Rethinking the Metrics of Congregational Success
By Martin Thielen
April 10, 2023
All institutions and professions have metrics of success. In spite of claims to the contrary, that’s also true for congregations and clergypersons. Pastors love to quote Mother Teresa, “God didn’t call me to be successful but to be faithful.” And to their credit, most clergy do seek to be faithful. But they also want to succeed.
Traditional Metrics of Congregational Success
As a young pastor, my denomination had one primary metric of success—Sunday school attendance. Other metrics existed, including church membership, Cooperative Program (denominational) giving, mission trips, building projects, and the number of annual baptisms. But the most important benchmark was how many people showed up for weekly Sunday school classes. For years, the Southern Baptist Convention didn’t even count worship attendance. It was not uncommon for congregations to have more people in Sunday school than in worship. In short, during my SBC tenure, Sunday school attendance was the North Star of success.
When I became a United Methodist, worship attendance became the primary measure of congregational effectiveness. Other metrics existed, especially paying 100 percent of denominational apportionments—along with church membership, new members, and financial contributions. Pastoral compensation was also an important metric, especially among clergy. Every year, our Annual Conference journal listed every pastor’s salary, from the highest to the lowest, and clergy constantly jockeyed to climb up the list. But overall, worship attendance was the benchmark that mattered most.
For most of my years in ministry, I accepted these metrics without question, especially attendance figures. I worked hard to increase attendance at my church, often with good results. Like many other pastors, much of my identity, feelings of self-worth, and vocational success hung on how many people showed up on Sunday morning. I’m not saying that was healthy. I am saying that it was the reality for me and thousands of other clergy and congregations.
The Impact of COVID on Church Metrics
And then COVID hit. All of a sudden, the old metrics became outdated. With congregations shutting down worship services for months and people hesitant to gather when in-person worship returned, worship attendance became a deeply depressing benchmark of effectiveness.
Three years later, most churches have not recovered and likely never will. Recent surveys reveal that the majority of congregations run fewer in worship than they did pre-Covid. Other traditional metrics of congregational success, including membership and giving, have also proven problematic during a time of significant decline in institutional religion.
However, old metrics are hard to let go. Most church people, both clergy and lay, still place significant emphasis on membership, attendance, and giving—even if they try not to. Unfortunately, these metrics are contributing to a dramatic decrease in clergy contentment.
For example, in 2015, Barna Research Group polling discovered that 72 percent of pastors described themselves as “very satisfied” with their vocation. But in 2022, only 52 percent of pastors characterized themselves as “very satisfied.” And the number of pastors who “feel very satisfied at their current church” declined from 53 percent in 2015 to 38 percent in 2022. This growing dissatisfaction among pastors is especially pronounced among younger clergy. In 2022, only 35 percent of pastors younger than forty-five said they were “very satisfied” with their vocation. And 66 percent of these younger pastors have gone through a period where they “significantly doubted” their calling.
Traditional metrics of congregational success don’t fully explain this rapid decrease in clergy contentment. But clearly it’s a major contributor. As one pastor recently told me, “It’s hard to be content when all your metrics of success tell you that you are failing.” As a result, many church people, both clergy and lay, are calling for new benchmarks of congregational effectiveness.
Reader Responses Concerning Congregational Metrics
Given these realities, I recently asked readers of Doubter’s Parish, “In a pandemic/post-pandemic world, what metrics should be used to determine congregational effectiveness and success?” A good number of you responded. However, no clear consensus emerged.
For example, numerous readers were hesitant to jettison the old metrics. As one person said, “While attendance figures have declined, it still matters how many people show up for worship and discipleship groups.”
Others felt that traditional metrics need a major overhaul. For example, one reader said, “The old standbys (attendance, giving, and membership) are no longer relevant in today’s world. We need a complete new system of congregational and pastoral evaluation.”
Below are a few representative examples of your responses:
- “If membership growth is success, then the metric is an easy one to find. However, if the goal is changed lives, then it’s complex . . . but not impossible. A mission-focused church can count how many sandwiches were made at the food kitchen, for example. Or how many homeless were given a bed. Most churches need help understanding missional success.”
- “I have never been enamored with the traditional metrics of success because they are based on the Western model of the capitalist economy. Why does the church exist? Aren’t we called to follow the Jesus model through small-group interaction, teaching through observable actions, helping others to do the same, and leading them to become teachers of the Jesus model? Real success is living out Micah 6:8 by doing justice, being kind to everyone, and walking humbly with God.”
- “What measures of success should be used? For me the answer is engagement. Lives changed or people benefited (although this is difficult to measure). It’s got to stop being about numbers as such.”
- “Although some people don’t like it, in today’s world, congregational metrics of effectiveness need to include the number of people participating in online worship and Zoom groups. There’s no going back on these.”
- “One important metric might be, how many young persons are entering ministry?”
- “The most important metric is service to the community. For example, actions to get local government to shoulder human services more effectively like housing and health care.”
- “From my laity and progressive perspective, success would be measured by a congregation that was interested in learning new ways to read the Bible (nonliterally) and was open to new ways of learning about religion and the history of Christianity. I would also measure success by how church members are loving and caring for others in the community. Of course, these things are not as easy to measure as the number of people in the pew, but I think we all would recognize such a thriving congregation. It might look more like the Beloved Community or the Kingdom of God more fully on this earth. It would be a church I could get excited about being a part of!”
Although no clear consensus has emerged about what should constitute new congregational metrics, the conversation is clearly happening, especially given the dramatic changes produced by Covid. It’s a much-needed conversation and long overdue.
Final Reflections from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse
I don’t have easy answers for revising congregational metrics. On the one hand, it’s unrealistic to ignore traditional benchmarks like worship attendance, membership, and giving. If you want to keep the doors open, these things still matter, even if they are secondary concerns.
On the other hand, it would be refreshing for churches to boldly proclaim a countercultural message that love, compassion, community, service, and justice matter more than institutional survival. Finding the right balance between mission and sustainability is the challenge. However, at this point in my life, I am far more interested in the “kingdom of God” metrics of Jesus than I am in the traditional statistical metrics of organized religion.
While working on this article, I happened to read a children’s book by Charlie Mackesy called The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. It vividly raised the question, “What does success look like in today’s world, both individually and congregationally?” I’d like to share a few quotes with you:
- “I’m so small,” said the mole. “Yes,” said the boy, “but you make a huge difference.”
- “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Kind” said the boy.
- “What do you think success is?” asked the boy. “To love,” said the mole.
- “What do you think is the biggest waste of time?” “Comparing yourself to others,” said the mole.
- “Isn’t it odd. We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”
- “Everyone is a bit scared,” said the horse. “But we are less scared together.”
- “I’ve realized why we are here,” whispered the boy. “For cake?” asked the mole. “To love,” said the boy. “And be loved,” said the horse.
The wisdom of this little book doesn’t lend itself to measurable and actionable metrics of individual or congregational success. But it does sound a lot like the gospel.
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