Stop Worrying About Worship Attendance-Thrive Instead!

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

For a long time, clergy have taken credit when attendance rose and felt guilty when it fell. Most people assume that the best measure of a congregation’s spiritual vitality is the headcount at weekly worship. But some congregations have begun to think beyond that metric and focus more broadly about how their ministry transforms lives. As a result, they’re finding new ways to think about worship, vitality and effectiveness.

What if worship attendance is no longer the best measure of the spiritual vitality of a congregation? What if it never was? Can a community that is declining in worship attendance still be a growing and thriving congregation?

Clearly, if worship attendance is declining along with every other benchmark indicator of health, a congregation is not doing well. However, some congregations are making the following observations: “Our budget is growing, our average pledge is increasing, membership is growing, and our programs are thriving. We haven’t lost members. People are simply worshiping with less frequency than they used to. How much of a problem is this? What kind of a problem is this?”

Stating the Problem

Let’s begin with the assumption that declining worship attendance is a problem. An adage by inventor and business leader Charles Kettering reminds us, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” The way we frame a problem either limits or empowers our diagnosis and idea generation. An effective problem statement follows several rules of thumb:

  • Avoid problem statements that are either too narrow or too broad. “People aren’t coming to worship as frequently as they used to” is a simple and direct statement, but it doesn’t indicate what’s wrong with low attendance. On the other hand, observing that “There is a 20% decrease in attendance among millennials who grew up in the church and claim to be believers,” may be too narrow to help frame a larger conversation about the health of our worshiping community.
  • Don’t create a problem statement that includes implied assumptions or solutions. “The problem is that we need to offer more worship options and venues.” Or, “The problem is that people today like more contemporary musical styles than we offer.” Each of these problem statements sends us chasing down rabbit holes before we fully understand the issues at hand.
  • Don’t confuse symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. Simply stating, “Worship attendance numbers are down 10% from the same time last year” describes a symptom, not a problem. What condition does declining attendance point towards?

There isn’t a universal problem statement that applies to all congregations struggling with declining worship attendance. The statement you frame must address the specific issues relevant in your context. One congregation framed its problem statement this way:

“We are a congregation with a reputation for excellence in traditional worship. Average worship attendance is down ten percent from last year. Some of the people who are no longer worshiping with us now attend neighboring congregations that offer contemporary expressions of worship.”

Discovering the Root Causes

Once we have crafted a problem statement we turn to examining the causes of the problem. We can’t craft solutions until we better understand what is driving behavior. It is too easy to blame trends in the larger culture and to identify possible causes outside our control. We need to dig deeper.

Declining attendance may be an indicator that something is wrong, or it may point to an emerging unmet need. It could be that worship feels less relevant to people, so they attend less. It could mean we are more mobile as a culture or that people have more options to be elsewhere Sunday mornings. It may be a sign of how pressured people’s lives feel. Does it mean our people are less committed to their faith or their congregation? Does it mean our spiritual vitality has decreased? We don’t know until we research and ask.

One congregation discovered that many of their young families were skipping worship because the Sunday morning experience at church separated family members. The adults stayed in worship while the children attended Young Church and Sunday school. Young families were staying at home to create much needed family time.

Once leaders understood this, they resourced young families with worship materials that could be used at home. Those gathered in communal worship prayed for those worshiping at home, and vice versa. The church also initiated a “children in church” service once each month. Families stayed together in church on those special Sundays.

Invention or Innovation?

Once the problem has been articulated and the root causes have been clarified, we are ready to move into the generation of possible solutions. A mistake that many leaders make at this stage is failing to differentiate between invention and innovation.

Innovation theorists Peter Denning and Robert Dunham define an invention as the creation of a new idea, artifact, process or method. We invent a new worship service with a different musical style. We add a worship service on an alternative day of the week. We channel new resources into technology.

Innovation, on the other hand, focuses on the adoption of new practices. Invention is important, but creating new ideas is fundamentally different from getting people to adopt them. If you want a new thing to succeed, you must focus time and attention on getting people to commit to the new practices.

