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Often when people think about their congregations, they think about what happens within the congregation. Who is in charge; who guides decision-making processes? What products, services, or classes does the congregation provide? How do you describe the life of the congregation, including its strengths and weaknesses? The congregation, however, is not in a vacuum — it is affected by the world outside the walls of the building.

When you think about the word ecology, you likely think of the natural world, how plants and animals adapt to their surroundings, how ecosystems work through natural life cycles. A population of deer grow and develop, so long as there is food, water, and some safety. If the wolf population grows large, they threaten the survival of the deer, throwing off the balance of the ecosystem. Similarly, if there is a drought, deer have to compete for the few food and water resources, displaying the effect the environment has on their survival.

How is your congregation affected by the changing world outside the walls of the building?

  • How has neighborhood changes, such as an influx of a different racial or ethnic group or a gentrifying neighborhood, changed the local congregation?
  • Is there more discussion about reaching out to the local community, or is the assumption that the new neighbors will be more interested in a different type of church?
  • Or maybe a new, growing congregation moved in a few miles away. How does the addition of another faith community, one that is growing and taking potential members from your congregation, affect how your congregation reaches out to the community or the congregation’s morale?
  • What are the ways in which forces external to your congregation are affecting the life of your congregational community?

It’s useful to think of the ecology in three layers:

Demographics, or the characteristics of the people in the community, around the church may change in a number of ways — different racial or ethnic groups may move in, neighborhoods age or gentrify.

Culture, or the systems of meaning, value, and practices shared by members of the community and groups within the community, may affect the local faith community. During the 1960s, many faith communities were affected by changes in city-wide or nation-wide rulings regarding civil rights. More recently, some local faith communities have been vocal opponents or proponents of laws regarding LGBT rights or options for school choice vouchers.

Organization, or systems of roles and relationships that structure the interactions of people in the community, are important to consider in terms of the ecology of the community. Community size dramatically affects how decisions are made. Within a small town, a local congregation may be able to have considerable sway over local political leaders, particularly of the political leader attends the congregation. In a major city, on the other hand, a resident may not be able to get in touch with their representative to the city council.

Click here for examples of an analysis of a faith community using these three layers of the ecology frame.

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

Analysis of the Ecology of a Congregation

But how do you better understand the context of the congregation? Examining the intersection of the congregation’s history, geography, and membership is important to understand where the congregation has come from, where it is located, and where is going. Using the memories of members of the congregation is an important way to unlock the history — or, more precisely, the way the congregation remembers the history — of the local congregation. Collecting a group of people — both newer attenders as well as older members — and conducting a congregational timeline, a space tour, and network maps will allow you to better understand your congregation’s context.