Archive for October, 2010

Declining Attendance

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Traditionally, those who study the health and vitality of congregations have used average weekend worship as the pivotal evaluator of congregational well-being. The average number of people who participate in weekend worship (including children in the Sunday school program and their teachers/care providers) has long been viewed as the best indicator of the active number of people participating in the life of the congregation. Declines in attendance and giving have been the bellwether indicators that something is amiss in the life of a congregation. When average attendance numbers begin to decline, congregational leaders get nervous.

Lately, I’m noticing that at every event where I teach or speak I am approached by large church leaders who say, “Our average weekend worship attendance is falling, but every other indicator of church health is on the rise. Membership is up. Giving is up. Midweek programming is up. What does that mean? Should we be worried?” In fact, I’m hearing this so frequently that it has really grabbed my attention. What is the decline in worship attendance trying to tell us?

Lovett Weems published an article in the October 5, 2010 Christian Century titled, “No Shows”. Here’s what Lovett said:

            “One feature of the recent downturn in attendance is the changing pattern in large churches. In the United Methodist Church, large churches (those averaging 350 or more in attendance) showed steady attendance growth during the 1980s and significant growth during the 1990s, reaching a high point in 2001.  Their decline in attendance began in 2002 and has continued every year since.  If the large churches had held their attendance numbers at previous levels, there would still have been denominational decline, but much less. In essence, the smaller churches continued and somewhat accelerated their decades long decline while the large churches for the first time joined the decline.”

If we adopt Weems’ interpretation as our own, we can’t help but be worried. Things are not looking good. I have worked with a number of clients in recent years whose experiences validate Weems’ concern. They are declining according to every possible measure of congregational vitality. However, I don’t think that the simple statistics presented here tell the whole story. I’m seeing too many congregations with declining weekend attendance that are thriving by every other measure of church health. Something else seems to be at work.

Increasingly I’m convinced that weekend worship attendance isn’t the best indicator of health in large congregations (or at least not the sole indicator). I can identify a variety of factors that explain why attendance might be waning in the large church, without necessarily indicating a major health problem.

  • Worshipers are attending less frequently. Weems article talked about the many pastors who are sensing that the same individuals are worshiping throughout the year, but that they worship less often. The cultural shift in Sunday morning activity places increasing time demands on congregants, demands that often interfere with a regular Sunday morning worship experience. Jobs, sports and scheduled recreation often keep people away on the weekend. These conflicts don’t necessarily mean that people are any less committed to their discipleship or their membership responsibilities…or do they?
  • Younger worshipers (under the age of 40) don’t necessarily treat the Sunday morning experience as the focal point of their involvement in the life of the church. They may not even be particularly attached to ministries that take place within the church building, preferring to identify with small groups and the social justice ministries that take place out in the neighborhoods served by the church. This doesn’t make their attachment to the church any less relevant or important…or does it?
  • The large church offers so many programming options that the Sunday morning experience is declining in importance as the primary feeder system of the church. People who are attached to the church school, a fine arts program, a recovery program or support group, may not be particularly drawn to the weekend worship experience. Nevertheless, these people believe that they are active participants in the life of the church, and they expect that the community will care for them, educate them and tend to their spiritual needs. They may not be formal members of the church, but they often describe the church as their own.

So, how big of a problem is this really? If the importance of corporate worship in the life of the congregation is diminishing, are we in danger of losing something that has no substitute? Can discipleship and spirituality thrive with corporate worship attendance on the decline?  And if average weekend attendance isn’t the best health indicator in the large church, what is? 

Photo Credit: theqspeaks at

What is Staff?

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

The question seems almost too obvious, doesn’t it? When asked this question, most church leaders respond that the staff of the church is the group of people that the church employs.  And this response is more or less accurate. However, many congregations have volunteers who effectively serve as staff members of the church and don’t get paid; volunteers who devote significant, dedicated and predictable hours in service to the congregation, and do not expect or accept compensation for what they do. Churches also employ some very part time employees who are only minimally tied to the missional outcomes of the congregation (e.g. a part time landscape worker) who don’t really function as members of the staff team.

So what is staff, and what role does it play in the large church? provides this definition of staff.  Staff (noun): a group of persons, as employees, charged with carrying out the work of an establishment, or executing some undertaking on its behalf.   Many church leaders assume this rather secular definition with regard to their staff teams. The staff is here to engage in ministry on our behalf. The problem with this definition is that the staff team of a congregation does not undertake the work of ministry in place of the congregation; it exists to organize and orchestrate the laity in pursuit of the congregation’s mission. When a staff team and its leaders confuse the difference between the work of the laity and the work that is theirs to do, the congregation loses missional impact. A staff team of 25 cannot accomplish what a congregation of 800 can accomplish within a community. The staff team works in service to the mission, and works on behalf of the congregation, but does not carry out the work of the congregation. The work of the congregation always belongs to the laity.

Some congregations become very fearful about the staff team taking away work that legitimately belongs to the laity. A definition of staff that may work its way into the psyche of these congregations is more along the lines of the military definition of staff. “A body of officers without command authority, appointed to assist a commanding officer; or, the parts of any army concerned with administrative matters, planning, etc. rather than with actual participation in combat.”  If we eliminate the references to army and combat, we actually have a pretty good working definition of how some congregations view their staff teams. The staff is here to administer and execute the ministry that the boards and committees of the church craft for them to do. This definition of staff often keeps staff out of critical planning and decision making conversations, ultimately limiting their ministry impact and sidelining them in strategic direction setting.

