One important variable to consider when examining congregational life is the types of resources available to a congregation. These resources can be both countable (money, endowments, staff, buildings, members/attenders), or more abstract and relational (shared experiences working through a difficult situation, connection to other organizations or institutions such as a denomination, strength of commitment of members to the congregation). Both the countable and the more relational resources are important to consider when examining congregational life.
Congregations are obviously more than just the sum of its parts — but these different resources available to congregations uniquely shape and help to orchestrate the life of the church.
This discussion will focus on the following types of resources:
- Membership Resources
- Commitment Resources
- Financial and Capital Resources
- Physical and Space Resources
Click here for a bibliography of scholarly examples of the resources frame.
Individual congregations often have a strong sense of “who we are” — what sort of people make up the congregation. Understanding the demographics of the congregation — the age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, or socioeconomic characteristics — allows the congregational leadership to better tailor the services of the community to the regular attenders. Moreover, understanding those demographic characteristics may provide important insights into the resources of the congregation.
For smaller congregations, a survey questionnaire may not be necessary. A small task force may be able to use the congregation’s roles to estimate demographic and socioeconomic data for the members. While this task force would be just an estimation, it will likely be fairly accurate. But these task forcescannot collect data on individuals’ attitudes and commitments.
One of the easiest ways to better understand the make-up of the congregation is through a questionnaire or survey. When using a questionnaire to better understand the congregation’s resources, it is important to first think through what information on the congregants’ demographic characteristics would be important. For example:
- Age might tell you about energy or experience resources
- Employment status might tell you about available time to volunteer
- Average commutes might tell you about evening availability for meetings and events
A few examples of questionnaires are on the page dedicated to questionnaires and surveys. Don’t just include items because they are regularly on surveys — be sure to limit the questionnaire to questions that would be the most useful to you.
One important topic to the conversation of resources is also often difficult for congregations to discuss: economic resources. You will likely want to know the answers to questions about social class, such as people’s educational level, occupation status, and income. There are a number of reasons why these demographic factors are important:
- Existing research on individual’s religious life notes correlations between these financial characteristics and choice of congregation, preference for worship style, theological viewpoints, and preferences for mission orientation in the world. More information about the connection of individual characteristics and religious life can be found here.
- Resources people have gained through education may be important for the congregation — a church needs a variety of resources and volunteers, anything from an accountant to elementary teacher. Knowing educational knowledge and experience will allow the congregation to better use the gifts of the community.
- Income levels are useful for understanding ability to give. Tithing or donating to the congregation can be a difficult discussion to have, but it may springboard a conversation about stewardship and the importance of giving financially. Coupling income information with employment status or age information can allow the congregation to predict likely future resources.
Membership resources are only potential resources until they can be mobilized by the congregation through commitment to the organization. Commitment is difficult to measure, but common measures include worship attendance, small group or religious education attendance, and financial giving. These resources may vary based on denomination or organization; before you can ask how much commitment is present, you must know what the commitment expectations are within your community.
One useful way to understand the commitment expectations of the congregational community is by assembling a focus group to ask members what sorts of expectations your community should have for its members. See the list of potential expectations on the side for some suggestions. Ask the focus group members to rank the order of the community expectations for your congregation. Then ask the group what does your congregation expect from its members?
|Which of these are expectations in your congregation?|
|Adapted from Studying Congregations.|
Membership Change Over Time
One of the key aspects of commitment for congregations is membership change within the organization. Religious groups vary in the amount of focus they give to statistics and membership records. You may want to think through the most useful statistics to examine for your particular religious group. You may be interested in looking at rates of attendance rather than rates of membership, either because the membership roles are outdated or there are a lot of regular attenders who have not yet joined. A Catholic community may take on the idea of the parish, wanting to include all the Catholics within a geographic area. You may want to examine the rates of members joining or leaving the community, but rates alone don’t explain where the members have come from, or where those who left went. Examining how people join may illuminate some of those issues — were they born into the community? Did they transfer their membership from another group? Were they previously unaffiliated? And how did people leave? Did they ask for a transfer of membership? Were there prolonged times of inactivity? Examining such rates can illuminate potential strengths and weaknesses within the congregation.
Check out this example of different stats about [a particular congregation], as well as an analysis about how these stats can help describe the resources of your community.
It’s important to also think through the community — the ecology — around your congregation. Membership or attendance stability will differ based on some demographic statistics of the community. College towns, for example, tend to have highly transient populations of students who may attend worship while they are in school, but gone for the summer, and leave after graduation. Looking at trends overtime with individuals who have lived in the community a long time may illuminate some times of growth or decline, such as when an important factory closed or when a charismatic pastor came.
Financial and Capital Resources
Although giving money is a central component of understanding commitment, many congregations are hesitant to openly discuss money and congregational giving. Closely examining the budget, both in terms of the proposed budget as well as the actual expenditures, can provide important insights into the values and identity of the congregation. Perhaps music and liturgy is incredibly important, and thus the congregation spends money not only on a regular organist, but on a top-notch choir director, new sheet music, and a brass or string quartet on important holidays. That dedication to music will be reflected in the congregation’s budget. If youth and child education is a dedication to the congregation and little-to-no funds go to youth and child education, re-examining the congregational identity (or the budget) is likely in order.
Comparing revenue and expenditures over time may be an important way to track rates of giving, debt, and general measures of financial well-being. See this page for more information on examining financial and capital resources.
Physical and Space Resources
Physical spaces within the congregation can be an important resource, both financially and religiously. For many congregations, particular places within the physical building have important symbolic and religious meaning to congregants. For some individuals, a large part of their connection to the congregation is through parts of the building, as a spatial location of religious experiences of the group. The connection between the congregational community and the physical building can be both positive and negative. The building can provide a physical location for growth and strength for the congregation and the community. It can also, however, be a source for conflict and dissension. Discussions about how to best care for the building as well as how to best use particular rooms or spaces can become conflictual due to the strong passion and connection some congregants may feel for the physical building.
For some congregants, the physical space is a connection to a broad sense of family — both the family of the congregation, as well as their particular family. Rites such as weddings, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and funerals often take place in these religious buildings, and become inextricably tied to individual identity and family life. Even the connection of the regular ritual of attending services or religious education classes can lead to strong ties between an individual and the physical building.
When religious leaders work to change and strengthen the life of the congregation, they must work to understand and honor the loyalties and connections the congregants have to the physical space. Any examination of the limitations or liabilities of the current building need to be undertaken recognizing and appreciating the deeply-felt connection some congregants may have with the physical space.
You might want to start with a resource inventory of your space, seriously considering the degree to which your space is allowing your congregation to provide for its ministry. A physical building can open up a congregation to many opportunities and chances to minister to congregants and the community, but caring for a declining building may defer resources from other needs of the congregation.
|Tips for a Space Resources Inventory|
|Think Creatively About How to Best Use Your Space|
If you find that your building is in need of significant updating, it is likely worthwhile to develop a master plan for the future of your building, bringing in an architect or other expert to help guide the process. The experts, in conjunction with some people from the congregation who are sensitive to the history and connection to the building, should work to develop a long-term maintenance program for ongoing repairs and development of the property.