Introducing “Front Door, Back Door: Why People Join and Leave Churches” by J. Russell Crabtree

The story we tell ourselves…a person has a seminal experience in their life when they decide they need to begin or renew their spiritual journey by joining a Christian church. Since there are about 300,000 churches in the United States, they have lots of choices. They attend a few and pick out the one that seems the friendliest. They join. Their attendance at worship strengthens their experience of God. They begin to set aside time in their daily life for spiritual practice. They find that the more they get involved in the church, the more they are growing spiritually. Their participation in the church carries over into other aspects of their lives, including their work life, which they begin to see as an extension of their Christian ministry. As time goes on they become even more impressed by the dedication of the people of the church in general and of the leaders in particular. As the years pass—twenty, thirty, forty years—they find peace in knowing that this is the church where they will finish their life’s journey in the company of other, longtime members.

It all makes a neat package. There is only one problem.

Virtually none of it is true.

In this groundbreaking book, Front Door Back Door, Russ Crabtree explores some of the most basic assumptions that leaders make regarding the churches they serve and what happens in the lives of members who join, stay, and leave.  It’s not just another book about losses; it offers insight and suggestions for creating learning congregations and developmental trajectories for their members.

In Front Door Back Door you will learn…

  • The characteristics of churches people tend to join and why there are so few of them.
  • The three things that churches tend to do well in developing the people who join them whether conservative, progressive, or somewhere in between.
  • The areas where people tend to coast without much growth even after years attending a typical church.
  • The areas where people tend to experience deterioration over time; the longer they stay in a typical church, the less positive they feel.

On the whole, churches are not learning. Churches with more seasoned members tend to fare no better than churches with more “rookies” in attendance in dealing with conflict, achieving their mission, or engaging their members.

The author proposes a core competency model that is aligned with a church’s particular mission so that both members and congregations can be more fruitful and, in the words of Jesus, bear fruit that abides.

Order Front Door, Back Door

Assessment as a Spiritual Journey

All truth is God’s truth. That God is loving and gracious, that e=mc2, and that curious tendency of all children to giggle at hiding in plain sight with just their eyes covered, all these are expressions of God’s truth. The process of discovering God’s truth, in any of its many forms, always has an element of revelation to it as if one were being shown something. Using the vernacular of our day, our own personal discoveries have the quality of “a light coming on.” This is also the language used by Jesus as he describes the discovery of God’s nature and purposes in the world. “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The process of discovering the perspectives, experiences, and aspirations of a church is also one of revelation and has the revelatory quality of moving from darkness into light. In response, it is not uncommon for people to speak of “a light coming on” in the experience as they come to understand aspects of the entire body that they could not possibly have known from the relatively small number of interactions that characterizes the day to day relationships in most organizations. This process of reality moving out of the shadows and into the light is a spiritual journey.

As a spiritual journey, it has all the elements one would expect.
There are insights that evoke a liberating “aha” as connections
are uncovered that were not intuitively obvious. Some aspects of
the process tell us nothing new, but they express what we do
know using language that enables us to get a firmer grasp.

Sometimes the need for healing is revealed in the relational
wounds that come to light, often painful and occasionally urgent.Unknown-3.jpeg
There are the common resistances that we all experience, the sense of inferiority or shame or fear that tempts us to retreat
back into the perceived safety of the darkness. We often find ourselves in denial struggling with what it will mean to embrace these truths which can often feel like loss.  So, we engage with an air dismissiveness and return to our unfruitful behaviors which led us here in the first place.

Finally, there is the concrete action that must  root itself in the earth of any spiritual journey and express itself in fruit for the Kingdom of God. The fulfillment of a spiritual journey ultimately hinges, not on the research design, but upon the spiritual practice that surrounds it. Without this spiritual practice, insights degenerate into trivia, wounds are probed but not healed, resistances harden into defensiveness and denial, and the promised new life fails to materialize as an incarnate reality. King David’s greatest loss of life was not to an enemy but to his own inability to manage information and keep it disentangled from his own ego.

