What Do Numbers Really Mean?
At the core, most of us in pastoral ministry have a simple belief about numbers:
More = Good
Less = Bad
I know, you're wondering how I got a doctorate with that kind of insight. Sometimes I wonder too. But behind the simplicity of that belief are some underlying assumptions, namely that if a church is healthy it will grow (my friend Angie Ward has some thoughts on this). We believe as pastors that if our churches are healthy and we're doing all our part, they will come. It's an updated version of Shoeless Joe telling Ray in Field of Dreams that if it's built, "he will come."
For the record, I think numbers are incredibly helpful. Numbers are a great barometer. They can be an objective measurement and comparison. They represent people who have been transformed by Jesus and connected to a local body. They become working pieces to navigate when we're allocating resources and monies in a budget.
But they don't tell the whole story. Figures and statistics without context, clarity, and perspective can be like juggling hand grenades. So with numbers going up or down, let's look at some possible explanations.
Numbers Go Up (Attendance or Giving)
1. A church is effectively reaching its community and drawing in lost, unchurched, dechurched, seekers, skeptics, and prospects. Let's be honest, this is what we always hope is going on. We want our churches to be faithful to its mission of bringing the lost to Jesus.
2. The population around our church has grown. In communities experiencing steady or rapid growth, it shouldn't be surprising that most churches are "growing."
3. A church fight down the road could be pushing people to surrounding congregations. Transfer growth isn't bad when it comes from people who have legitimate or biblical reasons for leaving. But sometimes the growth comes because another church in town had a fight.
4. Unique financial circumstances mean your giving is uniquely raised. I remember hearing a story about a church getting a huge check from a member. The church had to be careful how to handle the money, not because they were being controlled by the giver, but because John Grisham had sold the screen rights to a novel and wrote his tithe. It may not be that, but your church could be left an estate portion, or receive a special gift, or have an extremely generous person.
5. You become the "flavor of the week" and it's an indescribable ride. Sometimes, you just have people come because they come. You don't know why. You can't explain it -- there was no mailing, there was no community blitz, nothing. They just come.
Numbers Go Down (Attendance or Giving)
1. It could be a simple equation: faithful attenders and givers tend to be older and no one lives forever. Sometimes numbers go down because people get older, move away to be near family, or aren't able to live adequately on their fixed income. Many churches are running into the phenomena of not seeing as many new faces to replace the ones who die or move away.
2. Transitions can often lead to (hopefully brief) declines. Whenever you bring in new leadership or bring in changes, you're going to have some losses. Some people just jelled with the previous pastor or leader and they don't necessarily have that with you. Maybe it's a new ministry vision and direction that some people aren't totally on board with.
3. Declining Communities often have declining churches. In communities where jobs are drying up and the factories and other employers are closing or moving away, it's natural for people to move to follow the work. And what's left behind are churches wounded and struggling, not because of anything they did.
4. Bad leadership drives people away. Let's be honest... sometimes the declines in our churches isn't because of theological rigor or socioeconomic factors or a new vision. Sometimes people leave because we're incompetent jerks.
5. New members often take some time to transition into faithful givers. Depending on the source, it can take up to a year for someone to move from guest to attender to member to contributor. There might be holes in the giving capacity or in the leadership/serving capacity in churches that are seeing growth numerically. It's the reality of assimilation: it takes time.
6. It just happens. Like #5 in the growth, sometimes it just happens. Pastors are faithfully preaching. Churches are reaching out. People are being discipled. New faces are there. But for some reason unknown to the leadership, they're still seeing fewer people attend than previous years. If this is you pastor, don't lose heart. You're still making an eternal impact. God's scorecard is much different than ours.
Remember, numbers only tell part of the story, not the whole. Use them, and refer to them. Don't ignore them, but don't put too much stock in them either.
Volunteers are the heartbeat of a local church. Think about it. If all of them left tomorrow there would be nothing. Who'd teach classes? Who'd turn the lights off? WHO WOULD MAKE THE COFFEE!
Seriously though, the people we bring into leadership positions and responsibilities as volunteers are (in many ways) as important as who we bring in as vocational staff. Volunteer leaders have more face time with our churches than we do, they're more relationally connected than we are, they're ingrained into the culture of the church. Those are things that most vocational leaders struggle with.
I've always advocated for bringing FAT people into leadership roles. People who are Faithful, Available, and Teachable. If you can get those, you can do a lot with volunteer leader development.
