To date, our team at Holy Cow! Consulting has worked with close to 3,000 congregations. We have worked with congregations in every U.S. state with the exception of Hawaii (unfortunately for us). We have been stuck in snow storms in Minnesota, lost in the woods in Wisconsin, seen Mount Rainer in the rearview mirror, found out how cool Omaha is, hung out with a seal in San Diego, forgotten to order unsweetened iced tea in South Carolina, and been gently heckled by congregations in Michigan because we have a lot of OSU allegiance in our office. We have covered a lot of ground over the years and have met a lot of amazing people.
If we are running a Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) within our current database, the data is benchmarked against around 1,800 congregations – this number grows every day. Approximately 88% of those congregations within our current benchmarking have run their CAT in the last five years.
Just as overview, when we look at the database this is a general overview of its makeup:
- 411 congregations are Evangelical Church in America (ELCA)
- 412 congregations are Episcopal
- 375 congregations are Presbyterian
- 68 congregations are Methodist
- 80 congregations are United Church of Christ
- 25 congregations are Nondenominational
- 24 congregations are Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
- The remaining numbers include congregations that are Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, ECO, LCMC, and various other mainstream denominations
So why do we benchmark? Benchmarking allows us to take the data from each congregation and remove the element of guesswork. For example, when we look at hospitality within a congregation, one of the questions we ask people is whether “a friendly atmosphere prevails among the members of our church.” If 61% of the congregation clearly agree with that statement, just looking at the raw data, that appears to be pretty good level of hospitality. That is more than half of the people within the congregation saying that there is a friendly atmosphere. But when we compare the data within the benchmarking, we find that this only puts the responses to that question in the 12th percentile. So, 87% of the other congregations in the database had more people clearly agree with that statement. This significantly changes what we understand from the data. We are able to move from trying to guess “is this how it is supposed to feel” and we can see what is typical and what is exceptional about each congregation.
When we talk about benchmarking, one of the most frequent questions we get asked is ”why don’t you benchmark us against other churches in our denomination.” The denomination question is usually followed by a general statement about who they are as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. Notably, here and there, the data can show some national denominational tendencies which we have noted in our denominational books. But generally, those statements about who each denomination claims to be has yet to play out meaningfully congregation to congregation in the data.
For example, if you look at the maps on the left, they include all of the ELCA congregations in our database. You can see that they range anywhere from very low energy and satisfaction to very high energy and satisfaction. Likewise, these ELCA congregations are conservative and progressive, flexible and settled.
When we receive an order for the CAT from an ELCA church we cannot predict where that congregation will land in any one area. Instead, the data tells us that each ELCA church could land anywhere in the benchmarking – and this is important.
But there is an even more important reason why we benchmark the way we do. Both the Pew Research Center and the Cooperative Congregational Election Study (CCES) looked at mainstream denominations over a four-year period. The Pew’s study ended in 2016 and CCES ended their four-year study in 2015. What they both found is that within that four-year period 16% of members in mainstream denominations changed denominational affiliations. Methodists become Episcopalians, Presbyterians became Methodists, Lutherans in the ELCA moved to the LCMS.
What does this mean? Let’s break this down by year and attendance. 16% over four years, is 4% per year. This means that if a congregation has a weekly attendance of 150 people, there is the potential that the congregation will lose 6 people per year. By the end of four years, it is estimated that 24 people in that congregation will move to another denomination.
This type of movement indicates that benchmarking churches within their own denomination is not how the average member is looking at their experience within their congregation. The average Presbyterian member is not looking at their experience and asking, “is this how I have felt in other Presbyterian churches?” they are instead asking “is this how I have felt in other churches” but also “is there a better place I fit regardless of denomination?” As we posited in “Fly in the Ointment” several years ago, people no longer just buy Ford cars in allegiance to the Ford company. The same is true within our denominational life. People will find the church that fits them and what they need in their life, regardless of the denominational name on the sign out in the front yard.
It is our mission at Holy Cow! Consulting to help regional associations and congregations, through an evidence-based discernment process, become vital, healthy organizations that better serve Christ and our communities. We benchmark the way we do because the data shows that putting congregations in a greater context is essential to truly assess where they currently are in order to help move them to where they are called to be. This is not just our mission, it is also our ministry.
We hope to see you in our travels.
– Emily Swanson, President