For these reasons, it is critical that an evidence-based discernment process be interwoven with a robust spiritual practice including prayer, reflection, confession, devotions, study, and worship. Because an assessment generates a symbolic narrative, that is, a corporate story told through the symbol of numbers, we must ponder several questions:

  • How do we deal with our stories? While the individual contribution to the assessment is confidential, the corporate story will be quite public.
  • How might the disclosure of our corporate story bring insight, healing, and renewal?
  • In the past, how have we dealt with surprises, with things we thought were true but we discovered were not?
  • In that same past, how have we dealt with our wounds, our resistances, and our tendency to intellectualize as an escape from change?
  • What Scriptures help us reflect on truth, listening to God, trusting God’s plan for us and facing change?
  • How do we find access to the grace of God in this process of discovery so that our journey might be one expressive of Jesus, full of grace and truth?

When we take the time to answer these questions and weave our data with the story of our congregation, then prayerfully we can move forward with hope.

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An excerpt from our new book “Penguins in the Pews: Climate, Change and Church Growth” by J. Russell Crabtree

Purchase Here
PURCHASE HERE

An Introduction from “Penguins in the Pews”

In a study published in Nature, scientists showed that over the past 50 years the numbers of emperor penguins in Antarctica have dropped by more than 50 percent.  The problem:  The current climate cannot support penguin populations, and emperor penguins in particular are having trouble adapting to the change.

Eight thousand miles to the north, a similar problem is devastating populations of Protestants where, over the past 50 years, membership in most mainline churches has dropped by more than half.  The problem: like their penguin cousins, the current climate in most churches does not offer a compelling reason to belong, and members are having trouble adapting to the change.

Members realize that something must be done.  When nearly 200,000 members from over 1,300 churches were asked where they would like the church to invest additional energy, they prioritized “develop a comprehensive plan to reach new members” as the first or second priority 92% of the time.  With an average age over 53 years, the members of the typical mainline church are significantly older than the general population.  Conscious of the demographic hole for younger cohorts in their congregations, 72% of churches ranked “make necessary changes to reach families with children and youth” as first or second as well.

The concern for numeric growth is undoubtedly a response to nearly 50 years of membership decline in mainline denominational churches.  A review of the last ten years of data from the churches in the Holy Cow! Consulting database reveals that this decline continues, and is universal across all denominations.  (See Figure 1)

Figure 1  Decline in Attendance Universal for Mainline Churches

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Congregational leaders are looking for resources that can help them address these priorities.  When 20,000 leaders were asked where they wanted their middle judicatory to invest additional energy, “equipping leaders to reach new members” was the first or second priority 100% of the time.  Given the opportunity, it is reasonable to assume that leaders would prioritize services from church consultants in a similar order.

Over the years, leaders have adopted a number of different perspectives on this decline as they guide churches.

In some quarters, it has been treated as a non-issue.  From this perspective, churches are called to be faithful.  Numeric growth or decline is in God’s hands.  The advantage of this approach is that it frees leaders from the complexities involved in making new disciples and allows them to focus solely on issues bubbling up in the corporate consciousness.

A related approach has been to treat numeric decline as beneficial.  The thought here is that many persons who joined the church in the 50’s and 60’s were members in name only.  Their departure from the church has left a core of more committed members who can now be about a ministry unhampered by the inertia of half-heartedness.

A third approach has been to treat numeric growth as a bi-product of church vitality.  If a church is healthy, it will automatically grow.  If a church is not growing, it is a sign that something is internally amiss.  This approach allows members to simply focus on the health of the church with the assumption that numeric growth will follow.

A fourth approach has been to engage the issue of church growth directly through programs that have a proven track record in other faith communities.  What one church can do, another can do.  The advantage of this approach is that it offers clarity through a set of programmatic blueprints.

An alternative approach is what I call an intelligent system growth strategy.  In contrast to the perspectives above it is built on four core affirmations.

