Beginning the conversation with Vitality – OI and congregation size

I had a Presbytery staff member say to me recently “it just seems like we are always talking about viability and not vitality – they are very different. We need to change the conversation.” This comment and my experience this weekend reminded me yet again that indeed the two are very different. Both also reminded me of why we do what we do at Holy Cow! Consulting.

On Saturday, I worked with a congregation in St. Louis that has an average weekend attendance of 68 people. If we talked about viability or just looked at count data it would give us pause. But that is not our job at Holy Cow! Consulting. We start by looking at vitality.

Out of the 1,855 other congregations this congregation was benchmarked against, it was in the 99 percentile for both energy and satisfaction. Meaning, that only 1% of the churches in our data base had a higher level of morale and vitality. They were also in the 99 percentile for flexibility and in the very high range for conflict management abilities, trust in leadership, readiness for ministry and other performance indices. Where they need to be doing well, they are doing extraordinarily well.

I have written before about the small but mighty congregations. Count data will not help us find our vital congregations. We cannot assume that a church that has 1000 or 500 people in average weekly attendance has the necessary vitality to sustain a healthy congregation even though, on their face, they suggest viability. And, we also cannot assume that the smaller congregations that are hitting the ground running with internal health and external focus do not offer best practices and ideas that can help us better understand what makes a vital congregation. We need to learn from these small but mighty congregations because, equal to vital congregations of larger size, they are the ones to watch over the next five years.

So, as congregations and regional associations, let’s move the conversation past the question of viability. Let’s set aside the count data, we know what it says. Instead, let’s begin our conversations about congregations with vitality and see what God has in store.

Emily Swanson, President of HC!C

*With the congregation’s permission I am sharing that the congregation I wrote about above is First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis, MO. If you are a smaller congregation or assist other small congregations in their work, I would suggest reaching out to these folks for some ideas as you move forward. Their website is