Skating together – OI and embracing congregational diversity

I had a bit of an unexpected long drive last night from Milwaukee to Columbus.  Along  the way, I heard a TED talk about community and order.  The speaker talked about how if you pitched the concept of the old style roller rink to some friends for the first time it would sound something like this “I want to buy a large warehouse, lay the floor with concrete.  Then I am going to add some hard rails on the sides and have people without certification, training or helmets skate around the floor just in one direction. There will be no pattern just one direction to skate. To music. It will be great.”

It sounds ridiculous when you think of it like that.  But, when you actually go roller skating in a skating rink it works.  Somehow we come together in this community of skaters, skate in one direction, and it is all to music.  Some us skate fast and have to move around others. Some of us fall and make the person behind us fall. We then brush ourselves off and get back to skating.   At the end of the day, it is great.

This weekend I had the opportunity to work with a congregation in Wisconsin. Their descriptive map from the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) looked like this:

mIDDLE .png

On paper, they have people who are more conservative in their theology  (scripture is the literal word of God, conversion is the first step in forming a betters society, etc.) and people who are more progressive in their theology.   This congregation has people that are more adaptable to change and those who need more intentional steps to help them move towards change.   Like the roller rink idea, on paper, it might seem like having this community work together may end up in a large pile up of stalemates and divisiveness – skaters in all directions with a hard floor beneath.

Instead, as we worked through all the congregation’s data, we kept this diversity in front of us for a large part of the conversation. There is work to do. This congregation has experienced some tough set-backs.  However, the leadership kept naming their diverse congregation as a strength and coming back to it as a focal point. This type of thoughtful leadership, with a deep care towards their level of internal diversity, will aid the congregation through their time of pastoral transition.   It will also help determine what gifts and skills their next pastor needs to have as well as what strengths and growth edges the leadership needs to focus on while they are in transition.

When Paul wrote I Corinthians he appealed to the church community in Corinth who was experiencing a divisiveness in their leadership and in their thinking.  He wrote “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”  1 Corinthians 1:10. 

What I heard yesterday from the leadership of this congregation was exactly this.  They have fully claimed being a congregation that has folks from differing theologies, adaptability levels and places on the descriptive map.  When they come together in the name of Christ, when they work and worship together with all of the different thoughts, beliefs and ways of moving in community it works.   It is an unexpected unity. For me this was a great reminder that if we all keep our eyes on Christ and work towards our preferred future of ourselves in our congregations, we really can skate quite beautifully – even if you throw in an occasional fall now and again.


-Emily Swanson





inSight©: Helping Regional Associations Help

In our work with Regional Associations and congregations, we have found the following things to be true:

  1. A transformational Regional Association is one that has focused on creating vital, growing congregations and is discovering effective ways of achieving that vision.
  2. Using Organization Intelligence (OI) is an important step towards determining an organization’s health and next steps needed. But OI is also only as good as its application.  Without applying OI systematically to move congregations towards becoming vital reflections of our good works in Christ, OI just becomes data.

As we head into Autumn, Holy Cow! Consulting will begin rolling out some new ways to help Regional Associations help congregations.  For the systemic application of OI, by the end of September we will finish completely rolling out our inSight webpages.  inSight is a system of information that empowers Regional Associations to serve a transformational role in their congregations.  It is designed especially for those Regional Associations whose primary goal is to develop healthy, vital congregations.

use this one.pngFor each Regional Association, with five or more congregations that have taken the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT), we will create a private webpage.  On that page, the leadership of the Regional Association will find dashboards of all of their congregations.  These dashboards will show the energy-satisfaction levels of the congregations, the education and motivation, conflict management and levels of trust in leadership, the cultures of the congregations, spiritual vitality, hospitality and worship scores combined with the level of involvement that is meaningful to congregations. The webpage will also include all of Vital Signs (CAT results) for each congregation so everything is in one place and easily accessible.

How Does this Help? 

