood will go to bed hungry this summer after the school year ends”). Take note of just how specific the language of the output has to be in order to compete with the input and the throughput. To keep your church’s “eyes on the prize,” Rendle argues that you have to use vivid, detailed language that points clearly to a purpose. Otherwise, folks will just get hung up on the numbers (“hey, last year we only had 19 people at that event!”) instead of seeing how your congregation lives out the gospel (“whatever you did for one of the least of these children, you did for me.”)

We in the UCC (as in all denominations) need an accurate accounting of our input. We need to know the count of worship attendance, faith formation, pledging, and more. Despite the occasional groan about filling out annual reports, I believe it is vital that we keep sending these reports to the wider church.

If Rendle is correct, though, the national setting may need to ask for a little more information from us in 2019 in order to name and claim the difference the UCC really makes in the world. In addition to questions about headcounts, we may need a category entitled something like “What did you do last year?” so that our national leadership can understand the throughput of our congregations. Did your congregation feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned? If so, what are the exact numbers around that?

And even beyond numbers, perhaps we could have an open-ended descriptive category so that we could share stories about congregational output. This could get unwieldy, so I would suggest keeping it simple. To tie in with the UCC’s new vision statement, perhaps it could be an answer to just one question: “Looking back at the past year, describe one specific way that your congregation showed Christ’s love by making the world more just for all.” This would, I suspect, give our denominational leadership an even clearer understanding of how local churches interpret the new vision statement. If nothing else, having loads of answers to that question might make writing the Annual Report a lot easier next year!

There’s a reason this blog is called “Vital Signs and Statistics” and not just “Vital Statistics”. Numbers matter, but so do stories. In order to truly see where there is vitality within the UCC, we need to look for both signs and statistics. When we do so, we are able, with God’s grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to accurately assess exactly what difference the UCC makes. The more fully we can articulate that difference, the more fully God can grow our denomination in both size and spirit to serve a world that is aching for transformation.

David LindseyRev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.

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6 thoughts on “What Difference Does the UCC Make?

  1. David I believe you are on the right track. Some of the things that point to “Vitality” in congregations have a solid base in numbers of all kinds, while others really can’t be measured but like the Spirit can move through a community or area, making change possible. As the UCC and as a part of the larger Church of Jesus Christ we need to be aware of these things, even if they can not be measured or as is the case with one of my congregations, existing in an area with a declining population base has maintained the same membership level, increased financial support and mission support and increased the ministry it offers for over 25 years. How many congregations can claim that? To often I see the UCC ignoring these kinds of congregations in the remote areas of our country and other clergy I respect remind me that often small congregations in city centers are also ignored because they lack the numbers and finances to be important. If we are going to continue to claim that we are a church working for justice, can the issues we put at the top of our agenda and focus our attention and resources on only be the issues, as it is I believe now, that have the numbers of supporters and can generate the financial support to first of all ‘Squeak the loudest to get the grease.” What about the issues that because of neglect are to weak to squeak but still Need the grease.” Can we call ourselves a “Just Church” if these issues are ignored?

    Thanks David
    John Tschudy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good questions, John! I am reminded that Jesus celebrated the widow’s mite because she gave out of her poverty, not her wealth. How do we make sure that we celebrate such vital faith and generosity?

      As you know, churches of all sizes (and of any size) can be vital, functional, dysfunctional, or even toxic. That’s why I think it’s so important to understand how we define and measure vitality. If “vitality” means more than just an increased head count in the sanctuary or more cash in the coffers, then we likely need better measurement tools than a lot of congregations and denominations currently use. That’s part of why I love writing for the wider church on this blog; it’s a chance to really explore in depth what those tools might be.

      BTW: Are you still serving in Baudette? If so, please say hello to Minnesota for me! I served in Minneapolis for seven years and had a wonderful experience. Even met and married a proud Minnesota woman who still gets back for the Twins’ Home Opener each year 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes I’m still serving in Baudette. Five blocks from the “Point of Entry” to Canada, which gives me a totally different take on border and immigration issues, like oil pipelines Also serving at Birchdale about 30 miles east along the border and have just begun a conversation with Faith Church UCC in International Falls about 40 miles east of there. Kind of fun having to drive to work and see whether we see more eagles or deer, an occasional bear, or wolf or whatever else there is.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What Difference does St. John’s UCC make? – St. John's UCC

  3. While statistics can be an important measure of church vitality, how do measure such things as congregations witnessing by words and actions on important issues in communities where often the loudest voices are for injustice, fear and anger? Often small UCC congregations in remote places may be the only voice speaking up on issues such as equality for same sex relations, the truth about Islam, speaking out against the constant stream of misinformation coming out of the conservative media sources. In this time of “Fake News” how do we measure the need for voices of truth, faith and justice to be heard? Do we care about the difference these small voices can make across much of America?

    John Tschudy

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    • John, thanks for taking the time to read my article and share your thoughts on it!

      You raise some excellent points. Indeed, several of our churches are the only witnesses for miles and miles to God’s radically inclusive love. Your comment caused me to reflect on a yoked, two-church pastorate in the Midwest where a colleague once served. One church was in a small town (less than 10,000 people), but it was the biggest town in the county. And that congregation was the lone LGBT-inclusive church in the area. The other congregation was in a small village that had been shrinking for decades. The members of that congregation were faithful in their own way, by continuing to build community in a place where the community was dying. Each congregation has its own call from God in its particular context, just like every person has their own call (ordained or lay).

      So as you asked, how do we measure the ways in which congregations are (or aren’t) living out their call? That’s where I think the crux of the issue lies. I’m seeing a shift in the fields of church leadership and congregational studies alike, a shift that is moving away from strictly numbers and toward a blend of numbers and narratives. If a church with 100 average attendees is reaching half the residents of their small village of 200, then isn’t that arguably a more “successful” ministry than a church with 1,000 members in a metro area of 5 million? Context matters, and we need it in order to interpret the numbers we share with the wider UCC. I hope that we’ll find a way to drill down and get into more of that context in the Annual Reports in the coming years.

      Even within the world of church numbers, though, I read and hear more and more voices asking if we’re actually counting the right things. Congregations need to know how much money they raise for next year’s budget, but dollars are just a means to an end — i.e. lives transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit. And since categories like “dollars raised” are easier to count than a category like “lives transformed”, we often fall into the trap of doing the easy thing. But if our primary focus is on proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, then we need to have some good measuring tools to see how we are doing at proclaiming that good news.

      I think those tools need to include numbers, but I think we need to find additional metrics for our congregations. In addition to counting worship attendance, we could count how many adult baptisms our church did this past year. In addition to asking “how much money did we raise?”, I think we would do well to ask “how many people gave to our church’s ministry for the first time?”. In addition to a headcount on Adult Education, I think we would be wise to also ask how many people came to our weekly Bible study for the first time — and how many came back!

      What do you think, though? Are local UCC congregations measuring the right things? And is the wider UCC asking congregations the right questions in order to measure vitality throughout the denomination?

      Like

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