Benchmarking – Why We Do things the Way We Do

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

 

Moving Past the Same Old Plan – How OI can help

As the team at Holy Cow! Consulting works with congregations all over the country, we find ourselves experiencing two things quite frequently.

The first is the limitation of count data and the same old responses to that data. You don’t have to do a lot of research to find that a large number of mainstream denominations are experiencing decline in worship attendance, as well as a decline in membership numbers.  Often the response from regional associations to this decline is that congregations can mitigate these losses by (1) sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and (2) connecting with the growing number of the spiritual but not-religious unchurched people in their communities.

Here we see the limitations of count data. At a national level, denominations know virtually nothing about the kinds of experiences members and visitors are having in their churches.  They have no choice but to continue citing the same statistics with the same proposed solutions.

But in fact, churches do not benefit from a pep talk urging them to reach out. Reaching new members and incorporating them into the life of the church is already the first or second priority of 99% of the denominational churches in the USA.  The real problem that needs to be addressed can only be discovered through witness data, the power of letting members and visitors speak.

When we listen, we discover the real issues:  in the typical church,  only half of the members are clearly satisfied and more than a third (37%) feel members are simply “going through the motions.”  Until this changes, it will be impossible to make the case that the church is a better option for their lives than the local library, which performs many of the same functions of the church and with a 90% satisfaction level.  There are exceptional churches that rise about these generalizations which we call transformational churches.  However, our focus on count data means we are neither identifying them nor learning from them fast enough. This also indicates that our congregations are not adapting.

The second experience is a call from an interim pastor who has stepped into a church where the previous pastor left in a state of frustration.   In this all too frequent situation, when we run the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) and look at the Vital Signs report of the results,  it shows a church in the hospice quadrant.  This means that unless the church makes changes in the system to achieve a higher level of missional flexibility, the next pastor will also fail, and the next, and the next.  This is not the case of finding the leader that fits in the congregational culture but rather a situation where the congregation must decide it is time to change. Without this congregational self-awareness, we are sentencing leaders to failure.

These hospice congregations have made reaching new people their highest priority  (as urged by their denomination), but they are a congregation where only 30% of the members feel positive about the church and over 50% of members feel the congregation is just going through the motions.  This is not the setting where new people will feel the energy and vibrance of what Christ can bring to their lives within the body of a congregation. Outreach by this church is not only futile; it is likely poisonous.

The way to move past this same old plan that is failing our congregations is organizational intelligence.  The enlightenment from Organizational Intelligence (OI) offers meaningful hope for breaking out of the tired clichés and sermonic urgings. OI helps identify practical strategies that hold real promise.  It presses congregations to look deeper than count data- helping them take a meaningful look at where they are today, not where they wish they were, but where they truly are in terms of organizational health.  And folded into next steps, OI can help move congregations to where they are called to be.

We are here to help when your congregation or regional association is ready to begin this journey.

 

 

Introducing “Front Door, Back Door: Why People Join and Leave Churches” by J. Russell Crabtree

The story we tell ourselves…a person has a seminal experience in their life when they decide they need to begin or renew their spiritual journey by joining a Christian church. Since there are about 300,000 churches in the United States, they have lots of choices. They attend a few and pick out the one that seems the friendliest. They join. Their attendance at worship strengthens their experience of God. They begin to set aside time in their daily life for spiritual practice. They find that the more they get involved in the church, the more they are growing spiritually. Their participation in the church carries over into other aspects of their lives, including their work life, which they begin to see as an extension of their Christian ministry. As time goes on they become even more impressed by the dedication of the people of the church in general and of the leaders in particular. As the years pass—twenty, thirty, forty years—they find peace in knowing that this is the church where they will finish their life’s journey in the company of other, longtime members.

It all makes a neat package. There is only one problem.

Virtually none of it is true.

In this groundbreaking book, Front Door Back Door, Russ Crabtree explores some of the most basic assumptions that leaders make regarding the churches they serve and what happens in the lives of members who join, stay, and leave.  It’s not just another book about losses; it offers insight and suggestions for creating learning congregations and developmental trajectories for their members.

In Front Door Back Door you will learn…

  • The characteristics of churches people tend to join and why there are so few of them.
  • The three things that churches tend to do well in developing the people who join them whether conservative, progressive, or somewhere in between.
  • The areas where people tend to coast without much growth even after years attending a typical church.
  • The areas where people tend to experience deterioration over time; the longer they stay in a typical church, the less positive they feel.

On the whole, churches are not learning. Churches with more seasoned members tend to fare no better than churches with more “rookies” in attendance in dealing with conflict, achieving their mission, or engaging their members.

