Beyond average attendance

A recent blog post by David L. Odom, Executive Director for Leadership education at Duke Divinity School, argues that “average attendance is no longer a sufficient measure to predict congregational behavior. In the past, says Odom, if he were given average worship attendance he “could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.”

But this is no longer true, according to Odom, as congregational culture is quickly changing and evolving. So, for example, today when denominations mass-produce curriculum materials, “teachers are often dissatisfied with their options [and] obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.” This same problem holds true in other areas — average worship attendance is no longer an accurate predictor of a congregation’s needs for staffing and funding.

Odom recommends tracking “all the ways that a person engages a congregation — joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to social causes and to the church’s budget, reading semons or other resources online, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class, and more.” Once you start tracking all the ways individuals get involved, Odom then suggests looking for patterns that lead to deeper engagement, and patterns that lead to great growth. Odom also suggests that engaging an outside marketing consultant would be a good way to start asking these kinds of questions, and organizing and tracking this kind of data.

In our congregation, we continue to track average Sunday attendance, although we track attendance at all Sunday programs, not just worship services, including Sunday morning Forum, children’s programs, and Sunday evening youth programs. I also find it useful to look at seasonal trends in attendance; this is useful information because if attendance drops off when there is no program offered for a given constituency (e.g., no Sunday school or Forum in summer), this appears to be the time when we lose newcomers to those programs. I also pay attention to space use on Sundays — how many rooms are used at a given time for congregational groups and events?

We also track attendance at non-Sunday events and groups, such as support groups, classes, lectures, etc. It is more difficult to collect accurate data for these events, especially since small groups and classes tend to change more quickly than Sunday morning programs. But at the same time, I’m seeing a growing importance of non-worship related activities. Our congregation has a number of programs that attract people who do not go to worship services, including a bias-free scouting program, our OWL sexuality education programs, the Sunday morning Forum, etc. Plus we are planning a week-long day camp next summer that will deliberately reach out to people not otherwise affiliated with the congregation.

The next big step for us will probably be to track patterns of engagement for individuals. We are in the process of moving to a new church database, ACS Realm, which has built-in small-group management software in it. We believe that we will be able to use Realm to track individual engagement across multiple ministry areas.

Odom’s blog post ends with him wishing that he “could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers.” I don’t share his nostalgia — I’m fascinated by the ongoing evolution of congregations, and I love the opportunities for creativity we now have.

How about you? What metrics would you use to figure out how your congregation is doing?

One thought on “Beyond average attendance”

  1. Many years ago, a wise colleague described the difference between “congregational” groups and “boundary” groups. The latter attract outsiders but do not require, and sometimes do not even require, a pathway to congregational covenant. My opinion of boundary groups shifts over time, as I meet folks who retained from them a lingering but ineradicable UU identity. Of course, there is no way of knowing how many other folks used these boundary groups as gateways out of denominational commitment, another phenomenon I have observed.

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