Nathan Kirkpatrick: Are churches counting what counts?

The question came at the end of a workshop from a senior pastor of a large New England congregation. “If average Sunday attendance means less than what it once did, then what do we measure now?”

From the participants’ responses, it was clear that the question was on the minds of many of the clergy attendees. Despite several suggestions, no single answer satisfied the room.

Behind the question are both a phenomenon and a mentality that need to be explored a bit before we might venture an answer.

First, the phenomenon. As David Odom noted for Faith & Leadership in 2014 (“RIP, average attendance”), at one time, the church relied on average Sunday attendance (ASA) as a primary measure of congregational life, vitality and health. Church consultants used ASA as a metric reflecting congregational complexity, which in turn suggested certain organizational structures and best practices.

In many judicatories and denominations, the number of people coming to a congregation on Sunday mornings — and whether that number was increasing, decreasing or holding steady — defined the reputation of that congregation, its ministries and its ministers. An uptick in ASA could be a harbinger of career advancement for clergy; a downtick could be reputationally ruinous.

In the later years of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st, shifting patterns in church attendance offered a significant challenge to this reliance on ASA as a meaningful measure. The perception of “good church attendance” shifted downward from three or four Sundays a month to one or two Sundays, even among some of the church’s most committed members. Worshippers began watching Sunday services through online platforms. Small group participation increased.

In some places, midweek events began bringing more people through church doors than Sunday morning worship; as the senior pastor of a 1,000-member church in Houston told me recently, “Sunday is the least-busy day in our church’s week.” Odom described it this way in 2014: “It is more and more difficult to determine what ‘attending’ means, much less judge someone as ‘active.’” Thus, the phenomenon behind the question — shifting patterns of church attendance — makes average Sunday attendance mean less than what it once did.

Yet we must also consider, second, a mentality behind the question. Peter Drucker gets the credit for saying it, but this feels like the kind of corporate aphorism that almost any leader of a certain era would have uttered: “You can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.” Strangely, for many clergy, congregations, judicatories and denominations, there’s something almost comforting about tracking ASA, in ways similar to how we follow the Dow Jones.

If we know that it is up this week or down this quarter, then perhaps we have the capacity to manage it, remedy it, change it. Perhaps we can finish the year in positive territory. By measuring it, we feel some sense of control over the phenomenon of shifting attendance patterns. Which brings us to the current question: What do we measure now?

I appreciate that in a number of places, even in corporate America, Drucker’s insistence on the link between measurement and management now holds less sway than the tension articulated by the sociologist William Bruce Cameron in 1963: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

This maxim — often misattributed to Albert Einstein — has been frequently quoted in recent decades as part of the movement toward the “human-centered workplace.” Initiatives in workplace health, work-life balance and family care have all been influenced by the notion that “not everything that counts can be counted” on a corporate bottom line.

If we in the church stepped more confidently into this tension, we might imagine what it could mean for congregational ministry. We can look at places where it is already happening as examples and at places where it might happen to dream.

There’s the congregation in New York that has defined its most significant number as six — as in the six ZIP codes where its members serve. For them, their footprint is more important than average Sunday attendance. The leaders of the church now evaluate every ministry in terms of its depth and breadth of engagement across that geography.

Or there’s the congregation in North Carolina that rightfully takes pride in the number 11 — as in the network of 11 collaborating institutions that the church brought together to achieve one of its most significant ministries in building tiny homes for housing-insecure persons. For them, it is partners across sectors for the sake of mission that is more important than ASA.

Or we can imagine a congregation in Illinois that would choose to say that 20,799 is its most meaningful number — as in the estimated number of homeless children in the city of Chicago. Imagine a congregation that is committed to reducing that number to zero. That place would be more worried about impact, about the change they want to effect in the world, than how many people come on Sundays.

Or we can picture a congregation in South Dakota that took as its significant number 407,000 — as in the number of gallons of oil that the Keystone XL pipeline leaked into South Dakota farmland in 2017. For those in that community of faith, such a number might represent something of a calling to creation care and environmental stewardship, a calling that could easily eclipse Sunday attendance.

If average Sunday attendance means less than what it once did, then what do we measure now?

For your church, the number may not be six or 11 or 20,799 or 407,000. But there is a number that has the potential to motivate, inspire and challenge you. There is a number that can rally your congregation into mission and service, that can help you see and understand your community context in new ways. There is a number that can fuel your passion, restructure your ministry and change how you evaluate your work.

You know, the way ASA once did.

