From the beginning of 21st Century Strategies, a long, long time ago, we’ve had one driving value: help transform churches. We suspect that pretty much all our readers understand that one of the ways we do that is by offering professional consultation services, church leadership coaching, and congregational training. What many folks may not realize is that when we write books, articles, newsletters, and FAQs, or respond to questions on the Advanced Leadership Forum of the 21st Century Strategies community, we don’t hold anything back. Everything we do is focused on helping churches – and ultimately, for us, there is nothing more important than that, so we don’t keep back the secrets to success.
All that’s to say, for those willing to do the work, pretty much everything we teach, every recommendation we make, and every “secret” we have is there on our website and in our books. And with that knowledge, there’s really no reason they couldn’t do a respectable and effective do-it-yourself consultation. With that in mind, let me (us) point the way.
Step One: Data Gathering
The foundation for every consultation we do begins with demographics. Now, before you surf over to the Census Bureau, Percept, or MissionInsite, some of the most important demographics you need to really know and understand are those of your congregation. And how old and how many and how long and how much and so on is just the start. You’ll want to measure attitudes toward leadership and hospitality, and their aversion to changes – and what specific changes will create the most waves. The forms we use for gathering and compiling all this data are found in The Complete Ministry Audit.
Congregational demographics are only the starting point for understanding your congregation. Next, you’ll need to pull some decadal statistics. You’ll be looking for trends, once the data is compiled, so make sure you pull the statistics for each year so you can plot them. You’ll want to get the information on income and giving; baptisms; transfers of membership; deaths; departures; general membership figures; expenditures, including capital, maintenance, program, staff, and missional spending; and attendance in each worship service, Sunday/Sabbath school, choir, and any small groups. One of the revealing, and often startling and disturbing, trends can be seen when these are plotted on a line graph. In far too many churches, the trend lines trail off, and even the least savvy can make an educated guess on when the church will be no more and/or have inadequate funding to sustain even the most basic ministries.
Once you have a true understanding of the congregation, then it’s time to pull community demographics. The boundaries of your ministry area are important, so choose them carefully – and remember, your effective ministry area may not be equivalent to a particular zip code or a simple circle with the church in the center. In addition to the standard demographics, you will want to get a psychographic workup as well so you will not only know the raw statistics, but have some understanding of what’s important to those in your community, plus how they spend their time and money and affections.
With the basic data gathered, you’ll be able to find connecting points for reaching into the community, but you’re not even close to ready for that now. The next step is to begin the evaluations.
Step Two: Evaluating
Data is pretty much black and white, so it can be tempting to start making recommendations immediately. But before effective recommendations can be made, you’ll need to honestly and seriously evaluate virtually everything associated with the church. And though everything we’ve covered up until now can be found in our books, it’s time to mine the 21st Century Strategies website.
Building and Grounds
It’s probably easiest to start with evaluating the physical plant. How much property do you have – and need – for the number of seats you have in the worship center? How is the property divided up, and how many parking spaces do you have? What is that state of your property? Is it in good repair, or do you need to resurface the parking lot and paint the church’s shutters? Once you’re done outside, move inside to check the usability, access, and repair of the facilities. How many usable seats are there? Where is the nursery and does it meet minimum hospitality standards? The list can go and on, but literally everything you need to evaluate – and the measures to use – can be found on the website. Here’s a mining tip: most of the information you need can be found in the extensive FAQ section.
Once the building and grounds are out of the way, you may be thinking it’s time to evaluate the programs of the church. Before you can do that, you’ll need to put on your critiquing hat and look over the congregational DNA. Start by evaluating whatever foundational work has been done in the past and consider whether or not the mission statement is even viable. The sad fact is, many are theological and sociological treatises that carry lots of baggage, but little weight. Next, if the congregation has done additional DNA work, carefully evaluate the core values, the bedrock beliefs, the vision, the expected behaviors, and any strategic foci that have been adopted. Again, you can find evaluation tools on our website – and don’t forget to check out our respective blogs: www.billeasum.com and www.billtennybrittian.com.