Regional Associations have a lot of different tasks and roles to fill as they serve their congregations.  Our goal with inSight is to help get that job done in less time with more confidence.

inSight tells a story beyond each individual congregation.  inSight helps Regional Association leaders begin to see what support congregations might need overall.  From tconflct-for-bloghe chart on the right, you can see that this Regional Association has several congregations that could use some help with becoming more flexible. Because we know that organizational flexibility is vital, this Regional Association might want to look at creating some resources that help their congregations become and remain nimble – open to change so they can meet the needs of who they want to reach in the community and in their membership.

inSight helps Regional Leadership know what each congregation is focused on. Walking into a congregation, a Regional Association leader can have that particular congregation’s data in hand. This means they can immediately know what folks in the congregation are focused on for energy and satisfaction.  For example, you would work with a clergy-focused congregation a bit differently than a ministry-focused congregation.  The Leader will also know what the priorities are for that congregation and their theological diversity.  So as they preach, teach, or meet with folks they can keep all of that in mind to ensure what they are saying resonates with the congregation.

inSight helps Regional Leadership make decisions.  One of the hardest things the Regional Association is tasked with is triage.  Answering the questions of what needs immediate attention, what can be dealt with later and what cannot be fixed for now is a tough job.  inSight helps Regional Association have a clear way to measure what is happening in a congregation without solely relying on fiscal reports, attendance trends, and anecdotes.  With an accurate and holistic way to measure the health of a congregation, the Regional Association can begin answering those tough questions of where attention needs to be paid and what the potential of success will be.  

In October, once inSight is in place, we will begin offering Pastor Start-up packages which will help the Pastor in their work as they embark on a journey with a new congregation.  This will complete our three phase transition process, which also includes a Transition Plan and Vital Leader Profile.

We look forward to continuing on this path together.  If there are other ways we can help please let us know.

Emily Swanson
President of Holy Cow! Consulting




The Clergy-Focused Congregation

One of the things that we say about organizations is that focus trumps picture.  That is simply another way of saying that when people reflect on how they feel about an organization, they don’t look at the entire picture of what an organization does.  Instead, they focus on a few things that are important to them.  The few things they focus on are more decisive than everything else in the picture in determining how they feel about that organization overall.

We call those important areas where members focus drivers of satisfaction.

One of the patterns we observe in some faith communities is that members focus on the clergy person when they reflect on how they feel about the church overall.  We call these systems “clergy-focused.”  Generally, like the example below,  a system is clergy-focused when three or more of the top five drivers on a Vital Signs report concern the work of the clergy person…or two on the clergy person and one on worship.drivers for clergy focused.png

Sometimes, people confuse clergy-focused with clergy-driven.  When we say that a church is clergy-focused, it does not mean that the pastor is running everything.  A church can be clergy-focused where the pastor is leaving every decision to the lay people.

In a clergy-focused church, how people feel about the pastor is more important in their overall view of the church than other parts of the picture like Christian formation, hospitality, music, youth ministry, or how decisions are made.  In fact, members in a clergy focused church will often indicate dissatisfaction with areas of the church that arguably have nothing to do with the pastor.

To say that a church is clergy-focused tells you nothing about the strength or weakness of the church.  Some clergy-focused churches are transformational.  Other clergy-focused churches need reinvention.

In a clergy-focused church that is in need of reinvention, making changes in any area will have little impact on the how satisfied people are with the church unless the changes impact how they feel about the relationship with the pastor.  For these churches praiseworthy efforts like strategic planning will have little benefit to the church for the same reason.  I do not recommend strategic planning for a clergy-focused reinvention church.

Clergy-focused systems have some advantages.

First, positive changes can happen quickly in a clergy-focused system.  When a new pastor is brought on board who “clicks” with the congregation the mood of the congregation can change almost instantly.

Second, some pastors function well in a clergy-focused system.  They tend to be persons who enjoy center stage, have a bounded-ego, and who can parlay good will and resources into ministry and mission.

Third, clergy-focused systems can grow to become quite large since members may have lower expectations of their interactions with the congregation because the benefits of membership accrue to their relationship with the clergy…even if it is a distant, virtual relationship.