  • Church growth is the result of a core commitment to making disciples, whether understood as individual salvation or incorporation into a soul-saving community.
  • Church growth is ecological in nature. An unhealthy church environment tends to foster a decline in numbers rather than growth.  The churches that are losing members at the fastest rates are those that are the least healthy.
  • Church growth occurs when strategies are employed that are tailored to a particular context. Programs adopted from other churches without consideration of climate and culture will generally fail.
  • Church growth strategies benefit from organizational intelligence, made possible by information technology, which provides valuable insights that can clarify factors that impede or enhance church growth.

I will say more about what I mean by an intelligent system in the next chapter.

This book is written for leaders at every level.

This book is for church leaders serving on planning teams of various kinds, most of whom serve churches with members who indicate that reaching new people is their highest priority.

This book is for the regional association leaders, conferences, dioceses, synods, presbyteries, and districts who are being asked by local leaders to make “equipping leaders to reach new members” their highest priority.

This book is for professional church consultants who shoulder the responsibility of guiding churches in directions that are both faithful and fruitful.

Much of this book is built on the approach detailed in the book Owl Sight:  Evidence-Based Discernment and the Promise of Organizational Intelligence.[2]  Readers will find Owl Sight to be a helpful preface to this one.

[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=98565&page=1

[2] Crabtree, J. Russell, Owl Sight, Evidence-Based Discernment and the Promise of Organizational Intelligence for Ministry, Magi Press, 2012

Coming this Summer: The State of the PCUSA by J. Russell Crabtree

We have shared before, our mission (or our why) at Holy Cow! Consulting, is to help regional associations and congregations, through an evidence-based discernment process, become vital, healthy organizations that better serve the Kingdom of God. As our database continues to grow, it is a part of our mission to use what we learn to help those regional associations and congregations that we have the opportunity to serve.

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This Summer, we will be publishing our fourth book about individual denominations – The State of the PCUSA.

The congregations included in the study participated for a wide variety of reasons: strategic planning, pastoral transitions, financial campaigns, to better understand their organizational health, to track progress, or as part of an effort their particular presbytery has undertaken to become more evidence- based in their ministries to and with congregations. These congregations all administered the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)™.  Our sample is broad enough to be representative of all Presbyterian congregations within a confidence interval of ±5%.

This book represents our findings from 287 congregations with 40,000 responses from the members of those congregations.  It also includes every size, from smaller churches with under 100 in worship attendance to churches with over 1,000 persons in worship. While mega- churches and family sized churches possess significantly different cha
racteristics, they share this fact in common: member experience matters.

Because the Presbyterian Church is a denominational system, this book will include  an assessment of the relationship between local church members and their presbytery. It will also explore those perspectives, experiences, and aspirations using a separate instrument called Landscape™. This is one of the larger studies of its kind in the PCUSA, and perhaps unique in its scope which encompasses both local congregations and presbyteries.  This will include 13 different presbyteries with over 3,000 leaders reflecting on the work of their presbytery.

We look forward to sharing what we have learned in our work.  And as always, we are grateful for all of the people, the congregations and the regional associations that have contributed so greatly to our work and have touched our lives along the way.

 

 

 

Telling the Story of the Transformational Congregation

When we call a congregation a Transformational Congregation, we are talking about a congregation with high energy and satisfaction looking particularly at how members themselves are experiencing the church rather than imposing our own external definition.    In our work we have found that just as healthy organizations have certain characteristics ingrained in their corporate culture, healthy or transformational congregations have certain characteristics ingrained in their culture.

We typically find that transformational congregations have the following characteristics:

  • TransformationalInspiring and engaging Worship.
  • Flexibility (the ability to change to meet the needs of the congregation)
  • Conviction that church has given new meaning to life.
  • Inviting, friendly body of people with good relational skills.
  • Open, responsive decision making process (not thwarted by the same small group of people)
  • Opportunities for service in the church and the world that fit a person’s gifts and passions.

A transformational congregation has strategic options that other congregations may not because it does not have to spend a lot of time on internal issues, like managing conflict or regaining trust in the leadership of the congregation.  Instead, it can focus on more external things such as numeric growth, program expansion (ministries, facilities, education),  replication (church planting, mentor), and external impact (local, regional, international).