The author proposes a core competency model that is aligned with a church’s particular mission so that both members and congregations can be more fruitful and, in the words of Jesus, bear fruit that abides.

Order Front Door, Back Door

The Conflicted Congregation

All congregations have conflict. So, the question really isn’t “is there conflict?” – we Unknown-7.jpegknow it is there. The real question is “how do you manage the conflict you have?” Or put another way, is this congregation a place where people can say “I was wrong and I am sorry” and receive an open and loving response in return.  High levels of conflict that remain unmanaged or unhealed in congregations can be painful for everyone.  They often result in a loss of missional focus, a loss of membership, burnt-out leadership, a loss of the sense of family, and a deterioration in our spiritual life together as a congregation.

The questions that bring conflict to light in the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) ask whether folks are feeling there is a disturbing amount of conflict, if they move through conflict by mutual effort, if there is a healthy tolerance of differing beliefs and opinions, and if there is frequently a small group of people that oppose how the majority wants to move forward.  Sometimes these questions in the CAT will reveal that a congregation has become extremely conflicted.  When we review the data with these congregations there are often tears, as well as the frustration of feeling so stuck in the conflict, and many times, deep sighs and a statement that “it is nice to just finally admit that there is conflict out loud.”  We always say to these congregations this is your story today but it doesn’t have to be your story tomorrow with the warning that the road ahead will take commitment and intentional steps.

In 2015, a congregation in New England took the CAT while in a pastoral transition.  When it was compared to other 1,500 churches in our database, their dashboard indicated that there were in the 11% in conflict, meaning that 89% of the other congregations in our database were managing their conflict better.   This high level of unmanaged conflict had bleed into everything – leaving them with low hospitality scores (8%, or 92% of the other churches were more hospitable), low morale (24%), and affecting all of the other performance areas where we want them to be doing well.

Barnstable 2015.png
2015

After working through the review of their data with the support of their Synod, this congregation had to decide what to do.  Prayerfully, they chose to own the data, recognizing that it was time to deal with their conflict and started their new story.

This congregation  realized that during this time of pastoral transition they would need help to clearly address and respond to the conflict.  They couldn’t rush forward to call a new pastor without serious self-reflection and initial steps.  They instead hired a skilled Intentional Interim who led a series of cottage meetings, openly discussed concerns, and directly addressed what had become “the two sides” engaging conversation and reconciliation.

The congregational leadership then prepared an honest profile to call a new pastor.  They were better able to articulate both the skills needed in their next pastor and the challenges they still faced as a congregation.  The congregation was transparent about the tremendous steps they’d taken with the strong leadership of their interim, acknowledging that there was still work to be done in moving forward.

When they found their new permanent pastoral leadership, that person came with the experience they needed – because the congregation knew exactly what they truly needed and were honest with their pastoral candidates.  Their new pastor brought experience, strong mediation and communication skills, and a great deal of enthusiasm and energy for ministry. Together, they continue to face some challenges but the match is strong and the foundation for moving forward was strongly set with their Intentional Interim.

This same congregation ran the CAT again and we sent them their new reports two weeks ago.  This is their new dashboard – their morale is in the 79%, conflict levels are at the 55%, and look at the hostility score moving up: west barnstable 2017

This is a congregation that has made enormous strides in the last two years. If you asked this congregation, their middle judicatory team, or their pastors, I am sure they would say it has been a lot of work.  But their ability to say “this is our story today but it wouldn’t and it can’t be our story tomorrow” has allowed God to move them closer towards true healing.

I would like to extend my gratitude to both the congregation and the New England Synod for allowing us to share in this work.  When we see the data tell this kind of story we jump out of our chairs at Holy Cow! Consulting because this is why we do what we do – not so that congregations can have a lot of numbers and statistics, but instead, so that congregations can see where they truly are now so they can become and move to who they are called to be.

-Emily Swanson, President of Holy Cow! Consulting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clergy-Focus, the Critical Clergy System and how the Middle Judicatory can help

Clergy:  Power and Vulnerability

With the exception of family-sized congregations, clergy are generally the individuals who hold the most power in a local parish.  Depending upon the polity, this includes the political, relational, moral, and platform dimensions of power.  The introduction of organizational intelligence (OI) into a system has the consequence of making the clergy person one of the most vulnerable, because he or she is the only person in the system where perceptions are individually focused.  This combination of power and vulnerability merits sensitivity on the part of OI interpretive and application consultants.

Since most middle judicatories are charged with particular oversight of their clergy, it is desirable for these bodies to prepare resources for clergy in congregations that are utilizing OI, especially if they are using OI systematically as an information system.  This is particularly true for clergy-focused systems.