Clergy-focused systems have their downside as well.

First, clergy-focused systems tend to be anxious systems because success or failure hangs on one person.  The pressure of clergy-focused systems can lead to pastors who burnout or flameout.

Second, the conflicts in clergy-focused systems tend to get focused on the clergy person even if they have nothing to do with him or her.

Third, there are few remedies for clergy-focused systems that get themselves into trouble.  Once things goes south, it is difficult for the pastor-people relationship to be fixed.  When the church is clergy-focused and one or more critical success factors on the clergy person are above 30, steps should generally be taken to help the pastor move on. This is especially the case in clergy-focused, Hearth and Home church cultures.

Wherever a congregation finds itself, it is important  to know what the congregation is focused on so as we move forward we are mindful of what might be trumping the bigger picture.   It is also important to remember even if we can’t see the bigger picture, there is always someone who can. Unknown


Why Do We Talk about Congregational Culture?

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. –  Isaiah 64:8

“Organizational Culture” has become a very common phrase in business, non-profits and faith-based organizations. An organization’s culture represents the collective values, beliefs and principles of the organizational members. It is a product of many factors: organizational history, unwritten but understood rules, treatment of leadership, traditions, transparency of decision-making and how new ideas come to manifest themselves. Over the last ten years, many of the great organizational pundits have gone back and forth on whether organizational culture trumps strategy or if a good strategy wins the day. After a time, this type of argument becomes more about semantics than actual useful application. The real question is how does organizational culture affect strategic thinking, leadership and growth for organizations? The pundits can debate all day, the rest of us have work to do.

In congregations, the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)™ examines culture using a congregation’s collective values and beliefs regarding the world and the wider community through the lens of their Christianity. This is their theology. The CAT also looks at how committed the congregation members are in moving towards their collective objectives. This is their flexibility or adaptability.

For a congregation’s strategic movement and priority-set to be embraced, it must have alignment with the congregation’s culture. This is true in terms of a congregation’s theology – a conservative congregation that believes that conversion is the first step to a better society needs to have ministry that fits with that belief set. Likewise, in order to avoid becoming stagnant, a congregation with limited flexibility will have to be mindful in next steps so that they are able to embrace change and create an environment that is open to new ideas.

It is important to note, that while we have found time and time again that theology does not hinder strategic movement, lack of flexibility can. With the rare exception (14 congregations out of 2,000 to be exact), the more settled the congregation becomes the harder it is for them to be a vital organization. This indicates that the more settled the congregation, the more imperative it becomes that next steps focus on flexibility so that the strategy can be rooted in culture, but, importantly, that the culture allows forward movement.

In order to help congregations strategically plan their next steps, we have to first understand their culture and how this will help, hinder, and propel growth of various kinds.  The often quoted phrase is “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Let’s get them at the table together. Because as we come to understand how culture affects a congregation’s next steps, we can truly begin to lead in way that is compassionate, mindful and effective.

– Emily Swanson, President

Holy Cow! Consulting

The Transition and Vital Leader Profile© -Help during Pastoral Transition

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but building the new.  – Socrates 

Congregations that find themselves in a period of pastoral transition are often faced with the extremely daunting task of trying to determine where the congregation is, where they need to be, and who can help them get there.

For more than 25 years, Holy Cow! Consulting has been offering the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) which provides an in-depth look at the experiences, perceptions and aspirations of a church’s congregation.  Once those things are determined, the congregation’s leadership and search committees use the information from the CAT to create a transition plan and pastor/parish profile.

In an effort to help congregations apply what they have learned from the CAT,  we offer the Transition Summary and Vital Leader Profile*.  This report is built from the CAT results (the Vital Signs Report) and the Transition module that is added to the CAT when the congregation places its order.