It is important to note that a congregation with scores in the Transformational Quadrant does not guarantee that it is growing, expanding, replicating or impacting.  Instead the  congregation must choose the right strategies.  In fact, the shadow side of the Transformational Quadrant is that congregations can use the information to avoid taking further risks that growth may require.   It takes as much work for a transformational congregation to continue to have that high energy and satisfaction, keeping the momentum moving forward, as it does for the reinvention congregation in the low energy and satisfaction quadrant to reinvent itself.

We hear a lot about the struggles facing our congregations in every denomination, in every geographical area, in every community.  But, at Holy Cow! Consulting, we also get to hear some pretty phenomenal stories of congregations doing great work and really transforming lives.   There are churches of less then 50 people in their average Sunday attendance that are transformational.  There are transformational churches in rural areas, in metropolitan areas, in the middle of prairies or the D.C. beltway.  There are transformational churches making strides every day and we think we should be celebrating those stories.

Over the next year, Holy Cow! Consulting will be spending some time on this blog telling the stories of these transformational churches from all over the country.  We are hoping these stories will serve as a way to inspire and a way to give hope as we all determine what the Lord is asking of us as congregations.

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Clergy-Focus, the Critical Clergy System and how the Middle Judicatory can help

Clergy:  Power and Vulnerability

With the exception of family-sized congregations, clergy are generally the individuals who hold the most power in a local parish.  Depending upon the polity, this includes the political, relational, moral, and platform dimensions of power.  The introduction of organizational intelligence (OI) into a system has the consequence of making the clergy person one of the most vulnerable, because he or she is the only person in the system where perceptions are individually focused.  This combination of power and vulnerability merits sensitivity on the part of OI interpretive and application consultants.

Since most middle judicatories are charged with particular oversight of their clergy, it is desirable for these bodies to prepare resources for clergy in congregations that are utilizing OI, especially if they are using OI systematically as an information system.  This is particularly true for clergy-focused systems.

The technical definition of a clergy-focused system can be found elsewhere.  Here it will suffice to say that a clergy-focused system is one where members tend to evaluate the vitality of the church through the lens of perceived clergy performance.  A clergy-critical system is one where members perceive that an improvement in the pastor-congregation relationship is the decisive factor in improving the vitality of the church.

Implications for a Clergy-Focused System

The fact that a system is clergy-focused can have a number of different implications and possible trajectories:

  • A “front and center” clergy person who can parley his/her relational capital into ministry and is a good fit for the congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership manage any narcissistic risks.
  • An overfunctioning clergy person who is paying a psychic price for success. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership manage tendencies to burn-out or flame-out.

Implications for a Clergy-Critical System

A clergy-critical system is essentially a clergy-focused system where things are not going well.  Again, there are a number of different implications and possible trajectories:

  • A pastor who is exercising the necessary leadership to shift the culture of a congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership by publicly and privately standing with them.  This usually occurs within the first several years of clergy tenure.
  • A pastor who is no longer, or never was a good fit for the congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership in a process of discernment regarding the pastoral relationship.
  • A leadership team that is beginning to engage in a project (strategic planning, leadership development, financial campaign) that avoids the clergy issue. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership avoid the costs of those failure paths by keeping the system focused on the primary issue.  Are they being led to (a) shift the church culture, (b) work on the pastoral relationship, or (c) dissolve the pastoral relationship?

In many cases, these will not be easy conversations.  However, many issues in clergy-
focused or clergy-critical systems will not improve with time.  Sometimes they will devolve into full-fledged crises of one kind or another in which no one wins and options are diminished.

Regimagesardless of where the congregation is, whether a clergy-focused or a clergy-critical system, there are important roles and conversations that the Middle Judicatory can be a part of – both in the short and long term.  Those early conversations on the part of middle judicatories can avoid painful, costly interventions down the road. These conversations and efforts can also aid clergy who may feel the weight of the congregation on their shoulders – before that weight becomes too much to bear alone.

