Interpreting Data with your Story

Autumn is a busy time for us, as it is for many of you. Our team will be traveling quite a bit and working with congregations both onsite and online.   This also means that we will be meeting many people and congregations for the first time – which is one of the favorite parts of our job
at Holy Cow! Consulting.

Before I walk into any interpretation of a congregation’s assessment results, I know their data very well. I can see how satisfied and energized people are, where they are looking for that satisfaction, what cultural strengths and shadow-sides they might be experiencing, how conflict is moving, the congregational strengths they have to leverage and the places that need growth edges. I can also see their hopes for where they want to go.  This is what organizational intelligence offers.

But what we don’t have is the narrative – the back-story of that congregation – the list of the things that have been tried, the ministries that are hard to let go of because of their history, the clergy that has been loved, the leadership that has been faithful.  The feelings that come with our stories in our congregations also provide a background for those stories and for the data.  Both the stories and the feelings around them are important because they give the data a storyboard and they provide the needed imagination of how to move forward.

Each congregation has a story. Data doesn’t replace it, but it does help us look at where the congregation is as a whole and lets us know what is typical and exceptional about that place where the congregation finds itself.  The data also helps the congregational leadership take a breath, get a clear picture, and decide what is next; always with the reminder that this is your congregation’s story today but tomorrow a new story can begin.  And as always, the first step to any good story is prayer.

We look forward to hearing your story.

Emily Swanson
President of Holy Cow! Consulting

Assessment as a Spiritual Journey

All truth is God’s truth. That God is loving and gracious, that e=mc2, and that curious tendency of all children to giggle at hiding in plain sight with just their eyes covered, all these are expressions of God’s truth. The process of discovering God’s truth, in any of its many forms, always has an element of revelation to it as if one were being shown something. Using the vernacular of our day, our own personal discoveries have the quality of “a light coming on.” This is also the language used by Jesus as he describes the discovery of God’s nature and purposes in the world. “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The process of discovering the perspectives, experiences, and aspirations of a church is also one of revelation and has the revelatory quality of moving from darkness into light. In response, it is not uncommon for people to speak of “a light coming on” in the experience as they come to understand aspects of the entire body that they could not possibly have known from the relatively small number of interactions that characterizes the day to day relationships in most organizations. This process of reality moving out of the shadows and into the light is a spiritual journey.

As a spiritual journey, it has all the elements one would expect.
There are insights that evoke a liberating “aha” as connections
are uncovered that were not intuitively obvious. Some aspects of
the process tell us nothing new, but they express what we do
know using language that enables us to get a firmer grasp.

Sometimes the need for healing is revealed in the relational
wounds that come to light, often painful and occasionally urgent.Unknown-3.jpeg
There are the common resistances that we all experience, the sense of inferiority or shame or fear that tempts us to retreat
back into the perceived safety of the darkness. We often find ourselves in denial struggling with what it will mean to embrace these truths which can often feel like loss.  So, we engage with an air dismissiveness and return to our unfruitful behaviors which led us here in the first place.

Finally, there is the concrete action that must  root itself in the earth of any spiritual journey and express itself in fruit for the Kingdom of God. The fulfillment of a spiritual journey ultimately hinges, not on the research design, but upon the spiritual practice that surrounds it. Without this spiritual practice, insights degenerate into trivia, wounds are probed but not healed, resistances harden into defensiveness and denial, and the promised new life fails to materialize as an incarnate reality. King David’s greatest loss of life was not to an enemy but to his own inability to manage information and keep it disentangled from his own ego.

For these reasons, it is critical that an evidence-based discernment process be interwoven with a robust spiritual practice including prayer, reflection, confession, devotions, study, and worship. Because an assessment generates a symbolic narrative, that is, a corporate story told through the symbol of numbers, we must ponder several questions:

  • How do we deal with our stories? While the individual contribution to the assessment is confidential, the corporate story will be quite public.
  • How might the disclosure of our corporate story bring insight, healing, and renewal?
  • In the past, how have we dealt with surprises, with things we thought were true but we discovered were not?
  • In that same past, how have we dealt with our wounds, our resistances, and our tendency to intellectualize as an escape from change?
  • What Scriptures help us reflect on truth, listening to God, trusting God’s plan for us and facing change?
  • How do we find access to the grace of God in this process of discovery so that our journey might be one expressive of Jesus, full of grace and truth?

When we take the time to answer these questions and weave our data with the story of our congregation, then prayerfully we can move forward with hope.


An excerpt from our new book “The State of the PCUSA” by J. Russell Crabtree



A lot has changed in the Presbyterian Church over the last sixty years. A lot hasn’t.

