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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:

Revlevant Articles: Sharing Sacred Space: Bringing Other Communities into Your Building, Commitment to the Congregation: Measurement Best Practices

Click here for examples of the resources frame.

Click here for a bibliography of scholarly examples of the resources frame.

 Membership Resources

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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 Commitment 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?
  • Sharing personal faith with friends and co-workers.
  • Attending services of worship at least weekly.
  • Accepting the doctrinal teachings of the congregation.
  • Maintaining a regular schedule of scripture study and prayer.
  • Performing concrete acts of service and charity with those in need.
  • Taking faith commitments and moral teachings seriously in forming views on public issues and voting for public officials.
  • Serving, when asked, as a volunteer on a committee within the congregation.
  • Being clearly identifiable as a member of a particular faith community by wearing special clothing or adopting special practices in public.
  • Abstaining from certain practices such as dancing or the use of alcohol and tobacco.
  • Avoiding non-religious activities during times of the week traditional set aside for worship.
  • Participating in organized forms of religious education.
  • Reading denominational publications.
  • Being held accountable by religious officials for beliefs and behavior.
  • Taking on special ritual disciplines during seasons of the religious year (for example, Lent for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims, Yom Kippur for Jews).
  • Supporting community groups working for interreligious tolerance and cooperation.
  • Add additional items that apply in your situation.
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.


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 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.

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 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
Planning Considerations
  • Start with particular programs and organizational goals in mind, thinking through what programs your congregation values and what it might want to develop
  • Ask the congregants how the property is viewed and valued, inquiring about tough questions regarding mission and priorities. How can the congregation re-imagine its goals and programs in light of the space? Or what work needs to occur for the programs to be sustained?
  • Think through how any recent changes — new pastor or other staff, a change in membership, different liturgy or music practices — may affect how the congregation uses its building.
Spacial Inventory
  • Walk through the building, taking note of the building and property’s needs and priorities; work to anticipate those sorts of needs and make room for them in the budget physical
  • Note the size and general appearance of the spaces within your building, creating a conditions survey
  • Record who uses each space, for what, and when during the week. Think through what each space invites or limits.
  • Mark what makes each room special or specifically useable, keeping a careful eye on historical items, works of art, or sacred objects that are particularly important for the congregation.
  • Walk through the grounds, taking note of all entrances. Are the entryways clear and inviting? How does the landscaping look?
  • Think through how the space would look to newcomers – is it welcoming and friendly? Are the restrooms and important spaces well marked?
  • Imagine how the space works for children or people with physical limitations. Are the restrooms and drinking fountains accessible?
Think Creatively About How to Best Use Your Space
  • Imagine how community groups might want to rent part of the space, thinking through potential costs, liabilities, taxes or security measures that would need to be in place
  • Consider how certain activities might be consolidated to use the space more efficiently.
  • Are there particular areas of your space that might be easy to update for a fresh, new look?
  • Develop a plan to use the building to its fullest, recognizing programmatic and goal-based needs, and allowing room to anticipate any changing needs in the future

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.