Of course, the real evaluation is in whether or not decisions are made based on the DNA, or is it just so much window dressing? The only way to find this out is to check the hierarchical, organizational, and decision-making structures. And here’s the tricky part: to get a real feel, you’ll have to ferret out both the formal and the ever-elusive informal structures. Once you discover these, then compare the DNA to the way decisions are made. Is the loudest voice more influential than the congregational DNA statements? If so, who are those loudest voices?
The DNA evaluation doesn’t stop with decision making though. The next step is to compare staffing against the DNA and the congregational size/budget. You’ll need to consider whether the current staffing is effectively organized around the congregational mission and vision or whether they are organized around anachronistic “generalist” or age-graded structures. In addition, you’ll need to consider whether you’re staffed for growth, maintenance, or decline. And of course, there’s the question of budget projections you’ll also need to consider before you begin the recommendation process.
Finally, it’s time to evaluate your congregational programming. For sanity’s sake, you’ll want to consider your worship programming separately from the rest of your programming.
Once again, begin your evaluations by comparing everything the congregation does against the congregational DNA – and we’re talking about measuring everything. Start with the obvious programs: Sunday school, small groups, fellowship events, classes, gender- and age-based groups, ministry and outreach events and groups, and so on. It may be easiest to work from the congregational calendar and ask of everything on the schedule, “Does this specifically support and enhance the congregational DNA?” If you have to think about it for more than a split second, the answer is probably that it doesn’t. Make your list so you’ll be ready to make your recommendations for which programs should get the axe, which should be phased out, which should receive no support (a “do not resuscitate” order), and which should be embraced and enhanced. Your recommendations will need to include these, along with specific steps for accomplishment while minimizing conflict (you can’t completely avoid conflict, but you can certainly minimize it).
As you consider each of the congregational programs, you’ll also need to seriously evaluate whether or not they are “doors” for guests to become integrated with the congregation. It’s critical that you identify each open and closed door. For instance, some Sunday school classes may “say” they are open to guests, but in reality guests may find it difficult to become a “part” of the group. This kind of information will be necessary for making effective recommendations later on.
In most churches today, the worship service is the core practice of the congregation and so demands significant scrutiny. However, this can be difficult for an insider to evaluate – but again, mining our websites will offer concrete suggestions.
If your congregation has multiple worship services, you will want to evaluate each separately, unless they are duplicate services. For each service, begin the evaluation by asking yourself, “For whom is this service targeted?” Begin by exegeting the explicit target (heavily churched sixty-year-olds and older; church-lite baby boomers; rarely churched thirty-somethings with families; etc.). Next, compare the actual service to the expectations of that target. It’s not just about music – you’ll need to consider style, formality, language, dress code (including the unspoken code), technology, participation opportunities, music selection, music performance, instrumentation, sermon theme, sermon delivery, presumptive participant foreknowledge, gender/age/dress/appearance of anyone who conspicuously serves, the content and layout of any bulletins/handouts, hospitality, feedback opportunities, level of excellence, and more. In addition, when evaluating the suitability of a service to a particular target, don’t forget to check the supporting services, such as children’s worship and nursery care.
When it comes to the worship service, you will want to take special notice of hospitality services. Start with the parking lot and work your way in. Are there smiling, friendly, gregarious “never-met-a-stranger” greeters on both sides of the front door? How long after the service starts do they remain in place? Are there greeters at other doors of the church that might be used by a first time guest who didn’t know for sure where the front door is? How about ushers? Are they glorified bulletin dispensers, or do they actually ush? Is there anything in the service that could embarrass a guest who wanted to remain anonymous and unmolested? Don’t forget signage. Is there any place in a hallway, narthex (vestibule/entry way), fellowship hall, auditorium , multi-use room, etc. where a guest would be unable to see a sign that pointed the way to the restrooms, nursery, or worship center?
Marketing and Follow-Up
When embarking on the DIY consultation, don’t neglect to evaluate the systems the church is using to reach out to the community, let them know they’re there, and then follow-up once someone has visited. Check to see how much money the congregation is spending on low-response marketing such as newspaper and Yellow Pages advertising. Check the website for missing critical information or critical information that’s buried deep within the site. If directions or worship times are more than one click from the home page, they may be considered inaccessible by the average web surfer.