The Transition Summary gives the congregation a report on what steps should be taken during the time of transition including:

  • Identity and Direction
  • Remedial Issues that need addressed
  • Administrative Issues
  • Opportunities and Vulnerabilities of the Congregation

This report also creates a Vital Leader profile from the congregation’s data in the CAT to help begin the work of constructing the pastor or parish profile.  This profile includes:

  • Professional Interests that would be a good fit for your congregation
  • Context the next pastor/rector should feel comfortable working in
  • What abilities would be needed from the next pastor/rector to help the congregation become a more vital congregation
  • The best fit in terms of Leadership style

In our experience, this report is a much needed tool for a congregation’s leadership during times of transition, helping them make these important decisions in less time with more confidence.

*For more on this report and to see a sample here: Transition and Vital Leader Report Sample.

*To read more on pastoral transitions please order a copy of Transitions Apparitions here.







Introducing Emerge© for Merging Congregations


1cacfe62058d7a47ffbc4a8e2d1e0eb2Many of our congregations are faced with the question of whether they should consider merging with another congregation.  In our work, it is a story we have heard for years. The question whether to merge can be complicated, not just because of the legal, staffing and building issues but because of the emotional toll it can take on congregations.  It is a decision that takes strong leadership, thoughtful prayer, a clear discernment process and wise decision-making.

If you google “merging congregations”, you will find there is no shortage of articles and theories.  A great deal of them talk about intention and alignment.  Do the two congregations have the same intention in terms of whose facility to use? Will it be an absorption, a rebirth, or a continuation?  Are the missions aligned?   However, even with clear intention and alignment of mission many congregations struggle with merging and often find that it doesn’t bring the growth and vitality they had hoped it would.  Why? These best laid plans are missing two key things:  knowledge of what drives the congregation’s energy and satisfaction and an understanding of congregational culture.

And the Two Shall Become One

It is common to hear that the first year of marriage is a tough one. Two people are coming together with different ways of communicating, different ways of viewing the world and, yes, different backgrounds or cultures.

Both people might love dogs or enjoy hiking or feel committed to helping in their local food pantry  – their life missions are aligned.  They might have decided where to live and whose couch they are keeping – they have clear intention as to the logistics of their life together. But it is the other things that need attention as well. Why does he walk out of the room when he is hurt? Why doesn’t she like having people over every weekend – isn’t that fun for her? Can’t we spend Easter like my family always did?   It is these differences in communication, differences in how each person feels revitalized and differences in culture that will need the most work and the most compromise.

Like a marriage, a merging congregation needs more than just the knowledge that their missions are aligned, who will lead them, or what building they will use for worship.   When looking at how congregations will work together, there also needs to be an understanding of how each congregation is driven towards a higher level of energy and satisfaction. And, it cannot be stressed enough, that there must be an understanding that each congregation has a culture and that culture is a big piece of who they are.  If the two congregations are coming from two different cultures, then it will be essential to understand what are the strengths of each culture, as well as the possible traps.  Without understanding what drives each congregation and its culture, all of the best intentions may fall flat.   How can congregations avoid the trap of just best intentions?

Three Steps – Over the Threshold and Beyond

We know that the first year of any relationship is a transition period  and that brings a need for commitment to learn, compromise, and adapt.  Merging congregations must commit to these three steps.  Holy Cow! Consulting has created a map for these steps and we have integrated our tools to help bring congregations clarity as they go through this process.This process is called Emerge© for Merging Congregations.   The word emerge means to come forth or arise.  Perhaps more profoundly emerge is a verb, it is movement. It is the act of arising.

Emerge takes the form of the three levels of commitment.

  1.  Discernment – The Stage of Learning

What happens:   In this phase, merging congregations are determining what kind of relationship they will have with each other. Congregations will have to determine whether to merge, who will be in leadership, the applicable doctrine, etc. Goals will need to be set for the first year after merging with clear follow-up and deadlines.

 Tools needed:    Each congregation will take the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)® with a merging congregations module.  This tool will show where each congregation is in terms of energy and satisfaction, what their drivers are for vitality and the culture of each congregation.  It will also show how folks feel about the merging, if they feel that the leadership is adequately communicating, and where they believe energy should be placed as the merger moves forward.  The CAT results for each congregation will be run separately and then combined to show, if merged, what the new merged congregation would look like in all of the areas the CAT measures.

