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From the Archives: “4 Ways to Reconsider Your Congregation”

We talk a lot on about Frames for Studying Congregations. We use the word “frame” to mean ways to organize thoughts around the topic of studying congregation — you could also think of it as a lens or an orienting strategy.

You might be used to thinking about your congregation in a particular way. Perhaps you consider the ways in which different groups interact, and the power dynamics involved in decision-making. Or maybe you think about the important rituals and symbols within the congregation as ways to motivate or instigate action. Perhaps you think specifically about the individual people — their demographics — and what sorts of groups you are looking to reach out to. Regardless of the way you primarily examine your congregation, using different frames to examine your congregation can provide leverage.

Why is it important to think of your congregation in a number of ways using different frames? Variation in the way you view your congregation can provide needed insight into areas of growth or decline, places where your community has stagnated or been invigorated, what sorts of avenues your congregation has to support the broader community, and how to improve the ways things are done within the congregation.

FRAME 1: Ecological Frame. Examine your congregation in the context of the broader environment. Using the analogy of ecology from biology, think about your broader community as an environment with different types of people, cultures, groups and organizations. Change in the broader community — like change in an ecology — can have important considerations in your local congregation. If a major employer, like a factory or company, closes, people can become unemployed and may move to other areas. If a local election is particularly combative, those relations can enter into congregational conversations. Demographic changes in the community — perhaps through gentrification or “white flight” — can greatly impact the people who surround your congregation, impacting who is likely to feel drawn to enter the building.

FRAME 2: Cultural Frame. This frame considers the artifacts, heroes, and rituals within the congregation. What are the aspects of a congregation’s culture that is important to it? A congregation’s culture generally is organized into three categories: a congregation’s activities (what they do), artifacts (the things they make and hold dear), and accounts (the stories they tell). These activities, artifacts, and accounts are what really make a congregation (or a group in general) a cohesive group. It’s important to understand what brings people together, in terms of the activities they do, the things they value, and the stories they tell.

FRAME 3: Resources Frame. This frame examines the resources that are available to the congregation. “Resources” often elicits the idea of financial resources, but a congregation has a lot of resources beyond that. Membership resources include the people involved in the community. Commitment resources show how committed the members are — do they regularly attend worship? are they willing to volunteer for committees? will they freely donate money to the congregation? Understanding members’ level of commitment may help to illuminate a better understanding of the congregation in general. Financial and capital resources involve the type of income the congregation has, along with the other type of capital resources such as the building or parsonage. Physical and Space Resources include what sort of workable space the congregation has. Some areas may have religious meaning, but other areas may seem more mundane and could be rented out for additional income.

FRAME 4: Process Frame. How does your congregation get things done? Do you use committees or teams? Do single individuals (like the chair of the church council or the pastor) make unilateral decisions? Often times there is a combination of rules on the books (formal processes) and “the way we do things here” (informal processes). Understanding how things are done in your congregation can make things more efficient, and can help level out burdens from overworked committee members.

What sorts of things do you recognize about your congregation after thinking through these four frames? How does your congregation relate to its broader community? What is important to the life of your congregation? What sorts of resources does your congregation have to use or share? And how are things done within your community, versus how they should be done? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at