But who should you never recruit into leadership? I think there are four types
1) The Yes Man - Pastors don't need cheerleaders. If you're in ministry and you need people to tell you how awesome you are, as John Crist would say, "check your heart." Yes Men make poor volunteer leaders because they'll never disagree or give constructive feedback. I'm so thankful for the times that our volunteers and leadership team have stopped me from doing some stupid idea I had.
2) The Critic - The Critic is the opposite of The Yes Man, in that The Critic is always going to point out flaws, problems, and generally give "suggestions." Pastors, you know what I'm talking about. The Critic makes a poor leader because they're usually not on board with the vision, and they're generally toxic people to be around because they constantly find the negative.
3) The Divider - The Divider is also known to his family as The Pot Stirrer. The Divider is a poor leader because he's not going to be a unifier. He's going to work to divide people. Paul's greatest concern in the New Testament was for the purity of the church (theological & ethical), but his second greatest concern was for the unity of the church. Dividers end up creating factions, cliques, and in-groups.
4) The Gossiper - Gossip is a cancer in any organization. Famously, Dave Ramsey has a policy of firing gossips because it's so toxic. Gossips make poor leaders because they're not trustworthy. One of the hardest things of leadership is the value of discretion. Sometimes things are discussed privately, or are brainstormed, or are discussed with a level of vulnerability. That means that leaders who participate in long-range planning, vision, or the needed sensitivity of ministry must be reliable and trustworthy. Churches can and should be transparent as much as possible. But by nature of some aspects of ministry and organizational leadership, sometimes information is protected. The Gossiper talks a lot, and in doing so creates confusion, stirs up trouble, and creates factions.
Who else would make a poor leader in the local church?
Church Growth & Recruiting Classes
Whenever we think about growth in the local church, we typically think about it in two threads: Transfer & Conversion. There's a third as well, which is what I affectionately call "The Great Commission 9 months at a time" where families in the church add through children. But for purpose of this let's think along the Transfer & Conversion.
Transfer is where someone from another church attends and joins yours. They have already made a profession of faith, they've been baptized, and they come with a "letter" (if your denomination practices that) affirming their membership in good standing. These are folks who have been Christians for years and may have served in a number of areas. Their reasons for changing churches could be a relocation for work, they wanted to attend closer to home, they have family in your church, or there may have been a reason to leave their previous church home.
Conversion growth is where someone is brought into the membership through salvation (and baptism) as a result of a personal connection, invite, or some other introduction to the Gospel and to the church. Conversion growth where people are discipled from spiritual infancy, are mentored, and many times are introduced to the culture and practices of a church.
All conversion growth is good. It means your church is reaching into its community and sharing Jesus with neighbors. It means you're doing your mission. At the same time, not all transfer growth is bad. Sometimes you'll have people join because they want to be part of a church doing something. Sometimes they'll join because they got mad and left. Sometimes it's because they can't make the long commute. Sometimes it's because they lost a power struggle. Not all transfer growth is bad. It can be really good.
Perhaps the best way to draw the analogy is to look at college basketball (I'm from Kentucky, if you're not from there you have no idea how big it is). In basketball, a team can get new players two different ways: graduate transfers and recruiting classes. Graduate transfers are players who have finished their degree at a school and can transfer for one year of eligibility at a new school. Recruiting classes are the players brought in as freshmen who coaches have built relationships with for years. Both help a team, and both carry over into church growth.
Graduate transfers can immediately contribute, and so can transfer growth - What I love about transfer growth is that it brings in people who know how churches work, who have a heart for ministry, and who many times have years of experience in previous contexts. They can, in many cases, be an immediate help to meet needs. In the same vein, graduate transfers don't have to learn college officiating or unlearn AAU tendencies. Many times, they immediately start and can contribute.
Recruiting classes are hard work, so is conversion growth - The thing that sets apart college sports from pro sports is that in college, coaches recruit. They can build their team. And many of them spend more time & money on recruiting trips and visits than they do on practice and game prep. Not every player recruited will commit. Some will back out. Others will sign with a rival. Sometimes a coach will spend months working on bringing in a player only to lose out. Conversion growth is hard work. Sometimes people will reject the message. Other times they might not want to talk further. Sometimes it can take weeks or months to get them to make the first visit to your church. One thing I've noticed is that it can take more than a year to assimilate from conversion to active membership.