Application: Holy Cow! Consulting will run a transition report to help determine identity/direction, remedial issues, administrative needs/issues, opportunities and vulnerabilities, and trust in current leadership.  We have a network of trusted and experienced consultants who can help congregations walk through this discernment process where needed.

  1. Transition – The Stage of Compromise and Adaptation

What happens: Six months after the merger, congregational leadership  (clergy, staff and governing body) needs to look at how they feel about the effectiveness of their leadership at this point in the merging process.

Tools needed: The leadership will take Focal Points™ which  strategically evaluates the leadership team’s core functions, satisfaction, energy, effectiveness, strengths, and areas for further development.

Application: Next steps will be designed from the Focal Points report so the leadership can continue moving forward during this transition period.

  1. Resolution – The Stage of Emerging

What happens:  One year after the merger the congregation will need to assess final steps to solidify the merger and any needed follow-through.

Tools needed:

  • The Leadership Clarity Check™, a simple, ten question survey,  which will help your leaders evaluate how clearly they perceive the climate of the church they lead.
  • The Pulse™, for a staff of 7 or more paid part-time or full-time staff members, which provides clear, reliable information on the health and trajectory of a staff that can be useful in team building, staff development, conflict management, and strategic planning.
  • The Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) for the one merged congregation with a strategic planning module.  This will show the energy and satisfaction levels, the culture of the merged congregations, the drivers, and areas of performance, as well as whether folks are ready for a new vision and mission.  A comparative analysis of the first combined CAT at the beginning of the process and this CAT will be run.

Application:  Holy Cow! Consulting has a network of trusted and experienced consultants who can help congregations with any remaining issues or new issues that have become apparent through the data.

The Anniversary

We know that any relationship worth fighting for requires intentional hardwork and continuous nurturing.  As merging congregations begin to understand the importance of the three steps from the above process and use careful application, their ability to discern next steps will become profound and transformative.  It is our job is to help merging congregations along this path and celebrate with them as they emerge as the vital congregation they were meant to be.

For more on how we can help please visit us at

Emily Swanson
President of Holy Cow! Consulting






Seeing the Forest – The Family Tree™ Tool and how to use it

If you have ever carried a box of your possessions into your new office on your first day of work, you know how exciting and overwhelming that can be.   You have to figure out where to put that picture of your spouse, or what your computer login is, or where the coffee maker is, but perhaps the hardest task ahead of you is knowing how the organization’s relationships work.  As a new leader of any organization, that first few weeks of navigating those relationships can be crucial.  For those of you in that new leadership position, we offer Family Tree™
      Step back and Look at the View
imagesIt takes time for a new leader to meet all the members of their team or organization, and even longer to understand how they are connected to one another.  Family Tree familiarizes a new leader with those connections and helps him or her get to know the “family” more quickly.    Churches and other religious organizations find the information provided by the Family Tree© to be helpful whenever they are preparing to bring a new leader on board such as a Pastor, Bishop, or Executive.  Likewise, nonprofits and schools  find the information from this report helpful whenever they are preparing to bring on a new Executive Director or other new key leadership member.

The Family Tree is a two-question, online survey of a congregation, regional religious association, nonprofit, or other organization that is completed by its members and staff.  While most surveys ask evaluative questions of respondents, the Family Tree asks about the connections of members to one another. This enables us to generate a series of maps that show how the organization is relationally networked.

The Map of the Forest 

 The Family Tree report provides a map of the relationships within an organization, shows which ones are carrying a lot of information and which ones are connecting just a few people. Some relationships are one-way; others are reciprocal. Having these maps helps a leader know how to navigate the relational space of an organization.

The maps show a number of views of an organization. One view shows the Isolates, that is, the folks who are isolated.  Another view shows the Islands, the people who are connected to one another but not to the “trunk of the tree”. Still another view shows the Bridges. These people are the glue in an organization. Without the Bridges, the family would fragment into many disconnected clans. The final view shows the Key Figures. These are the major relational intersections in the congregation where a lot of information traffic is flowing. Key Figures are usually informal leaders.