In the church that provided resources to young families for worshiping at home, the educator on staff made home visits to help families access and use the resources. She asked participating families to evaluate the resources and collected stories of home worship to share with the congregation. All this helped with adoption of the invention.

Finding Better Metrics

Increasingly, congregations are finding new ways to tend the spiritual vitality of the congregation. These new practices may or may not impact weekly worship attendance. If we continue to place all our emphasis on counting bodies in the seats on Sunday morning, we’ll miss opportunities for innovation. If we evaluate our clergy leaders only or primarily on what happens inside the sanctuary, we’ll miss other measures of vitality.

The relationship between worship and vitality is complicated. There is certainly some correlation between the two, but we need to be careful not to presume causation. We need to foster innovation and encourage progress that may not reflect itself in who shows up to be counted.

This article was originally featured at congregationalconsulting.org on 3/20/2017.

Pay and Performance: What’s the Connection?

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

money-peoplePayroll expense is the largest line item in the budget of most congregations. When the budget is tight we often turn to payroll expense to balance the budget because we simply don’t have many viable options.

However, we have to ask ourselves if this annual payroll dance around budget time harms our employees. How does the recurring budget dialogue about pay increases (or lack thereof) impact our employment relationships? Does the debate hurt employee motivation or the ability to hold employees accountable for good performance?

Money matters in the relationship that we have with our employees, but perhaps not in the ways you assume.

Does Money Motivate?

Research shows that money does not motivate in employment situations, except when the tasks of the job are purely mechanical.  Contrary to longstanding organizational belief, linking pay increases to performance has negligible impact on motivation, and in some instances actually reduces motivation. (TED Talk: Dan Pink on The Puzzle of Motivation

The absence of adequate salary may keep a person from accepting a job and it may cause enough dissatisfaction for an employee to leave a job, particularly when the employee feels that he is being unfairly treated. However, if an employee finds their level of pay basically satisfactory, money does not lead to higher levels of motivation.

Rather, motivation is produced by managing the more intrinsic side of the employment situation: greater autonomy, the mastery of an important skill, the ability to work in service to a larger good, etc.

Does Money Help to Create Performance Accountability?

Accountability is the obligation that an employee has to account for his or her performance, or lack thereof.  Does pay help to strengthen accountability in our relationships with employees? It does to the extent that pay maintains utility in the employment relationship.  

Employment relationships are basically utilitarian in nature; the exchange between employer and employee must prove useful to both parties. The employee offers something that the congregation values; a set of skills, and the time and energy to apply those skills to tasks and processes that the congregation deems to be important. In return, the congregation offers the employee something that she values: pay, benefits, opportunities for growth and advancement, the opportunity to work for a greater good. This is utility.

As long as both partners in the employment relationship find utility in the relationship, accountability around performance remains strong. An employee is responsive to an accountable conversation in a relationship with utility. If the employer doesn’t provide what the employee needs, or vice versa, the relationship loses its utility. When this happens, accountability is diminished.

When an employee values money in the employment relationship, then decisions about pay impact accountability. If money is not particularly important in the employee’s relationship with the congregation, pay does not foster accountability.

What Matters Most about Money?

So, money doesn’t really enhance motivation, and it may or may not impact performance accountability. In what ways does money really matter in shaping our employment relationships?

Fairness Matters: Pay matters as an indicator of fairness in the employment relationship. Creating pay structures so that co-workers perceive fairness in the workplace is important. When employees feel unfairly treated in matters of pay they will take action to restore fairness. The actions they take may not be helpful to the congregation.

According to behavioral psychologist, J. Stacy Adams, employees seek to maintain equity between the inputs that they bring to a job (time, effort, skill, loyalty, commitment) and the outcomes that they receive from it (recognition, responsibility, sense of achievement, praise, pay).