Graduate transfers are short-term, recruiting classes are long-term - As much as I love good transfer growth, it's not sustainable. You can't constantly depend on others to drop in your lap. A college coach can't chase the graduate transfer route year after year. They aren't able to develop a healthy culture or long-term success. Conversion growth in the church is the sustainable option. Churches that engage in mission, that have people sharing Jesus with their friends and neighbors, that are baptizing regularly, are churches that see long-term fruition.
Losing people is hard, but you pick back up - Graduate transfers are a zero sum equation. If your school gets a player, another school has to lose a player. Transfer growth in the church is like that as well. If someone joins your church, they left another. If someone joins another church, they leave yours. It's tough. Sometimes you'll spend months or years investing in people and they get a job transfer or something happens and they decide to leave. It's hard for a coach when a player decides to leave the program. But they can't delay, because the season is around the corner. In ministry, we can be sad when people leave. But it doesn't take away from our responsibility to serve and minister and invest in our community.
How have you seen transfer growth help your church? How has your church been blessed by continued conversion growth?
One of the biggest frustrations for pastors & church leadership is when people visit and we don't have any information on them. What had been promising as a first-time visit may not materialize into a ministry opportunity because, like Cinderella's glass slipper, we may not even have caught their name.
We all have them. They're the cards in the pew/chair. And when we get frustrated at not getting information from people, we're so quick to say "The cards! they didn't fill out the card!"
Maybe they didn't. And maybe there's a reason they didn't. Let's think about 3 questions on why no one is filling out your visitor cards.
1) Do they even know about the card? - It's so easy to fall into the Christianese customs where we talk among ourselves about things only we know about. When someone is a guest to our church, they're not familiar with our culture, lingo, and where the bathrooms are. When a guest sits down, they may not even be aware of the cards in front of them. Or if they see it, that they're supposed to fill something out. That's why we need to communicate it to them that the cards are there and that we'd love for them to fill it out. You can do that by
-Announcing it from the platform during announcements or welcome
-Personally invite someone to fill one out
If your greeters are doing their job, not only will they be a friendly face and an extension of your church's desire for guests, they'll take the next step of encouraging them to fill out a guest card. Follow that up with reminders from the platform. Our music minister holds up a copy of our card so people can not only hear it but see it.
2) Do they know what to do with the card? - So you've gotten a guest to fill out the card. Now what. They need to know what to do with the card. Maybe your offering is over and there's not a way for them to put it in the plate or basket. Again, we cannot overemphasize the importance of communicating processes to those who are unfamiliar. As your cards are handed out or emphasized, give the next step. And include multiple options for the next step. Here are some ways to take the next step, and make sure people know they have a way they can leave their card.
-Put in the offering plate/basket
-Hand to a staff member or volunteer (hint - this is why name tags or signage are important!)
-Leave in the seat
-Direct to a designated Visitor Center (if your church does a goodie bag for visitors you can swap the bag for their card)
However you do it, make sure it's communicated.
3) Are your cards stocked neatly? - You need to make sure that your cards are adequately stocked with pens/pencils to use. No one is going to fill out a card that's not there. Nor are they going to fill out a card without a way to write. Beyond making sure it's stocked, we have to double check to make sure it's neat. If your seat backs are stuffed full of gum wrappers (double bad if the chewed gum is in the wrapper), crumbled grocery lists, or other trash, it's not a good first impression on a guest. Details matter in our impressions on guests. Likewise, are you throwing out cards that have been used as a kids doodle sheet or a scribble pad? It's a small thing, but what we communicate to our guests is often more unsaid than said.
What has your church been able to do that has helped you in getting contact information for follow up?
Full disclosure: I read this book on the beach. Perks of living in Florida. You can hate me if you want.
Dean Inserra has, over the last couple years, become one of my favorite Twitter follows. Dean pastors City Church in Tallahassee, and his book The Unsaved Christian is one I would highly recommend to pastors and church leaders.
For years I've often said that the hardest place to do ministry isn't in the Northwest or New England, it's in the Bible Belt. Sure there's some overt issues and hardships that come from being a Jesus follower in those regions, but in the Bible Belt you'll find something more difficult: people who have been vaccinated by the Gospel. They're gripped with a cultural Christianity that is powerless to save, and they don't even know they're lost. They've gotten just enough of the Good News to think that everything is ok and they have no need of repentance (that's what bad people have to do, and I'm not bad) and faith (after all, I believe in God).
