Benchmarking – Why We Do things the Way We Do

To date, our team at Holy Cow! Consulting has worked with close to 3,000 congregations. We have worked with congregations in every U.S. state with the exception of Hawaii (unfortunately for us). We have been stuck in snow storms in Minnesota, lost in the woods in Wisconsin, seen Mount Rainer in the rearview mirror, found out how cool Omaha is, hung out with a seal in San Diego, forgotten to order unsweetened iced tea in South Carolina, and been gently heckled by congregations in Michigan because we have a lot of OSU allegiance in our office. We have covered a lot of ground over the years and have met a lot of amazing people.

If we are running a Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) within our current database, the data is benchmarked against around 1,800 congregations – this number grows every day.  Approximately 88% of those congregations within our current benchmarking have run their CAT in the last five years.

Just as overview, when we look at the database this is a general overview of its makeup:

  • 411 congregations are Evangelical Church in America (ELCA)
  • 412 congregations are Episcopal
  • 375 congregations are Presbyterian
  • 68 congregations are Methodist
  • 80 congregations are United Church of Christ
  • 25 congregations are Nondenominational
  • 24 congregations are Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
  • The remaining numbers include congregations that are Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, ECO, LCMC, and various other mainstream denominations

So why do we benchmark? Benchmarking allows us to take the data from each congregation and remove the element of guesswork.  For example, when we look at hospitality within a congregation, one of the questions we ask people is whether “a friendly atmosphere prevails among the members of our church.” If 61% of the congregation clearly agree with that statement, just looking at the raw data, that appears to be pretty good level of hospitality. That is more than half of the people within the congregation saying that there is a friendly atmosphere. But when we compare the data within the benchmarking, we find that this only puts the responses to that question in the 12th percentile. So, 87% of the other congregations in the database had more people clearly agree with that statement. This significantly changes what we understand from the data. We are able to move from trying to guess “is this how it is supposed to feel” and we can see what is typical and what is exceptional about each congregation.

When we talk about benchmarking, one of the most frequent questions we get asked is ”why don’t you benchmark us against other churches in our denomination.”  The denomination question is usually followed by a general  statement about who they are as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.  Notably, here and there, the data can show some national denominational tendencies which we have noted in our denominational books. But generally, those statements about who each denomination claims to be has yet to play out meaningfully congregation to congregation in the data.

For example, if you look at the maps on the left, they include all of the ELCA congregations in our database. You can see that they range anywhere from very low energy and satisfaction to very high energy and satisfaction.  Likewise, these ELCA congregations are conservative and progressive, flexible and settled.

When we receive an order for the CAT from an ELCA church we cannot predict where that congregation will land in any one area.  Instead, the data tells us that each ELCA church could land anywhere in the benchmarking – and this is important.

But there is an even more important reason why we benchmark the way we do.  Both the Pew Research Center and the Cooperative Congregational Election Study (CCES) looked at mainstream denominations over a four-year period. The Pew’s study ended in 2016 and CCES ended their four-year study in 2015.  What they both found is that within that four-year period 16% of members in mainstream denominations changed denominational affiliations.  Methodists become Episcopalians, Presbyterians became Methodists, Lutherans in the ELCA moved to the LCMS.

What does this mean? Let’s break this down by year and attendance.  16% over four years, is 4% per year.  This means that if a congregation has a weekly attendance of 150 people, there is the potential that the congregation will lose 6 people per year.  By the end of four years, it is estimated that 24 people in that congregation will move to another denomination.

This type of movement indicates that benchmarking churches within their own denomination is not how the average member is looking at their experience within their congregation.  The average Presbyterian member is not looking at their experience and asking, “is this how I have felt in other Presbyterian churches?” they are instead asking “is this how I have felt in other churches” but also “is there a better place I fit regardless of denomination?”  As we posited in “Fly in the Ointment” several years ago, people no longer just buy Ford cars in allegiance to the Ford company. The same is true within our denominational life. People will find the church that fits them and what they need in their life, regardless of the denominational name on the sign out in the front yard.

It is our mission at Holy Cow! Consulting to help regional associations and congregations, through an evidence-based discernment process, become vital, healthy organizations that better serve Christ and our communities. We benchmark the way we do because the data shows that putting congregations in a greater context is essential to truly assess where they currently are in order to help move them to where they are called to be.  This is not just our mission, it is also our ministry.

We hope to see you in our travels.

– Emily Swanson, President

 

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

Purchase Here
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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

decline

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

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 

 

inSight©: Helping Regional Associations Help

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In our work with Regional Associations and congregations, we have found the following things to be true:

  1. A transformational Regional Association is one that has focused on creating vital, growing congregations and is discovering effective ways of achieving that vision.
  2. Using Organization Intelligence (OI) is an important step towards determining an organization’s health and next steps needed. But OI is also only as good as its application.  Without applying OI systematically to move congregations towards becoming vital reflections of our good works in Christ, OI just becomes data.

