A Timely Gift in an Unlikely Package

by | Dec 10, 2019 | Reflections Blog

“That can’t possibly be right.”

“No, it looks about right to me.”

“But people in our church don’t want to sing hymns. They said so.”

“Who? Who said so?”

Aaron Greenwood on Unsplash

My church had recently completed the US Congregational Life Survey, a tool that would be used by five thousand congregations and half a million worshipers over nearly twenty years. The project established benchmarks across ten “strengths” dimensions and found factors correlated to growing churches. 

The survey pulled the scales from my congregation’s eyes. It uncovered our diverse musical tastes. It revealed people much happier with their pastors than the squeaky wheels wanted us to believe. It showed that quiet people, once asked, had very clear thoughts on our common life.

In other words, looking at ourselves systematically took us out of our personal opinion bubbles. It helped us see the church as a whole.


How Are We Doing?


This month’s column isn’t exactly seasonal. But I do think it’s timely. 

By the time you read this, the Presbytery Council will have held its second generative retreat of 2019. Each year in the summer and in December, we linger over how the presbytery is doing. We ask whether we are on the right track.

Whether a ministry is on the “right track” is hard to establish. Many of us, at least those who have thought long about measuring church effectiveness, no longer trust membership and income to say. Our sometimes coarse references (“butts and bucks,” for instance) demonstrate our skepticism.

But what to use instead? Critiquing an existing benchmark is easy. Establishing a new and reliable one is not. Across the Council, we have sensed a growing need to find a set of valid and reliable metrics for our congregations’ health.

And now—we may have found one.


Makes Me Want to Dance!


At October’s national meetings, Tom and I met Susan Barnett. Dr. Barnett is Coordinator of Research Services for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and Project Director of the United States Congregational Vitality Survey. The Congregational Vitality Survey is the project successor to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey that our Alaskan church took twenty years ago. 

During the life of the USCLS, the project leaders found themselves wanting to ground the survey in more intentional theological reflection. What’s more, the USCLS’s newest benchmark data was from 2009. It was no longer valid by the standards of social science. So they developed the USCVS.

When I hear a word like “valid” in reference to a survey, my inner social scientist does a little happy dance. And when I hear the word applied to a set of measures for congregational health—a set that we don’t have to invent from scratch—my inner pastor joins in.

But Dr. Barnett made three more comments. First, the USCVS indices are directly linked to the Vital Congregations Initiative (1). Second, the Research Services staff are working to have the survey translated and validated for Korean- and Spanish-speaking congregations. And finally, the PMA has chosen to make the survey and its results available to any PC(USA) congregation that asks for it, for only the cost of mailing the forms back to Louisville.

By the time I had heard these comments, my inner presbytery leader was running out to the dance floor.

Tom liked what he heard as well, enough to bring Dr. Barnett’s materials back to the GCT. So on December 10, the GCT will (have) brief(ed) the Council on the tool. (2)


Metrics that Help


Assuming the Council likes what they hear, we intend to stay in close contact with Dr. Barnett. I believe the Survey holds promise for churches to move beyond membership and money as our key indices.

After all, if we value what we measure and we measure what we value, popularity and wealth don’t reflect Scripture’s priorities very well. What if, instead of those metrics, our churches obtained real information—not just impressions—regarding how they do at:

    • Forming lifelong disciples…
    • Telling the good news in intentional, authentic ways…
    • Focusing outward…
    • Empowering servant leaders…
    • Spirit-inspired worship…
    • Caring relationships…
    • And organizational health?

What if we then acted on that information? What if we turned our energy and initiative toward measurable improvement across each of the above seven dimensions? And what if our churches took the survey again, four years later, in order to measure their progress? 

I don’t know what steps the GCT plans to recommend to the Council. I don’t know yet what steps the Council will take, or encourage the Presbytery to take. Nor do I know when the Congregational Vitality Survey will become available in Spanish and Korean. For all of this please stay tuned.

But I do encourage congregational leaders to look at the Survey. See whether it might help your church’s self-reflection. Could its categories offer a new, more fruitful way to consider whether you are on the “right track”?

If these questions draw you in, let’s continue the conversation and see where it leads. I love the thought that ten years from now, we’d be measuring and prioritizing vitality over nickels and noses.


Somewhere along the Way,



1 The SCT’s #7for7in2019 workshops this year with Ryan Romberg are directly connected to the Vital Congregations Initiative. Research Services plans to pursue a quasi-experiment with a few pilot presbyteries (not ours). Congregations will take the survey, then participate in the Vital Congregations Initiative, and then take the survey again three or four years later. Other congregations will take the survey twice without participating. The experiment hopes to show whether the Initiative makes a significant difference in a congregation’s measured vitality. (Back)

2 From my perspective writing this, it’s still going to happen. From yours, dear reader, it already has. (Back)