Employees continually evaluate their perceived inputs and outcomes against the inputs and outcomes of other employees. When an employee feels that the outcomes they receive from the job don’t match their inputs, or when they perceive that others have a better balance of inputs/outcomes, the employee will seek to restore equity.

To restore equity, the employee may seek to renegotiate the terms of employment. If this fails, they may reduce their energy or loyalty. They may also seek to negatively influence the inputs and outcomes of their fellow employees.

Justice Matters: As religious organizations we frequently advocate for those who are marginalized or taken advantage of by society. To maintain integrity, we must be certain that our employment practices are “just” as well.

We are not being just when we fail to pay a livable wage. It is not just to pay employees below what the market says they are worth. We promote injustice when, in an effort to avoid rising health care costs, we break full time positions into part time positions that don’t carry benefits. In these situations, our walk does not match our talk and our behavior demoralizes our employees.

Appreciation Matters: Most employees equate pay increases with appreciation. “If you are providing me with a pay increase, you must value the work that I do. When you fail to give me a pay increase you are devaluing me.”

We must handle our annual conversation about payroll increases in such a way that our employees feel appreciated. When we can’t rely on money to communicate our appreciation, we need to be authentic and creative with other appreciative techniques.

Employees are not likely to feel appreciated if they learn about their pending pay raise in a group setting, or from someone other than their supervisor. They don’t feel valued when everyone receives the same increase regardless of effort. They don’t feel appreciated when the payroll increase is the first thing slashed during the budget dialogues.

The relationship between pay and performance is complicated. This year, as you make decisions about staff payroll increases, don’t forget the conditions that actually impact ongoing performance: accountability, fairness, justice and appreciation.

Have We Failed?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

635944741686261514734284120_success_failure_directBarb shared her decision to end the day trip ministry. “I simply can’t organize these trips anymore. We began this ministry to address the loneliness and isolation of older adults. It’s been wildly successful in terms of participation. People love going on these day outings and enrollment fills up immediately. But our funding source is drying up. I can’t find anyone to succeed me in leadership, or even to help with the organization of the outings. I’m tired of carrying the load alone. I guess the ministry is going to end when I step down. If I had been a better leader, I would have found more money and a successor.”

Barb’s comments reflect an unstated assumption at work in many faith-based institutions. A successful ministry is a sustainable ministry, one that goes on indefinitely. To sustain something is to keep it in existence, to supply the necessities that ensure continuity, to uphold or defend an ongoing practice. There is inherent value and worth in sustainability. If we value something we must do everything within our power to see that it is sustained. When something is not sustainable, it has failed or is failing. Right?

Wrong. This assumption invites us to tell a troubled story about any ministry that ends. We talk about the parts of the ministry that don’t work in order to justify the ending. The ending is announced and the ministry slips quietly off into the sunset. The leader of the final chapter bears a silent shame. “I wasn’t good enough to keep it afloat.”

We are living in an era where many things we have done in the name of Church are no longer sustainable. Does this mean we have failed? In an era of institutional decline, linking sustainability with success and unsustainability with failure is problematic in three ways:

  • We avoid sunsetting programs. To pull the plug is to label the thing a failure—or even worthless—when it is still important to some. So, we don’t evaluate or ask hard questions of the ministries that we do sustain. Is this the best use of our resources right now? Does this ministry still align with our mission, core purpose, and values?
  • We don’t learn from our experience. Failure feels painful. In order to avoid the pain, we dismiss the experience as quickly as possible. We miss a tremendous opportunity when we don’t carefully consider why a program is ending, or what we have to learn about the changing conditions around the program.
  • We stop innovating. Innovation happens best in environments where experimentation and failure are normalized. It has to be okay to fail. When sustainability becomes a core criterion for success, we avoid starting new things.

What Makes a Ministry Sustainable?

On some level, every organization must be sustainable. If we cannot afford to cover our overhead expenses over time, we will cease to exist and won’t be able to support any ministry.