Why do religious organizations find evaluation work so mysterious? What do they need to help them appreciate the importance of evaluation and to do evaluation well?

I asked these questions when I first began coaching new grantees of the religion division of Lilly Endowment Inc. As I sat alongside grantees, I often noticed a hesitation and reluctance about embarking on evaluation. It wasn’t as if evaluation was a new idea. Rather, I realized that the mere word “evaluation” raised less-than-pleasant memories that limited their openness to this work. Grantees wondered: Is my work being judged? Will someone form an opinion about the merit or quality of our program?

Indeed, how many of us hold a memory about an evaluation experience gone bad or a moment of being judged or of having someone else’s opinion supersede our own?

At the heart of the word “evaluation” is “value” — to find the value of — and this notion guides my evaluation coaching work to this day. At its most effective, evaluation is an activity of valuing and learning from one’s work, not a judgment. Principles such as collaboration, inquiry, learning, curiosity and mutuality guide such an approach to evaluation.

This evaluative lens recognizes that projects are conceived with the aim of creating good in the world and ultimately making a tangible difference in people’s faith lives. It also changes the tone and character of the questions one asks:

  • How is our program/project making a difference in the lives of young people, pastoral leaders, teachers, students or other target audience? How do we know?
  • What conditions will change as a result of our program? What new knowledge is being gained? What new actions are being taken as a result of our program, and why? What new attitudes are being formed?

Such purposeful questions engage stakeholders’ curiosity and allow them to be open to developments they did not anticipate in the original program design. From my studies of Appreciative Inquiry, I know how thoughtful, positive questions can change the trajectory of an evaluation. For example, reframing, “What is not working in our program?” to, “What gives life to our program when it is functioning at its best?” can open up constructive, nondefensive conversation and new methods for discovering answers.

If projects are to improve and grow, they will do so as a function of what we choose to ask and study. In “Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change,” the authors write:

“Inquiry and change are not truly separate moments. … Inquiry is intervention. The seeds of change are the things people think and talk about, the things people discover and learn, and the things that inform dialogue and inspire images of the future. They are implicit in the very first questions asked. … The questions set the stage for what is ‘found’ and what is ‘discovered’ (the data). These data become the stories out of which the future is conceived, discussed, and constructed.”

If projects are to be sustainable and potentially imbedded in the very institutions that house them, then reflective conversations must be woven into the life of a project from the beginning. Moreover, a project director cannot engage in this kind of thoughtful conversation alone. Creating communities of learning and practice is key if grantees are to become their own active agents of evaluation and to gain confidence in this work.

“What is at stake is the efficacy of love and care and service” writes Craig Dykstra, former vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment, in Kathleen Cahalan’s book “Projects That Matter: Successful Planning and Evaluation for Religious Organizations.”

“What is at stake is how human beings engage with and relate to one another. What is at stake is how minds are illuminated, hearts are moved, burdens are lifted, wounds are healed. And because so much is ultimately at stake, it matters a lot that the projects and programs be done really well.”

A community of learning and practice embraces the responsibility to inquire and to learn from its work, to improve its project as a result of that learning and, in turn, to contribute to strengthening the larger landscape of Christian life, ministry and institutions. A community of learning and practice is made up of thoughtful stakeholders who care deeply about the work at hand and can ask the kinds of hard questions about a program that are essential to program improvement and sustainability.

So what is the result when evaluation is focused on learning and not judging?

This approach provides a lens through which and a structure out of which grantees can assess the impact of their work, learn from that work, and revisit original questions and assumptions to strengthen, sustain and bring the program to full maturity within the fabric and mission of the institution. Their organizations can develop renewed energy to risk and experiment with innovative strategies. Their team members can become more enthusiastic for and appreciative of evaluation and can experience it as joyful work.

Reframing evaluation can also broaden grantees’ awareness, to a wider community. The body of knowledge, information and insight gained through evaluation has great value not only to the institution running the program but to a larger community that cares deeply about the future of religious institutions entrusted with caring, teaching and serving others.

Finally, this approach to evaluation can offer a pathway to theological reflection. Evaluative findings can provide meaningful moments for grantees to pause and reflect on how a project is advancing the mission and ministry of the institution and to ask deeper questions about how they understand the work in relationship to the call and presence of God.

As inspiring stories from projects begin to emerge — how a program has changed the vocational choices of a young adult, taken a pastor out of isolation into a trusted circle of peers, reshaped the culture and priorities of an institution — they can open our eyes to a larger canvas of vital institutions carrying out the mission of the church and flourishing as a result.