Consider just a fraction of the changes. In 1955 the PCUSA voted to begin ordaining women as ministers. A year later the first woman, Margaret Towner, was ordained. In 1963 Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the UPCUSA, joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the march on Washington, DC. One year later the first black man, Edler Hawkins, was elected as moderator. In the Kenyon decision of 1975, the UPCUSA ruled that a pastor who would not participate in the ordination of a woman could not, himself, be ordained. ree years later Lois Stair was the first woman elected as moderator.
e northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian Church reunited in 1983. In 2011 the General Assembly adopted a new form of government. In that same year it removed the constitutional obstruction to gay ordination and voted to allow same gender marriages in 2014.

Whether you agree with these changes or not, the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has an impressive history of being able to adopt and implement policy that takes the church in new directions.

So what hasn’t changed?

I started to wonder about this question when I looked at the responses of more than 40,000 Presbyterians from 287 churches to questions exploring their perspectives, experiences, and aspirations.

Compared to other denominations, I discovered that Presbyterians seem particularly unhappy. I began to wonder if this unhappiness was a recent development that could be traced to the controversies surrounding human sexuality and theological perspective, the flight of some congregations to more conservative expressions of Presbyterianism, or the financial pressures on the church at all levels that threaten viability.

Fortunately, there is a way of answering this question. Dr. Grayson Tucker, former dean of students of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary began collecting data in the late seventies using an instrument he named the Church Planning

Questionnaire. Even more fortuitous is that Tucker kept the data on 287 Presbyterian congregations separate from the rest of his database. ( e fact that the most recent Holy Cow! Consulting database also has 287 Presbyterian churches in it is an interesting coincidence.) I acquired the rights to Tucker’s instrument and its database in 1991. As a result I am able to look at the data from Presbyterian churches during the first ten years of his data collection and compare it with the data from Presbyterian churches for the most recent ten-year period ending in 2017.

The result? High-level metrics on how Presbyterians experience their churches indicate virtually nothing has changed.

About 47 percent of members were clearly satisfied with the church thirty years ago; about 48 percent are clearly satisfied today. About 37 percent of members generally agreed that there wasn’t much excitement in the church thirty years ago; about 37 percent generally agree today. The same is true of conflict levels, tolerance of differences, and governance scores.

In biblical terms, the typical Presbyterian church is no better at exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control—among its members than it was thirty years ago.

Arguably it is also no worse. However, this is cold comfort when we realize that one of the big challenges for denominational churches is not the number of unchurched in society, but the number of dechurched persons. Dechurched persons are those who have hada significant level of involvement with the church in the past but have found the experience so problematic that they have dropped out. Barna indicates that “the majority of unchurched individuals (76 percent) have firsthand experience with one or more Christian churches and, based on that sampling, have decided they can better use their time in other ways.” Fewer than one in ten American women (7 percent) have never been to church at all.

This is clear from my research. Churches where members offer mediocre experiences to one another as measured by satisfaction and energy are seeing declines in worship attendance approaching 5 percent a year. This almost certainly an issue with participants being dechurched rather than failing to attend in the rst place. Unless steps are taken to improve the experiences that members are having in the Presbyterian Church, evangelism initiatives of various kinds are destined to fail.

In spite of the fact that Tucker was a professor and author from a Presbyterian seminary, the General Assembly of the PCUSA never adopted a church-wide initiative to improve the overall experience of members within their congregations based upon his pioneering work. Presbyterians have done an excellent job of opening up their fellowships to those previously marginalized because of race, gender, or sexual orientation, but they have paid inadequate attention to the question of whether those fellowships over a quality of life that these newly welcomed folks would want to experience.

Why is this important to you? If you are a leader and take this book seriously, know that you are an atypical Presbyterian. Given the current state of the typical PCUSA congregation, atypical is what you want to be. If you don’t mind being a bit out of the box, read on.

About 48 percent of Presbyterians indicate that overall they are satisfied with their churches. at’s not bad compared to Congress, but it is poor when compared to yoga studios (91 percent), public libraries (90 percent), hospital emergency departments (85 percent), or Starbucks (75 percent). e typical Presbyterian church, like other typical denominational churches, is not doing well at generating the kind of internal climate that can sustain its membership.

This is not a counsel of despair. The good news is that not all Presbyterian churches are typical, and this gives us hope that a different level of church vitality is possible. Some Presbyterian churches exude a vitality that is palpable when you enter the church property. I refer to these as transformational churches. (On charts, I abbreviate this to XFormational to conserve space.)

In contrast there are a number of Presbyterian churches struggling to such a degree that it will require rethinking what it means for them to be a church. I refer to these as reinvention churches.

The purpose of this book goes far beyond presenting a statistical picture of the perspectives, experiences, and attitudes of members of the typical PCUSA church. In providing this educational resource for leaders, I am interested in addressing a much more practical question with real applicability.