How, then, should we be thinking about staff in the large congregation? Once a congregation passes the 400 threshold in weekend worship attendance, the orientation of the congregation around the staff team begins to shift. Below the 400 mark, the energy center of the congregation is the governing board. The staff works under the guidance of the governing body. Laity is central to the organization and execution of ministry in the small to medium sized congregation. In the attendance zone between 400 and 800 the staff team becomes more centrally positioned as the energy zone of congregational life. The governing board still maintains responsibility for the strategic direction of the congregation and the oversight of the head of staff, but the staff team becomes the central organizing force through which ministry ideas are conceived and executed. This shift oftentimes causes confusion among lay leadership, who report feeling sidelined by the staff. If the staff team is the organizing center of the congregation, what is the role of laity?

Consider this working definition of staff as an alternative to both the secular and military definitions. The staff of a congregation exists to organize the human, financial and capital resources of the congregation, in pursuit of the congregation’s mission. Staff are those individuals, paid and unpaid, who commit to working regularly scheduled hours, and agree to be subject to the performance management/supervisory system of the congregation. This definition provides for the existence of volunteer staff that are willing to work without pay, but are willing to subject themselves to the accountability systems of a staff team (i.e. job description, performance evaluations, supervisory relationships, and participation in staff team meetings). It also helps to distinguish between staff members who are committed to the missional outcomes of the congregation and those part time contract employees for whom there are no missional expectations. (I would argue that these employees are not technically staff). Furthermore, this definition empowers members of the staff to participate freely and fully in the decision making and strategic direction setting of the congregation, provided that their participation serves the congregation’s mission and strategic direction.

Which of these definitions is most closely aligned with how your congregation views its staff? Is it time to revisit and overhaul the congregations expectations about why the staff exists?

Photo Credit: mattneighbour

A Worthy Performance Goal

Friday, October 8th, 2010

This post is for those of you who attended, “Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision” last week in Atlanta.  Here is my promised description, with examples, of an effective performance goal. (See what happens when you articulate your expectations, set measurable objectives and establish time frames?  People actually step up to meet those expectations . Smile.)

Performance Goals focus a staff member on the priorities of the congregation. They are outcome statements. They provide the staff member with direction about how to channel their energy, encouraging the staff member to grow their area of work in defined and targeted ways over the next six-twelve month period, in accordance with the overall strategy of the congregation.

Goals should NOT be written to encourage employees to step up to meeting basic expectations about their daily performance. If an employee is not meeting basic expectations of performance, you need to address that by clarifying the core competencies and essential functions of the role, and by providing ongoing feedback about how the individual is performing against those expectations. Goals are meant to provide purpose, direction and alignment; beyond the basic daily expectations of the job.

 To be effective, performance goals must be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound.

Specific:  Goals must be concrete and easily understood. They must tell precisely what the staff member is expected to accomplish.

Measurable:  Goals must measurable or observable (on some level) so that there is clarity about whether the staff member has been successful or not in reaching the goals. Measurable and observable aren’t necessarily the same thing as quantifiable; be creative in the measures that you define.

Attainable:  Goals must not be too difficult or too easy. If the goal is too challenging, the staff member may become frustrated. A goal that is too easy won’t prompt any changes in behavior. Seek to formulate goals that will stretch the staff member, but have a reasonable chance of being accomplished with consistent effort.  

Relevant: The goals of each staff team member must be relevant to the boundaries of the role they occupy. Think about what you are trying to accomplish (e.g. a 15% increase in attendance) and then figure out what part of that goal rightfully belongs to the person for whom the goal is being written.

Time bound: Goals must be bound by specific time parameters and deadlines for completion.

Finally, make certain that your goal passes the “so what” test.  A reasonable person reading the goal should understand why the goal has inherent worth and how it will advance the mission of the congregation.

Some Examples:

  • Enrollment in adult religious education programs will increase by 5% between 1/10 and 1/11.
  • A campus wide signage system will be designed, procured and installed by 8/31/10.
  • Small group curriculum for a church wide initiative on Discipleship will be developed or purchased, approved by the teaching pastors and elders, and ready for use by all small groups in September of 2011.
  • Five new adult leaders will be recruited, trained, equipped and assigned to work with our high school youth, in small group settings, by September of 2011.
  • Congregation members will be surveyed in July of 2011 about their personal practices in bible study, prayer and worship. The results of this survey will be used to benchmark membership practices in anticipation of a year- long emphasis on deepening the spirituality of the congregation.
  • An RFP process will be completed so that a capital campaign consultant is selected and ready to lead a capital campaign beginning in the spring of 2011.

 How many goals should be written for each staff member? Two to three performance goals are plenty. Remember that the performance goals help to sharpen focus and energy, and align the organization. A staff member is expected to fulfill all of the essential functions of the position, satisfy all of the defined core competencies and accomplish all of the performance goals. Two or three goals are plenty to keep the average staff member highly engaged, motivated and challenged.