The technical definition of a clergy-focused system can be found elsewhere.  Here it will suffice to say that a clergy-focused system is one where members tend to evaluate the vitality of the church through the lens of perceived clergy performance.  A clergy-critical system is one where members perceive that an improvement in the pastor-congregation relationship is the decisive factor in improving the vitality of the church.

Implications for a Clergy-Focused System

The fact that a system is clergy-focused can have a number of different implications and possible trajectories:

  • A “front and center” clergy person who can parley his/her relational capital into ministry and is a good fit for the congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership manage any narcissistic risks.
  • An overfunctioning clergy person who is paying a psychic price for success. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership manage tendencies to burn-out or flame-out.

Implications for a Clergy-Critical System

A clergy-critical system is essentially a clergy-focused system where things are not going well.  Again, there are a number of different implications and possible trajectories:

  • A pastor who is exercising the necessary leadership to shift the culture of a congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership by publicly and privately standing with them.  This usually occurs within the first several years of clergy tenure.
  • A pastor who is no longer, or never was a good fit for the congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership in a process of discernment regarding the pastoral relationship.
  • A leadership team that is beginning to engage in a project (strategic planning, leadership development, financial campaign) that avoids the clergy issue. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership avoid the costs of those failure paths by keeping the system focused on the primary issue.  Are they being led to (a) shift the church culture, (b) work on the pastoral relationship, or (c) dissolve the pastoral relationship?

In many cases, these will not be easy conversations.  However, many issues in clergy-
focused or clergy-critical systems will not improve with time.  Sometimes they will devolve into full-fledged crises of one kind or another in which no one wins and options are diminished.

Regimagesardless of where the congregation is, whether a clergy-focused or a clergy-critical system, there are important roles and conversations that the Middle Judicatory can be a part of – both in the short and long term.  Those early conversations on the part of middle judicatories can avoid painful, costly interventions down the road. These conversations and efforts can also aid clergy who may feel the weight of the congregation on their shoulders – before that weight becomes too much to bear alone.

From Holy Cow! Consulting and Crow’s Feet Consulting 

 

Making the Fit Right -Pastoral Coaching

We often receive calls from Regional Associations who are looking for ways to have comprehensive pastoral coaching programs.  The Effective Coaching Handbook, developed by the Executive Coaching Forum (http://www.executivecoachingforum.com/), begins with this observation:

Executive Coaching has become commonplace in leadership development in the U.S. and internationally. It is seen as a viable lever in developing high potentials, retaining top talent, readying executives for more demanding roles, and building a leadership pipeline. Organizations that use coaching report that they’ll likely increase its use in the coming years.”

For us the question is where does Organizational Intelligence (OI)* fit into pastoral coaching?  One of the critical issues for effective coaching identified by the Handbook is how to address the organizational context -citing that “[a]lthough the primary work is between executive and coach, coaching is always an organizational intervention and, as such, should be conducted within the context of the organization’s goals and objectives.”

In order to effectively coach pastors in their work, we have to be able to identify the organizational context.  And that is the work of OI.

What are some ways that OI might can significantly enhance pastoral coaching?

First, OI helps address issues of fit.  Poor organizational performance may have more to do with a lack of fit between the gifts and motivations of the pastor to the church than with the abilities or work ethic of the pastor.  In some cases, coaching may help a person move on to a better fit.  In other cases, a thoughtful shift in the pastor’s responsibilities can improve satisfaction on both sides.

Second, OI provides clarity about the organizational starting point.  Armed with this knowledge, coaching can work with the pastor to develop steps that are measured, realistic, and “incarnational”, that is, beginning where people are.

Third, OI discloses deep seated cultural values that are unlikely to change quickly.  This enables the coach to focus on approaches that are consonant with the culture in the short term.  Where long term cultural changes are envisioned, coaching can work to develop an intentional change management strategy that will minimize the risk of catastrophic conflict.

Fourth, OI identifies sources of energy within the congregation. Those sources of energy can be used by the coach to align the development of the pastor’s goals to those of the churchil_570xN.724209728_hu97.jpg

Finally, OI helps differentiate issues within a particular church culture from those of the pastor.  This provides the empirical data that can support coaching efforts to encourage the professional development of the pastor that would otherwise be hard to pinpoint if it is not clear where the congregational culture ends and the growth edges needed from the pastor begins.

With these insights from OI, pastoral coaching has a clear way to begin the work of helping the pastor as they take their next steps in leadership.

*If you have any questions on how to use the Congregation Assessment Tool™ (CAT), the Pulse™, or Focal Points™ in pastoral coaching, we would be happy to help.

Holy Cow! Consulting, office@holycowconsulting.com 

Organizational Intelligence you can use.