However, under the umbrella of a sustainable organization we should be free to experiment with programs that may or may not be individually sustainable. We need to be able to innovate, reflect, learn and adapt. We can’t do these things without some better language about sustainability. There are at least four types of sustainability that we ought to regularly consider:

  • Economic sustainability: This approach to sustainability seems to get the most attention, maybe the only attention, when we are talking about the viability of a program or ministry. Will the program eventually pay for itself? If not, will we have the funds to sustain it on an ongoing basis? These are important questions, but not the only questions related to sustainability.
  • Leadership sustainability: What kind of leadership presence will this program require? How many staff and volunteer hours will be devoted to its sustenance? What kind of leadership succession plan do we have for this program? Is more than one generation of leadership likely to support this ministry with time and talent?
  • Social sustainability: What difference will this ministry make in the world? What environmental condition does this ministry seek to resolve or improve? How will it improve lives and which lives will it improve?
  • Mission sustainability: How does this ministry promote the unique mission of our organization? Does it draw upon our unique strengths and passions? Does it meet the needs of a constituency that we are meant to serve? Is this what God is calling us to do or become in this season?

When a program satisfies all four types of sustainability we should certainly include it in our portfolio of ministries. When a program fails to satisfy any of the four types it should clearly be discontinued. The tricky landscape to negotiate is when a program satisfies several categories but fails to satisfy others. Then we need to have thoughtful conversations about whether the program should end.

Learning from our Endings

When the decision is made to end a program or project, we need to learn all we can from the ending. Rather than letting the program quietly disappear in the hope that no one will be upset, we need to stop, reflect, learn and adapt. This is how healthy organizations grow and thrive.

Ask yourself these questions: When the program was first begun, what condition in the world was it was meant to address? How has the original condition changed? What impact has the program had on this condition over time? How have resource requirements shifted over time? What outcomes did we experience then and now? Which forms of sustainability are no longer viable for this program? How can we celebrate the success we had? How can we honor the leaders who have served? How might we talk about the legacy created? How does the end of this program ensure other new beginnings for this organization?

It’s time to examine the assumptions that you and your organization carry about sustainability, success, and failure. A program is not a failure because it ends. It is only a failure when we ignore the powerful invitation to reflect, learn, adapt, and innovate.

Myth Busters-Supervision

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Our unstated and unexamined assumptions about supervision prevent us from being more effective in the role of supervisor.

Myth #1: If I could just get the right people on my team, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time supervising them.

The Truth: If you lead a congregation with more than 400 people in average weekend attendance, then you will be spending at least one third of your time on the task of supervision. You have a choice. You can either spend that time squelching the chaos caused by your under-performer, or you can spend your time actively setting up a performance management system to align the collective energies of the entire staff team. Either way, you WILL spend about a third of your time on supervision.

Supervision is performance management, not people management. Supervision is NOT about making people do the work that you want them to do. Supervision IS about aligning the resources and energy of each staff member in pursuit of a common goal or mission. This means that you should be spending your time setting expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and aligning the energies of all your workers, not simply cajoling your under-performers to step it up. Our best workers should receive at least as much attention, if not more attention, than our problem employees.

Good performance management takes time. It’s not something that you “get out of the way” so that you can get back to the real work of ministry. Supervision is ministry.

mythbusters-final2Myth #2: It is too late to introduce accountability! If I have an employee on my staff that has been under-performing for a long period of time, without correction, then there isn’t anything that I can do to fix the problem. I just have to wait this one out, especially if I inherited the problem from someone else.

The Truth: It is never too late to invite accountability into an employment relationship. Righting an employment relationship begins with clarifying expectations and then providing ongoing feedback. Every member of your staff team should have three clearly defined sets of expectations for their role.

1. 8-10 essential functions of the job (these describe the basic duties and tasks of the position.)
2. 8-10 core competencies of the job (these describe the behavioral attributes, characteristics and skills that you expect the employee to demonstrate as they engage the essential functions.)
3. 2-3 performance goals (these describe the growing edge, or focus of the role for the current performance cycle; these align the energies of the staff member with the overall goals of the congregation.)

