Measuring Size and Complexity


Life changed in unexpected ways when my husband and I had our third child. Becoming first time parents had been jarring. We expected life as we knew it to disappear upon the arrival of that first child, and although we were stressed by the transition we were more or less prepared for the turmoil. The arrival of the second child was almost a non-event. He fit easily into the lifestyle that we had established after the arrival of the first and life was humming along pretty smoothly within six weeks of his arrival. The same could not be said with the arrival of the third.

I suppose I expected some kind of economy of scale in raising children. The second child had been so easy to fold in alongside the first that I expected the arrival of the third to feel even easier. I was not prepared for the adaptations that I had to make with his arrival. Our third had a very mild mannered temperament, so it wasn’t that he was a difficult baby. It was just that having three children under the age of six required life style adaptations that snuck up on me unexpectedly.

Life with three was just more complex on many levels. The vehicle that we drove wasn’t big enough to hold three in the back seat, so we needed to switch over to a mini-van.  Much of the baby equipment that we had purchased or received with number one (swings, strollers etc.) were only designed to last for two children, and so they needed to be replaced.  When my husband and I took the kids out as a family unit we were very aware that the children now outnumbered the adults. The kids seemed to realize this as well, and they took full advantage of it. When I took them out alone it became painfully obvious that I had only two hands and there were three of them. Their naps never lined up at the same time, and so finding a time when everyone was awake to go places become difficult. Finding time when they were all three asleep so that I could get things done was equally a challenge. For a while, I felt like a prisoner in my own home until I adapted new processes for coping with the additional complexity of the third child’s arrival.

This deep sense of disorientation is typical of the kind of unrest a congregation experiences when it bumps into the outer threshold limits of its leadership systems. Everything seems to be sailing along smoothly and then suddenly, and rather arbitrarily, it all starts taking too much energy to sustain.  There is loss of momentum, a loss of energy, loss of efficiency and loss of focus.  The difficulty in hitting transition zones in the life of the church is that the cause of the disorientation is not immediately evident. It’s not as clear as saying, “Well, we’ve just added a third child into the mix.”

Understanding the capacity limits of congregational systems is not simply an exercise in numbers. For decades now Alban has used the average number of people in weekend worship attendance (adults and children) as an indicator of the real size of a congregation. We’ve long understood that membership numbers are pretty meaningless indicators of size, because of how loosely membership rolls are managed. Most congregations do some level of attendance tracking on weekends and so those numbers are available. Furthermore, the average number of people who show up to participate in the worship life of the congregation is a pretty good indicator of the size of the active congregation, the part of the congregation that is likely to place demands on the leadership systems of the church. So, average weekend attendance is a good starting place to benchmark the size of the congregation, but many other factors also need to be taken into consideration.

Increasingly, I’m discovering that attendance numbers don’t fully reflect the organizational complexity of large congregations, and may not be the best indicator of church size.  Other factors include:

  • The size of the operating budget. Budget size shapes staffing capacity. The larger the staff team, the more programming that the congregation can sustain. More programming produces greater complexity.  Congregations that are able to support higher operating budgets (either because they are located in areas of affluence, they have endowment funds, or they have unusually generous congregants) will demonstrate the organizational attributes of a much larger congregation than their attendance suggests.
  • Mid-week Ministries.  Increasingly, large congregations are offering mid-week ministry opportunities. Congregants who find that they are too busy on weekends to attend worship may participate actively in the life of the congregation mid-week. Their participation in mid week programming places demands on the leadership systems of the church but isn’t reflected in average worship attendance.
  • Building size and function. Large congregations generally operate complex campuses or physical plants. When these buildings are actively used throughout the week the stress on the operating systems of the congregation is increased.  Staff members must tend to the needs of the building and the needs of the people using the building. This adds to the complexity of managing the congregation without a commensurate increase in the size of the worshipping community.
  • Affluence and second homes. Congregations that are located in affluent communities often discover that they have lower weekend attendance patterns than their less affluent counterparts. Affluent families often own vacation homes, or have the means to get away on weekends, which takes them away from the worshiping life of the congregation. Although these people think of themselves as active participants in the life of the congregation, and although these people place demands on the leadership structure of the church through their participation, they don’t show up in worship attendance figures.
  • Affiliated non-profits. Many large congregations operate 501(c)3 organizations in the form of pre-schools, day schools, social service organizations, family life centers etc.  These organizations operate with their own budgets and governance structures, but their attachment to the large congregations increases the complexity of managing the church itself. Again, none of this complexity shows up in a weekend worship attendance number.

So, what is the correct way to measure the size of a congregation? I don’t have an easy answer. Weekend worship attendance is only a starting place, and for many congregations it is the definitive measure. However, when any of the above extenuating circumstances are present I believe that you need to let the leadership systems themselves tell you what size category the congregation is actually functioning as.  What type of leadership style and focus is the senior pastor using, and does it seem to be working? How the staff team is organized; are there multiple reporting layers and sub-teams within the larger staff team?   Where is the board’s focus? Based upon the leadership behavioral patterns of the church you can begin to articulate what size congregation the congregation really is, and from there you can figure out if all of the leadership systems of the congregation are in alignment.

I’m curious. What factors do you consider when you evaluate the real size of your congregation?

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One Response to “Measuring Size and Complexity”

  1. Christine Robinson Says:

    Multi-site and different kinds of worship services are two more things that add to complexity.

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