From Holy Cow! Consulting and Crow’s Feet Consulting 

 

Making the Fit Right -Pastoral Coaching

We often receive calls from Regional Associations who are looking for ways to have comprehensive pastoral coaching programs.  The Effective Coaching Handbook, developed by the Executive Coaching Forum (http://www.executivecoachingforum.com/), begins with this observation:

Executive Coaching has become commonplace in leadership development in the U.S. and internationally. It is seen as a viable lever in developing high potentials, retaining top talent, readying executives for more demanding roles, and building a leadership pipeline. Organizations that use coaching report that they’ll likely increase its use in the coming years.”

For us the question is where does Organizational Intelligence (OI)* fit into pastoral coaching?  One of the critical issues for effective coaching identified by the Handbook is how to address the organizational context -citing that “[a]lthough the primary work is between executive and coach, coaching is always an organizational intervention and, as such, should be conducted within the context of the organization’s goals and objectives.”

In order to effectively coach pastors in their work, we have to be able to identify the organizational context.  And that is the work of OI.

What are some ways that OI might can significantly enhance pastoral coaching?

First, OI helps address issues of fit.  Poor organizational performance may have more to do with a lack of fit between the gifts and motivations of the pastor to the church than with the abilities or work ethic of the pastor.  In some cases, coaching may help a person move on to a better fit.  In other cases, a thoughtful shift in the pastor’s responsibilities can improve satisfaction on both sides.

Second, OI provides clarity about the organizational starting point.  Armed with this knowledge, coaching can work with the pastor to develop steps that are measured, realistic, and “incarnational”, that is, beginning where people are.

Third, OI discloses deep seated cultural values that are unlikely to change quickly.  This enables the coach to focus on approaches that are consonant with the culture in the short term.  Where long term cultural changes are envisioned, coaching can work to develop an intentional change management strategy that will minimize the risk of catastrophic conflict.

Fourth, OI identifies sources of energy within the congregation. Those sources of energy can be used by the coach to align the development of the pastor’s goals to those of the churchil_570xN.724209728_hu97.jpg

Finally, OI helps differentiate issues within a particular church culture from those of the pastor.  This provides the empirical data that can support coaching efforts to encourage the professional development of the pastor that would otherwise be hard to pinpoint if it is not clear where the congregational culture ends and the growth edges needed from the pastor begins.

With these insights from OI, pastoral coaching has a clear way to begin the work of helping the pastor as they take their next steps in leadership.

*If you have any questions on how to use the Congregation Assessment Tool™ (CAT), the Pulse™, or Focal Points™ in pastoral coaching, we would be happy to help.

Holy Cow! Consulting, office@holycowconsulting.com 

Organizational Intelligence you can use. 

 

Using our Database as a part of our Why

I have been speaking with a lot of regional associations lately about our “why” at Holy Cow! Consulting.  For us, the reason we do what we do is very clear.  Our mission, or why, is to help regional associations and congregations, through an evidence-based discernment process, become vital, healthy organizations that better serve the Kingdom of God.

We have been collecting data from congregations and regional associations for over 25 years.   After working with close to 3,000 congregations and receiving 100s of thousands of individual responses, it is arguable that we have the largest database of congregations in the country.  But having the biggest database is not our “Why.”   It only becomes a part of our “Why” if we use it to help our regional associations and congregations become vital, healthy organizations.

This Fall we will be sharing more of what we have learned from our database in the beginning of a series of books.  This first book is entitled “The State of the ELCA: An Organizational Intelligence Perspective.” Russ Crabtree has used the Holy Cow! Consulting database with over 60,000 responses from Evangelical Lutheran Church members around the country to write this book about the current state of the ELCA church.  This book will look at the following:

  • Vitality of ELCA Churches
  • Beliefs and Spiritual Practice of ELCA Members
  • Aspirations of Congregations
  • Pastoral Transitions
  • Financial Giving
  • Synods

Here is what Synod and church leaders are saying about the book:

When ELCA pastors are ordained, one of the promises we make in our ordination vows is to not offer illusory hope.  Russ Crabtree helps us live out that vow in this small book.  It provides a clear evidence-based approach to assessing where we are as a church.  In New England, we now make use of the C.A.T (Congregational Assessment Tool) as the primary instrument for helping our congregation live in the present, and plan with honesty for the future.  – Bishop James Hazelwood, New England Synod