Ongoing feedback should include a regular (weekly, or bi-weekly) one on one conversation between the employee and their supervisor to establish priorities, clarify expectations and provide feedback on the basic expectations. This should be augmented with a quarterly goals update and an annual performance review.

Problem employees will often step it up once the expectations become clearer; or they will choose to leave because they are uncomfortable with the increased accountability. Either way, it’s never too late.

Myth #3: Every employee is redeemable and deserves another chance.

The Truth: All of the people on our staff team are the beloved in the eyes of God, but not all of our employment relationships are redeemable.

Once we have appropriately defined the expectations of the employment relationship, and provided ongoing feedback, with invitations to step up to our expectations, then we have done our part. If the employee demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to satisfy the basic expectations of the employment relationship over time, then the employment relationship should be brought to an end.

Myth #4: A good supervisor should be able to create a good ending for both the employee and the congregation.

The Truth: You cannot control how a terminated employee leaves your system. You cannot control how congregants will respond to the departure. You can create an open and transparent process, and you can invite healthy behaviors from the departing employee and from your congregants, but you cannot control what any of them actually do!

You best defense in a difficult employee termination process is a good offense. Gather a group of healthy leaders about you. Equip each leader with a transparent and consistent message that is appropriate, given the situation. And then, stand firm and non-anxious and let the disequilibrium work its way out of your system. You cannot control what happens, you can only respond to what happens with equanimity of mindfulness and heart.

You can learn more about replacing myth with good sound principles of supervision in, “When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Congregations”

Metrics vs. Evidence

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

“When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get [measurable] results with.”-Parker Palmer (on Effectiveness vs. Faithfulness)

I worked this week with a group of 75 United Methodist leaders in Kansas. At one point our conversation turned towards goal setting, and particularly to the importance of naming outcomes and metrics. I argued that we must name what we are seeking to do or become, and we must name appropriate metrics to evaluate our progress. Otherwise, we won’t see much change or the right kind of change.

This has always been a tricky conversation to have with clergy leaders, but it is an especially hot button topic these days. So many congregations are experiencing numerical plateaus, or they are in free fall around membership, attendance and giving patterns. Denominational leaders (or congregants) are demanding measurable growth goals in response, and many congregational leaders feel powerless to meet what feel like artificial and misplaced expectations.

The response from clergy leaders is advocacy for other forms of growth that they see as more important than numerical growth. These leaders posture that we ought to be more concerned with goals around faith formation, biblical knowledge, deepening spiritual practices, fostering faith sharing and growing social justice awareness. These agendas, they argue, are not necessarily measurable and they may not result in church growth, but they are more indicative of congregational vitality.

I am rather suspicious about both sides of the debate. I agree that healthy congregations are generally growing congregations, by some measurable objective. Many who appear to resist metrics strike me as change resistant and fearful of accountability. On the other hand, I am among the first to argue that attendance and budgets are not our best indicators of congregational health and vitality. They are much too limited in scope and don’t take into account the cultural shifts we are seeing around how people participate in the life of their congregations. So, where are we to go with this debate?

This week a wise leader in our midst told us that he and his congregation have dropped the language of metrics from their vocabulary all together. Instead, they are investing themselves in naming the evidence that will indicate success in their change efforts. They are working to describe the observable behaviors that will signal success in their “softer” growth initiatives. They are not fearful of accountability, they embrace it, but they are committed to talking about and measuring evidence that matters to their mission.

This week I also ran across a video of Parker Palmer discussing the difference between effectiveness and faithfulness. It seems to be circulating the web in honor of his 75th birthday. Palmer says, “When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get results with.”

We are living in a chapter of Church history that requires bold and audacious leadership. We can’t afford to waste our energy on small and insignificant work that is constrained by a misplaced interest in measuring the wrong results.

Watch the video and then weigh in on this question: How would a shift away from measuring effectiveness, and a shift towards measuring faithfulness, change the current conversation around congregational metrics?