Family Tree Map

Haven’t we been here before? 
Most organizations, religious and otherwise, already have an organizational chart.  These charts show what roles people have within the organization and who they report to in the chain of command.  In many situations, there are important informal leaders who do not sit in official positions. These are not discovered in a formal organizational chart, but often through trial and error.
Family Tree helps orient a new leader to the informal structure of a church or organization in the same way that an organizational chart orients a new leader to the formal structure.  These maps might be used by a new leader to reach out to those who are isolated. Or a new leader might try to find ways to connect the Islands to everyone else. A new leader could use the maps as a way of building consensus on important decisions rather than simply engaging in top down decision-making.
Hopefully, your new team members will help you find the coffee maker in your new office. But let us help you see the forest as you start your new journey.   For more information on Family Tree or to get started visit us at

Sharpening your Organizational Focus: Why Focus Groups Alone are Not Enough

Focus groups are essential in any organization, particularly congregations. We know these groups are important for seeking creative input, needing to generate buy-in, or to drill down into the meaning of a broader organizational assessment process. But like a doctor trying to determine where the injury is without an x-ray, we find that focus groups alone do not show an adequate picture of the health of your organization.  Here is a list of the reasons why you need more than focus groups:

Reason #1: Focus groups typically involve too few persons to provide reliable information for the entire organization.

The number of folks willing to attend a focus group is generally a small fraction—often less than a quarter of the persons actually involved in the organization. After talking with 20 persons from an organization with 100 members, about one in five of your conclusions about the entire organization is likely to be wrong. In addition, focus groups tend to favor the perspectives of those who are more involved in the organization over those who are less involved since they are less likely to attend a focus group meeting. This works fine if an organization is only interested in maintaining the status quo; it works less well if there is concern about deepening the involvement of its more marginal members. Organization-wide surveys require much less time investment per participant (about 15 minutes), have a higher response rate, and produce more reliable results.

Reason #2: The information collected from focus groups is skewed toward the opinions of those who are more outspoken and extraverted.

Members of focus groups vary in their level of comfort with speaking their thoughts. Some are more extraverted and speak easily. Others need more time to process information internally before they speak. By the time these more reflective members know what they want to say, the agenda of the meeting has often moved on to the next question. Over time, members begin to recognize the voices within the organization that are the most influential and tend to defer to those voices even when they hold a different view. Organization-wide surveys are indifferent to power and personality type. The opinion of each person has equal weight.

Reason #3: Cultivating candid conversations in focus groups requires a high degree of trust that may not exist in the organization.

Focus groups assume that there is enough trust in the organization for people to speak candidly about their experiences and perspectives. Their effectiveness plummets when the level of trust is part of what needs to be assessed. People walk up to the facilitator after the meeting and whisper “I didn’t feel that I could say this in the meeting but…” Organization-wide surveys can not only assess the level of trust, but also get a more accurate read on other issues when trust is low.

Reason #4: Focus groups do not permit a comprehensive assessment of the health of an organization.

It is impossible to explore a large variety of issues in a focus group. If the facilitator allows each person in a group of twelve to speak for one minute in response to a particular question, only six questions can be addressed in a 72-minute session. Setting aside ten minutes at the beginning of the session for describing the process followed by introductions and five minutes at the end for questions and next steps fills most of a 90-minute time slot. Organization-wide surveys typically register the respondent’s views on up to ninety questions and also allow for open-ended responses of indefinite length. It is the difference between going to the doctor for a specific concern and getting a comprehensive physical that checks out every aspect of your health.

Reason #5: Focus groups do not provide a way to know if the information collected indicates a relative strength or a weakness compared to other, similar organizations.