 Once again, Russell Crabtree has challenged us with a call to base our planning and practice on evidence rather than pre-conceptions or anecdotal biases.  This book is a must-read for congregational leaders, synod staffs, and synod councils.  For those who have ears to hear it will guide us into more effective and faithful leadership.”  – Bishop Wayne N. Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod

Author and motivational speaker Denis Waitley says, “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist or to accept the responsibility of changing them”.  For the pastor, congregation, and church leaders, to be agents of change, here is an evidence-based book that provides insights for meaningful ministry in the local church.  From my experience in leading a transformational congregation, I found myself saying as I was reading, “Yes, this is most certainly true.”  Mining these pages for the nuggets of wisdom will raise the bar of dynamic ministry in your setting.  The church depends on you—and so does Jesus. – Rev. Ron Qualley, ELCA Pastor, Fairfax/Clifton, VA

All ELCA pastors and council leaders will find much in this groundbreaking book to stimulate thinking,and conversation. Russ Crabtree and the team of Holy Cow! Consulting provide evidence that has the potential for congregations to discover effective practices, refashioned priorities and renewed hope for the future. Our congregation has made use of the C.A.T. (Congregational Assessment Tool) twice in the past five years and it’s been transformational for our mission and a pastoral succession planning process. You owe it to yourself to read this book.  – Pastor Kurt M. Jacobson, ELCA Pastor, Eau Claire, WI

Our family at Holy Cow! Consulting continues to strive to  support the work our clients are doing and we are committed to sharing what we learn as we go.   We look forward to our continued partnership with all of you and are eternally grateful that you have become a part of our “Why.”

Emily Swanson, President

Holy Cow! Consulting 

Evidence Based Membership – Congregations owning their Data

We, at Holy Cow! Consulting, spend the largest portion of our communication minutes talking about evidence-based leadership, encouraging leaders to engage in a discernment process that integrates organizational intelligence into their leadership decision making.

Organizational intelligence makes something else possible:  an evidence-based membership.  An evidence-based membership is one that has learned how to integrate organizational intelligence into their behaviors.

For example, a church takes the CAT and discovers that it is in the Recovery Quadrant.  In addition, a lack of flexibility appears to be the primary factor inhibiting their vitality.

In a politically-based membership, leaders try to win support for developing a more adaptable culture through their own relational cache.   This is a top-down approach that inevitably invites polarization around the local configuration of relational networks.

In an evidence-based membership, the entire congregation confronts its own lack of flexibility, understands the trajectory of that organizational culture, and wrestles with the likely consequences of choosing to become more adaptable or remain settled.  The focus of the discernment process shifts from how folks relate to a particular leader or leadership team to how they are going to deal with their own corporate and individual behavior.

images.jpegThe implications of this shift are profound and include:

  • Specifying clearer, more concrete changes in behavior for members who are committed to developing a more vital congregation.
  • Relieving pressure on young or new clergy who are thrust into systems with politically-based memberships that repeatedly cycle through conflicts that have little to do with him/her.
  • Developing change processes that are also bottom-up rather than cascading all change down from the top.


Developing an evidence-based membership requires all the steps of developing an evidence-based leadership
, beginning with helping them understand that their biggest problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know.

We are not so naïve to believe that OI will (or should) eliminate the need for the political and relationally based components of leadership.  An evidence-based membership frees leaders from spending all their time and energy answering WHY so that they can invest their leadership into WHAT’S NEXT.    

Russ Crabtree
Founder of Holy Cow! Consulting

Sharpening your Organizational Focus: Why Focus Groups Alone are Not Enough

Focus groups are essential in any organization, particularly congregations. We know these groups are important for seeking creative input, needing to generate buy-in, or to drill down into the meaning of a broader organizational assessment process. But like a doctor trying to determine where the injury is without an x-ray, we find that focus groups alone do not show an adequate picture of the health of your organization.  Here is a list of the reasons why you need more than focus groups:

Reason #1: Focus groups typically involve too few persons to provide reliable information for the entire organization.