That's what Dean gets after in his book, to look at the phenomenon of the "Unsaved Christian" or the person who identifies as a Christian in name but in reality has no transforming relationship with Jesus. They have a theistic framework of thinking, a (mostly) biblical worldview on morality, and may have a deep appreciation for Jesus. But as so many of us heard in youth group, they're 18 inches from heaven.
Perhaps the most urgent charge from this book is in the very beginning: it's our responsibility as leaders in the church to make sure people recognize they're lost. In the trappings of the Unsaved Christian's life, they can often find a false security in moralism, in church attendance/giving/serving, identifying as a Republican, or by having a sincere appreciation for the work and ministry of Jesus. Despite all of that, sadly many will find themselves hearing what Jesus warned His followers of in Matthew 7 "Depart from me, I never knew you."
Beyond the Bible Belt, we're living in times where >70% of Americans self-identify as Christian, yet the fruit of that identification is many times difficult to see. Packed stadiums emotionally belt out God Bless America and yet our nation cannot get past its historic sins. Churches will be packed for Easter Sunday and return to being half empty the following week. Small towns hold up a banner of being a "Christian" community yet are rife with issues of sin and addiction they ignore in the name of preserving a vestige of the past.
Cultural Christianity has no power to save. Its only power is to numb the conscience. The only hope is the Gospel.
Leaders Don't Get Their Way
One of the most famous stories from the history of McDonalds is the failed attempt at the Hula Burger. Company founder Ray Kroc had a meatless sandwich in mind to make money during Lent: pineapple on bread with a slice of cheese. His demand for the Hula Burger came to a head in 1962 when a franchisee in Ohio put his Filet-o-Fish sandwich up against the Hula Burger, with the winner getting the company go-ahead. The final score: Fish 350, Pineapple 6.
The man who had taken a unique drive-in restaurant idea and turned it into the "billions and billions served" fast food giant didn't get his way. And for all of us who have an irrational love for the McDonalds fish sandwich (seriously, where do they find square shaped fish?), thank you Lou Groen.
And if you like the idea of grilled pineapple and cheese, you can get the Hula Burger recipe online.
The takeaway lesson from this is simple: as leaders in the church, ministry, or any organization, we are not guaranteed to get our way. Leaders who demand their way aren't really leading, they're dictators. Our job as leaders is to ensure the best and the right ideas are pursued, even if they're not ours. Those who seek out the best will find more fruit, more buy-in, and more traction than if decisions are shoved into people's laps.
Let me offer five ways we can make sure that the best and the right ideas are both heard and implemented:
1. Listen - It sounds simple, but it's not always so. Leaders spend a lot of time talking, it's part of the job. But if we're going to see the best and the right ideas come to the top, we have to spend time listening. And that listening has to be listening that understands, not listening to respond. Listening to understand hears out the reasoning, it is engaged, and it is reserved in its response.
2. Solicit feedback - A lot of times our way of soliciting feedback is the same way we engage in grocery store small talk. We see someone in the dairy section we know, we smile and wave and say "Hey how are you?" and we're on our way to the bread aisle before they can give an answer. We're not really interested in how they're doing, we're just conditioned to ask empty questions like that. As leaders, what kind of tone are we setting when we ask for feedback? Are we allowing ample time? Are we giving attention to those sharing? Are we making eye contact and engaging? Or are we blowing through an agenda or a conversation so we can move on to the next thing?
3. Be humble - Defensive leaders want their way. They're not humble, they're proud. They think everyone else is there to serve them. Humility flips the script. Humility reflects the attitude of Christ and the call of servant leadership. Humility for a leader can be as simple as admitting we're wrong, or acknowledging the accomplishments and contributions of others. Leaders who are defensive, proud, or unyielding are insecure, selfish, and if they're serving in a ministry environment toxic.
4. Discuss ideas, not people - One of my friends in ministry just turned 36, and in sharing that mentioned being told once before by a pastor he served under that you weren't allowed to have an opinion on things until you're over 35. So now that he was 36, he was able to fire away with opinions. When people are the focus of a discussion, or lack thereof, we're not discussing ideas anymore. Good ideas can come from the most unlikely of circumstances. A good idea can come from someone not necessarily in that particular ministry area. And (gasp!) a good idea can come from someone under 35.
5. Celebrate others' victories - When something goes really well, celebrate it. When it goes well, make sure the person who was behind it is recognized and appreciated for it. Leaders who don't insist on their own way will have no problem giving the spotlight to others, and won't take it personal when other people are recognized and valued for their accomplishments.
How have you as a leader helped to ensure that the right and best ideas are championed?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.