As we head into Autumn, Holy Cow! Consulting will begin rolling out some new ways to help Regional Associations help congregations.  For the systemic application of OI, by the end of September we will finish completely rolling out our inSight webpages.  inSight is a system of information that empowers Regional Associations to serve a transformational role in their congregations.  It is designed especially for those Regional Associations whose primary goal is to develop healthy, vital congregations.

use this one.pngFor each Regional Association, with five or more congregations that have taken the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT), we will create a private webpage.  On that page, the leadership of the Regional Association will find dashboards of all of their congregations.  These dashboards will show the energy-satisfaction levels of the congregations, the education and motivation, conflict management and levels of trust in leadership, the cultures of the congregations, spiritual vitality, hospitality and worship scores combined with the level of involvement that is meaningful to congregations. The webpage will also include all of Vital Signs (CAT results) for each congregation so everything is in one place and easily accessible.

How Does this Help? 

Regional Associations have a lot of different tasks and roles to fill as they serve their congregations.  Our goal with inSight is to help get that job done in less time with more confidence.

inSight tells a story beyond each individual congregation.  inSight helps Regional Association leaders begin to see what support congregations might need overall.  From tconflct-for-bloghe chart on the right, you can see that this Regional Association has several congregations that could use some help with becoming more flexible. Because we know that organizational flexibility is vital, this Regional Association might want to look at creating some resources that help their congregations become and remain nimble – open to change so they can meet the needs of who they want to reach in the community and in their membership.

inSight helps Regional Leadership know what each congregation is focused on. Walking into a congregation, a Regional Association leader can have that particular congregation’s data in hand. This means they can immediately know what folks in the congregation are focused on for energy and satisfaction.  For example, you would work with a clergy-focused congregation a bit differently than a ministry-focused congregation.  The Leader will also know what the priorities are for that congregation and their theological diversity.  So as they preach, teach, or meet with folks they can keep all of that in mind to ensure what they are saying resonates with the congregation.

inSight helps Regional Leadership make decisions.  One of the hardest things the Regional Association is tasked with is triage.  Answering the questions of what needs immediate attention, what can be dealt with later and what cannot be fixed for now is a tough job.  inSight helps Regional Association have a clear way to measure what is happening in a congregation without solely relying on fiscal reports, attendance trends, and anecdotes.  With an accurate and holistic way to measure the health of a congregation, the Regional Association can begin answering those tough questions of where attention needs to be paid and what the potential of success will be.  

In October, once inSight is in place, we will begin offering Pastor Start-up packages which will help the Pastor in their work as they embark on a journey with a new congregation.  This will complete our three phase transition process, which also includes a Transition Plan and Vital Leader Profile.

We look forward to continuing on this path together.  If there are other ways we can help please let us know.

Emily Swanson
President of Holy Cow! Consulting
emily@holycowconsulting.com

 

 

 

Now Available: State of the Evangelical Church in America

image001The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

An Organizational Intelligence Perspective

J. Russell Crabtree

$12.95 US  ·  Paperback

ISBN 9780997768701

6 x 9 x 0.4  ·  100 pages, MAGI Press

PURCHASE HERE

 

 

 

In his new book, The State of the ELCA, J. Russell Crabtree examines the perspectives, experiences, and aspirations of a large cross section of members in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In his reflection on the responses of nearly 60,000 members to a variety of questions, he addresses a number of topics including:

• How does the experience of Lutherans compare with other mainline denominations?

• Which groups feel most positive and which groups feel less positive about their experience in the Lutheran church?

• What are some of the factors that make the difference between Lutheran churches that are experiencing vitality and those that are struggling?

• How are Lutherans experiencing life in their congregations over their lifecycle ranging from the teenage years through child bearing, child rearing, empty nest, and retirement?

• As they think about the future, what are the aspirations of Lutherans for their churches and how do these vary from Boomlets up through Boomers and the GI Generation?

• What are the motivating factors for giving among Lutherans and how do these differ from one congregation to another?

Get ready for a few surprises as you read the answers to these questions, but also discover Lutheran perspectives on Scripture, spiritual practices, pastoral transitions, and Synods.

The State of the ELCA ends on a positive note by summarizing interviews with the pastors of four transformational Lutheran churches, one large, one small, one more conservative, and one more progressive.

 …a must-read for congregational leaders, synod staffs, and synod councils.

Bishop Wayne N. Miller

 

10429477_1539479202980070_182352615483068509_nAs a former pastor, Russ Crabtree served in small, midsize, and large churches in New York and Ohio. In that role, he was active in his regional association and worked in the areas of strategic planning, energy conservation, human sexuality, church consultation, presbytery staffing, and administrative oversight. He has served as a consultant to every level of the church in areas such as succession planning, strategic planning, and organizational assessment. He has developed congregational and regional association assessment tools and has maintained a substantial database on church characteristics and congregations of all sizes and contexts.

 

Publication Date:  August 2016

Author Events Coordinator:  Shawn Kelly, shawnkelly.rn@gmail.com, 614.216.5537

Bulk Orders:  russ@crowsfeetconsulting.com, 614.208.4090

 

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