Guest follow-up cannot be overlooked either. You’ll need to evaluate the church’s effectiveness in getting guest contact information. The next issue to check is to see what they do with that information. How soon after a visit is there an in-person home visit and who makes that visit? You’ll also need to find out how effective the follow-up is by crunching the return rate of first-time guests.
Finally, check to see if there’s an intentional integration (assimilation) plan for helping guests connect with those in the church. If not, do guests have to claw their way into the fellowship? You can find out how effective the congregation’s integration programming is by crunching the number of first-time guests who remain active in the congregation a year after their first visit.
Evaluate the Main Thing
Although there is much more that can, and perhaps should, be evaluated, there is one more area that is essential when attempting a Do It Yourself consultation. I’ve left this to last not because it’s least important, but because without making this area a priority in the evaluation, it won’t matter what you recommend: the transformation will fail.
The main focus of the church is discipleship. The question that must be answered is whether or not new people are becoming effective, practicing disciples of Jesus who engage in the spiritual disciplines. And the second question is like the first – whether the church leaders are spiritually centered, grounded, and practicing disciples of Jesus who engage in the spiritual disciplines. In any consultation, whether we’re doing an onsite consult or you’re engaged in a DIY consultation, this is the number one, most important, make it or break it question. If the leaders are not model disciples of Jesus who are engaged in the regular study of scripture, immersed in prayer and reflection, sharing their faith with the unchurched and marginally churched, and practicing the one-anothers in every aspect of their lives, then it won’t make any difference what you recommend. Indeed, this was the primary failure of the church growth movement of the seventies and the eighties – programs with no spiritual foundation.
Evaluating the main thing can be difficult, but you can get a pretty good read on it by measuring the level on ongoing, unresolved conflict and by simply asking some key questions of the leaders (try the Discipleship Development Questions – again, found on the website). If the leaders aren’t modeling discipleship, then it’s a pretty good bet that the congregation isn’t. And if the congregation isn’t, then guests will come and guests will go, but it will be the rare guest who is still a part of the congregation eighteen months after their initial visit.
Step Three: Making Recommendations
When it comes time for making recommendations, there is a specific order – at least at the front end – that is imperative to follow… at least if you want to actually transform the church. Top on that list are the spiritual discipline practices of the leadership. This, of course, also includes intentionally dealing with unresolved conflict and implementing systems for dealing with conflict as it arises. How you recommend putting this into place is largely contextual, but leadership modeling, integrity, and accountability are core to a successful transformation.
Next on the list would be shoring up the DNA if it’s needed. Since the DNA infuses every aspect of the congregation’s function and form, it’s virtually impossible for a congregation to move forward without clear, concise, embedded, and modeled mission, values, vision, beliefs, and behavior statements.
Third comes hospitality. In this case, we’re not just talking about greeters and hosts, but everything the church does to engage both those outside the church as well as those inside. For instance, as “friendly” as a church might be when a guest walks through the door, if the music is foreign to their ears; if the language is encoded with Christianese; if there is an expectation that they are familiar with the Judeo-Christian meta story and/or have memorized the rituals and rites; if the location of the restrooms is the church’s best-kept secret; if the nursery has security, sanitation, or safety issues; or if a newcomer has to commit felony breaking and entering to get into a group, then there are hospitality issues.
The rest of the recommendations are pretty much determined by context. Reorganization and bylaw rewrites are rarely more than a miscellaneous item – giving it priority is a rookie mistake since form follows function, not the other way around. Again, virtually every recommendation we’re likely to make can be found on our websites or in our books.
So, there you have it – a veritable step-by-step DIY consultation. If it sounds complicated and complex, that’s because it is. Between the two of us, Bill Easum and I have done hundreds of customized consultations, and each one is as unique as your situation. On the other hand, as you’ve no doubt surmised, there’s a method to the work we do and the recommendations we make. Follow the steps in this article, mine the depths of our sites and our books, and you’ll have at your fingertips everything you need to work from data gathering, through evaluation, and ultimately to making church-transforming recommendations.
Just in case this all seems to be too complex and too much work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Bill Easum and I both have room in our schedule to work with you and your church. Whether your congregation needs an onsite consultation, you or your leaders need coaching, or there’s a need for congregational training, we’re committed to helping churches become increasingly effective.
Question: Have you ever attempted a do-it-yourself consultation? Would you like to? Share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments section below.