5 Questions (and Answers!) about New Measures of Congregational Success

June 10, 2016Amy Asin

Congregations have a tendency to measure success by counting the number of heads in the room – but if they want to become stronger, this is actually the number-one habit congregations need to break. In the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of presenting my presentation on this topic, aptly titled “Beyond Counting Heads,” to hundreds of congregational leaders. Now, it’s also available in a short video, and this accompanying post details the five-step process of adopting new measures.

When I give this presentation, I’m often asked the same five questions, all of which speak to congregational leaders’ concerns about adding new measures of success (relationships, impact, and meaning) to their existing ones (including head counts, budget, food/space, and complaints) Here are those questions and my answers to them, designed to help congregations look to the future.

1. “Why do we need to adopt new measures?”

Most congregational leaders are very concerned about traditional measures of success, and perhaps more than anything, about budget. They should be, because having an economically sustainable organization is critical to its present and future – but if all we care about is a balanced budget, then we’re indicating that we don’t care about whether congregants are having meaningful or transformational experiences.

Some people fear that if we start looking at newer measures of success, we will lose sight of budgets and headcounts – but this is a false assumption. We must also get better at understanding the tradeoffs we make when we cut expenses. To assume that the quality of what we do will stay the same is erroneous. Adding new measures doesn’t mean getting rid of the existing ones; it does mean adding perspective to our financial decisions.

2. “Doesn’t it take a lot of time to work on and talk about relationships, impact, and meaning?”

Maybe. If your current board and committee meetings focus on how to get more people to attend your events, how to shave expenses to stay within budget, or how to corral more volunteers, then adding in discussions about how to achieve success under a new set of measures could take more time.

But consider this: Maybe you’re spending too much time on the existing discussion. If you’re only having surface-level conversations with congregants, then yes, developing deeper intimacy will be difficult – but if leadership does not embrace a shift toward placing congregants first by being willing to talk about these critical issues, then change simply will not happen.

3. “What if my board members aren’t good at building relationships?”

Not every board member was chosen for their position because he or she is outgoing and great at working the room at an oneg – and that shouldn’t be expected. Neither, though, should it be expected that all of that work should be left to clergy or that only top leadership builds relationships. If we want to be stronger, we will likely need to double or triple the number of congregants who see themselves as leaders in our congregations. Everyone is responsible.

4. “Won’t the new measures be based on anecdotal evidence?”

Again, maybe. This question assumes that the current data we use to make decisions in our congregations is the correct data and that any new data measures will be weaker. Instead, I challenge the assumption that we are currently using the right data. Anecdotal evidence, while imperfect, is better than completely ignoring a whole set of factors, and it is possible to systematically collect qualitative data – but it takes a shift in perspective.

5. “How do we actually do this?”

Going beyond counting heads is a five-step process which includes reaching out to congregants to understand more deeply how they define success. I outline this process in this post and my recent video presentation. As congregations around North America start to experiment with new methods of collecting data, we continue to hear new, creative examples of how our communities are adopting new measures of success in order to stay agile and relevant now and for the generations to come.

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