  • Factor #1 Transformational Presbyterian churches create worship experiences that are exceptional in their ability to inspire, engage, and enrich the spiritual lives of the people.
  • Factor #2 Transformational Presbyterian churches create a church environment where involvement is good for the soul instead of leading to disillusionment or disappointment.
  • Factor #3 Transformational Presbyterian churches create a developmental process where every person understands the significance of their life in the universe and is supported in fulfilling the purpose for which they were born.
  • Factor #4 Transformational Presbyterian churches create a climate where people live in peace with one another by resolving conflict in ways that are respectful and restorative.
  • Factor #5 Transformational Presbyterian churches create a representative decision-making process where persons experience leaders who listen deeply with open hearts and make courageous decisions with good intentions.
  • Both transformational and reinvention churches have much to teach, but their lessons are obscured if leaders are unable to distinguish
    one from the other. is points to the subject of organizational self-awareness. Without self-awareness the gap between words and behavior becomes invisible, and with that invisibility, motivation for action evaporates as well. The word hypocrisy means literally to “under-evaluate” (hypo + krisis). I hesitate to even use the word. Given the tendency of critics to make the charge of hypocrisy the most common stone in the sling, the word ceases to communicate much except disdain.

    I contemplated making up a word or phrase to avoid the emotional-trip wire. However, as used by Jesus, the word hypocrite has a descriptive power for organizations like no other. First, the singular use of the word almost never occurs in the New Testament. Out of eighteen instances spoken by Jesus, sixteen of them are the plural “hypocrites,” indicating that hypocrisy is primarily a corporate matter, a quality of organizations more than individuals. It is a result of living in an organizational culture that has normalized the serious gap between promise and fulfillment.

    Second, hypocrisy is largely an unconscious corporate sin. When describing it, Jesus relies on the metaphor of blindness. Just as a blind person doesn’t know what they don’t see, unconscious organizations don’t know what they don’t know. When churches are unaware of the drift from the promises of their mission to a conceptual ideal, they risk foundering against the reefs of hypocrisy, proclaiming aspects of a gospel they do not know how to live and unaware that they are not living it.

    As I indicated in my book Owl Sight: Evidence-Based Discernment and the Promise of Organizational Intelligence for Ministry, it is almost impossible for leaders (and others) to accurately estimate how members as a whole are feeling about the church without a reliable assessment tool. e corrective to this lack of self-awareness is the application of organizational intelligence. Organizational intelligence enables leaders to determine if a church keeps the promises of its mission from the perspective of its members.

    I have no authority to tell a church what it should promise to the world. My role is to discover the degree to which its members believe the church is fulfilling the purpose it aspires toward. Given that focus, I will not replicate nor analyze data on membership, attendance, or giving that is readily available through PCUSA denominational offices. Likewise, leaders generally do a thorough job of compiling lists of the ministries of Presbyterian congregations and presbyteries in their annual reports, so I will not replicate that work.

    The congregations included in this study participated for a wide variety of reasons: strategic planning, pastoral transitions, financial campaigns, to better understand their organizational health, to track progress, or as part of an effort their particular presbytery has undertaken to  become more evidence based in their ministries to and with congregations. These congregations all administered the Congregation Assessment Tool™ (CAT). The CAT is an updated version of the Church Planning Questionnaire developed by Grayson Tucker. I believe that the sample is broad enough to be representative of all Presbyterian congregations within a confidence interval of ± 5 percent…

    Because there may be cultural differences among congregations of the same denomination in different regions of the country, my analysisincludes Presbyterian congregations and presbyteries from East Coast to West Coast and areas in between.

    Chapter 1 looks at the all- important role of worship for thriving congregations and explores generational differences that impact expectations.

    Chapter 2 explores the importance of involvement for Presbyterians but focuses on the curious fact that it is not the level of involvement that makes the difference from one church to another but the experience of involvement that is decisive.

    Chapter 3 looks at how important it is for Presbyterians to nd significance through their engagement in ministry for which they are prepared, supported, and given opportunities to serve that are a good t.

    Chapter 4 reviews the findings on the role of conflict in sabotaging the vitality of Presbyterian churches and the importance of peace as an aspect of congregational health.

    Chapter 5 explores the importance of governance in vital congregations and the quality of leaders who function in that ministry.

    Chapter 6 explores the role of beliefs in Presbyterian churches and discusses the distinctive challenge that Presbyterians face with the combination of a high degree of theological diversity and a low level of tolerance.

    Chapter 7 looks at the priorities of Presbyterians for the future and reflects on how those aspirations shift from one generation to another.

    Chapter 8 considers the spiritual practices in Presbyterian churches and reflects on the need to develop some alternative spiritual practices that are more impactful on churches as a whole.

    Chapter 9 looks at the state of the PCUSA from a financial standpoint, not from a dollars and cents perspective, but in terms of what is driving financial generosity.

    Chapter 10 reviews a substantial body of data for Presbyterians as they anticipate and experience pastoral transitions.

    Chapter 11 provides a quick summary of data reflecting the perspectives, experiences, and aspirations of members for their presbyteries.

    Chapter 12 explores the theological divide that is propelling some churches to leave the PCUSA for more conservative denominations.

    Chapter 13 reinforces the point that data is not sufficient for decision-making and needs to be integrated into an evidence-based discernment process.