The number of folks willing to attend a focus group is generally a small fraction—often less than a quarter of the persons actually involved in the organization. After talking with 20 persons from an organization with 100 members, about one in five of your conclusions about the entire organization is likely to be wrong. In addition, focus groups tend to favor the perspectives of those who are more involved in the organization over those who are less involved since they are less likely to attend a focus group meeting. This works fine if an organization is only interested in maintaining the status quo; it works less well if there is concern about deepening the involvement of its more marginal members. Organization-wide surveys require much less time investment per participant (about 15 minutes), have a higher response rate, and produce more reliable results.

Reason #2: The information collected from focus groups is skewed toward the opinions of those who are more outspoken and extraverted.

Members of focus groups vary in their level of comfort with speaking their thoughts. Some are more extraverted and speak easily. Others need more time to process information internally before they speak. By the time these more reflective members know what they want to say, the agenda of the meeting has often moved on to the next question. Over time, members begin to recognize the voices within the organization that are the most influential and tend to defer to those voices even when they hold a different view. Organization-wide surveys are indifferent to power and personality type. The opinion of each person has equal weight.

Reason #3: Cultivating candid conversations in focus groups requires a high degree of trust that may not exist in the organization.

Focus groups assume that there is enough trust in the organization for people to speak candidly about their experiences and perspectives. Their effectiveness plummets when the level of trust is part of what needs to be assessed. People walk up to the facilitator after the meeting and whisper “I didn’t feel that I could say this in the meeting but…” Organization-wide surveys can not only assess the level of trust, but also get a more accurate read on other issues when trust is low.

Reason #4: Focus groups do not permit a comprehensive assessment of the health of an organization.

It is impossible to explore a large variety of issues in a focus group. If the facilitator allows each person in a group of twelve to speak for one minute in response to a particular question, only six questions can be addressed in a 72-minute session. Setting aside ten minutes at the beginning of the session for describing the process followed by introductions and five minutes at the end for questions and next steps fills most of a 90-minute time slot. Organization-wide surveys typically register the respondent’s views on up to ninety questions and also allow for open-ended responses of indefinite length. It is the difference between going to the doctor for a specific concern and getting a comprehensive physical that checks out every aspect of your health.

Reason #5: Focus groups do not provide a way to know if the information collected indicates a relative strength or a weakness compared to other, similar organizations.

There are few surprises that come out of focus group information because they are internally focused. After you summarize all the comments from a focus group in a particular question, you still do not know if you are dealing with a relative strength or weakness because you have no way of benchmarking the information. For example, we often hear in focus groups that a few people are doing most of the work. But this is true in almost every volunteer organization. What people perceive as a weakness may, in fact, be a strength compared to other, similar organizations…and vice versa. Organization-wide surveys allow leaders to do a better job identifying the real issues, both strengths and work areas.

Reason #6: For the amount of information collected, focus groups are labor intensive and often expensive.

Designing a focus group process requires a considerable effort, even if it is standardized with set questions. Participants can only offer their input at a limited number of times. They must travel to and from the focus group site and invest one to two hours in the process. The logistics of managing the PR effort, invitations, RSVP’s, group size, room set-up, supplies, refreshments, and attendance list are significant. Securing the services of a skilled facilitator who is trusted and objective is crucial. At the end of the process, all the information must be transcribed, coded, sorted, and counted. The cost of doing this well is literally hundreds of hours and often thousands of dollars. There are short cuts at every stage (like one large “town-hall” meeting with subgroups) but these significantly reduce the quality of the information for all the reasons discussed above.

On the other hand, today’s organization-wide surveys are logistically simple and can be taken by the respondent in about fifteen minutes 24-7. Thousands of respondents can participate with no need for travel, room-setup, or refreshments. They do not require the services of a skilled facilitator and the information does not need to be transcribed.

While focus groups will continue to be useful for collecting certain kinds of information, resourceful leaders increasingly will discover that there is a need for more precision and will look for a better, cost effective way of assessing the perspectives of those they are serving. The results of this resourcefulness will be vital and flourishing organizations, poised to do good works.

“We are not called to shine our own light; we are called to reflect his”   – Unknown