There are few surprises that come out of focus group information because they are internally focused. After you summarize all the comments from a focus group in a particular question, you still do not know if you are dealing with a relative strength or weakness because you have no way of benchmarking the information. For example, we often hear in focus groups that a few people are doing most of the work. But this is true in almost every volunteer organization. What people perceive as a weakness may, in fact, be a strength compared to other, similar organizations…and vice versa. Organization-wide surveys allow leaders to do a better job identifying the real issues, both strengths and work areas.

Reason #6: For the amount of information collected, focus groups are labor intensive and often expensive.

Designing a focus group process requires a considerable effort, even if it is standardized with set questions. Participants can only offer their input at a limited number of times. They must travel to and from the focus group site and invest one to two hours in the process. The logistics of managing the PR effort, invitations, RSVP’s, group size, room set-up, supplies, refreshments, and attendance list are significant. Securing the services of a skilled facilitator who is trusted and objective is crucial. At the end of the process, all the information must be transcribed, coded, sorted, and counted. The cost of doing this well is literally hundreds of hours and often thousands of dollars. There are short cuts at every stage (like one large “town-hall” meeting with subgroups) but these significantly reduce the quality of the information for all the reasons discussed above.

On the other hand, today’s organization-wide surveys are logistically simple and can be taken by the respondent in about fifteen minutes 24-7. Thousands of respondents can participate with no need for travel, room-setup, or refreshments. They do not require the services of a skilled facilitator and the information does not need to be transcribed.

While focus groups will continue to be useful for collecting certain kinds of information, resourceful leaders increasingly will discover that there is a need for more precision and will look for a better, cost effective way of assessing the perspectives of those they are serving. The results of this resourcefulness will be vital and flourishing organizations, poised to do good works.

“We are not called to shine our own light; we are called to reflect his”   – Unknown


Where Generation X, Y and the Millennials are looking to go- OI and the younger demographic

Almost without fail, one of the top three priorities for congregations we work with is a commitment to “make necessary changes to attract families with children and youth to our church.”   The priority is an interesting one because it is not just that the congregation wants to attract this demographic, but they are stating a willingness to make necessary changes to do so.  The question then becomes what are those necessary changes?  In order to answer that question we need to look at the priorities for this younger age set.

When we examine the data from the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)* there are, at times, some stark differences between the 35 and under demographic and the other age demographics when it comes to where they want to go in the future as a congregation. Out of the 17 priorities in the CAT there are 6 that resonant with the younger demographic at a much higher level then they do with the other age demographics.

The priorities that are much higher for this demographic are:

  • Create more opportunities for people to form meaningful relationships (for example, small groups, nurtured friendships, shared meals, etc) – benchmarking in the 74.4% as compared to other groups.
  • Expand outreach ministries that provide direct services to those living on the margins of society. (i.e. homeless, immigrant, transient persons) – benchmarking in the 71% as compared to other groups.
  • Adapt the opportunities provided by the church making them more accessible given the pace and schedule of my life.  (i.e. online education, early morning classes, lunch classes, lunch discussions) – benchmarking in the 80.7% compared to other groups.
  • Expand the international mission of the church with both financial resources and personal involvement – in the 88.7% in benchmarking compared to other groups.

It is clearly important for congregations to note that the 35 and under demographic are highly interested in building relationships with other members of the congregation.   But there is  also a significantly high response from this age group for congregations to be externally focused through specific ministry opportunities. They need opportunities for education and ministry offered through venues that fit their lifestyles.

This age group is also distinguishable by what is not as important to them.  Out of the 17 priorities in the CAT there are 4 that are less resonant with the younger demographic than with the other age demographics.

The priorities that are lower or much lower are:

  • Develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to reach new people and incorporate them into the life of the church – benchmarking in the 37.5% as compared to other groups.
  • Develop the spiritual generosity of the people to financially support the ministry of the church – benchmarking in the 29.6% as compared to other groups.
  • Strengthen the management and support of persons in various ministries so that they are able to do what they do best in work that is meaningful and celebrated – benchmarking in the 38% as compared to other groups.
  • Strengthen the pastoral response of the church in serving people with special need- benchmarking in the 27.2% as compared to other groups.

