Measuring Size and Complexity

by Susan Beaumont

Life changed in unexpected ways when my husband and I had our third child. Becoming first-time parents had been a jarring experience. 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, hardly a disruption. He fit easily into the lifestyle that we had established after the arrival of the first child, 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 lifestyle adaptations that snuck up on me unexpectedly.

Life with three was more complex on so 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 minivan. Much of the baby equipment we had purchased or received with number one (swings, strollers, and the like) was designed to last for only two children, so those items 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. Finding a time when everyone was awake to go places became difficult. Finding time when all three were asleep, so I could get things done around the house, was equally challenging. For a while, I felt like a prisoner in my own home until I adopted new processes for coping with the additional complexity caused by 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, 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. Adapting to the increased complexity is not as easily accomplished 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 measuring attendance. 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, and because of how differently congregations define membership. Most congregations do some level of attendance tracking on weekends, however, and those numbers are available to help us talk about size. 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 benchmark of the congregation’s size. 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 the congregation can sustain. More programming produces greater complexity. Congregations that are able to support higher operating budgets (either because they are located in affluent areas, they have endowment funds, or they have unusually generous congregants) will demonstrate the organizational attributes of a much larger congregation than their attendance suggests.
  • Affluence. 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, and although these people contribute significantly to the operating budget, they don’t show up in worship attendance figures.
  • Midweek ministries. Increasingly, large congregations are offering midweek ministry opportunities. Congregants who find that they are too busy on weekends to attend worship may participate actively in the life of the congregation during the week. Their participation in midweek 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 elaborate 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 worshiping community.
  • Number of worship venues and sites. A congregation with 1,000 active members who all worship in a single venue at the same time will have a much different leadership structure in place than the same sized congregation that operates with five different worship venues. The addition of each worshiping venue adds complexity to the leadership systems of the church.
  • Affiliated nonprofits. Many large congregations operate 501(c)3 organizations in the form of preschools, day schools, social service organizations, family life centers, and the like. These organizations operate with their own budgets and governance structures, but their attachment to the large congregation 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? There isn’t an easy answer. Weekend worship attendance is at least 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 in which size category the congregation is actually functioning. What type of leadership style and focus is the senior pastor using, and does it seem to be working? How is the staff team 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 the congregation really is, and from there you can figure out if all of the leadership systems of the congregation are in alignment.

In spite of all of the limitations inherent in using average worship attendance, it’s probably still the most reliable indicator with which to begin the size conversation. If we have to make generalizations about where size transition zones begin and end, we might as well work with average worship attendance as anything else. The important thing for the reader to remember is that individual circumstance is more important than generalized experience. None of us can really identify the size at which an individual congregation’s leadership systems hits its capacity limits. Two congregations, one with a worshiping community of 400 and one with a community of 275, may very well hit a set of capacity limits at about the same time. The critical thing to pay attention to is the alignment of systems. When stress within one of the systems begins to make itself felt, leaders must attend to shifts in the other systems as well.


Adapted from Inside the Large Congregation by Susan Beaumont, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Alban Weekly, 2011-11-28
Number 383