It is perhaps not surprising that the younger demographic is not as concerned about tithing while the 65 and older demographic quite frequently include it in one of the top priorities. However, in some ways these lower priorities see to conflict with the higher priorities but if we take a closer look there are some explanations.

While this under 35 group does not rate the general growth of the church the same as other groups, they do rank the priority of “make necessary changes to attract families with children and youth to our church” as important as the other age demographics. This seems to indicate that they want to seem more people in the church who are their age, not just general growth.

According to the data, this age demographic is more interested in the hands on approach to ministry and not necessarily interested in leaving it to the pastor to do this work. They instead want the specific opportunities we see in their top priorities and aren’t as concerned with being reminded that the work is meaningful.  They seem to already know that it is.

Through our research, Holy Cow! Consulting has discovered that congregations that are building solid relationships with each other and who are externally focused are often the healthiest and the most vital congregations.  It is interesting and telling that the 35 and younger demographic find those relationships and external focus compelling as well.

Emily Swanson
President of Holy Cow! Consulting




The Smaller Picture – The Power Focused Congregation

This post stems out of a conversation regarding a church that had drivers which were highly focused on clergy and governance questions from the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)*.  For those of you handling these types of interpretations or working in/with congregations we hope this is helpful.  It is important to note this is where the clergy profile comes into play even if you, as an interpreter, are not privy to the profile itself.  The clergy questions help you, as the interpreter, determine if you have a power or even a clergy focused congregation which is an important piece of the congregation’s data.  If you have further questions please comment below or email me at               –Emily Swanson, President of Holy Cow! Consulting 

One of the learnings gleaned from Organizational Intelligence is that focus trumps picture. When people reflect on how they are experiencing a particular congregation they can’t possibly consider everything the congregation does, or what we refer to as the picture. Instead, they focus on a relatively small number of factors that are having the largest impact on their own experience. What they focus on becomes more important than everything else in the larger picture. What people choose to focus on varies from one congregation to another and becomes that congregation’s fingerprint.

One of the types of congregations we see when interpreting the data from the CAT is the Power-focused congregation. Power-focused congregations are congregations where members gauge their overall experience based on:

  • How decisions are made.
    • Example: whether the board or the congregation should approve the budget
  • How they feel about persons in power.
    • Example: whether the persons in power represent their constituency within the congregation
  • How they feel about a particular issue.
    • Example: A political or larger societal issue.

On a Vital Signs* report, a power-focused church is indicated by strong drivers that are usually a combination of questions from the Governance Index and questions regarding the clergy person.

The following is an example of drivers that indicate a power-focused congregation – note that the first is from the Governance index while Drivers #3, 4 and 5 are focused on the clergy:Drivers for Power Focused.png

When working with a power-focused congregation, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Sometimes power-focused congregations can be helped by developing an external,
    missional focus. This is especially true when the issue is internal. However, it takes time for a congregation to shift its focus from power to purpose.
  • Sometimes power–focused congregations can be helped by realizing that there are alternatives ways of dealing with conflict, such as negotiation, mediation, or, when necessary, appeal to higher authority. Avoidance strategies such as clamping down on behavior may simply drive the conflict underground.images-2.jpeg
  • Power-focused congregations can be some of the most difficult congregations to help because they tend to set up in a “win-lose”
  • In larger power-focused congregations, polarization can occur around staff issues, particularly when a staff member with a significant constituency is fired or disciplined.
  • Power-focused congregations are almost always congregations with significant conflict as reflected in low conflict management scores. When conflict scores are higher than or equivalent to governance scores, it generally m
    eans the conflict is active, whether overt or passive.

Unfortunately, there are some power-focused congregations that will not recover unless one faction yields to the other for the sake of the mission of the church, or finds a faith community that is more resonant with its core values.

-Russ Crabtree, Founder
Holy Cow! Consulting


*The Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) and Vital Signs reports are trademarked, copyrighted and owned solely by Holy Cow! Consulting.