The pressure has been on my congregation for many years. Though we have grown numerically over the past five, and with true growth as measured by first-time believers, we have not been able to keep up with volunteer and leader attrition due to aging and membership churn. This has meant an accelerating reduction in the number of ministries we can maintain and in our capacity to start new ministries.
The anxiety this situation creates can rush leaders into one of two approaches. A first approach is to be reactive and simply shrink the institutional structure by reducing the size of council or disbanding committees or lessening the frequency of some involvements. The downside of this approach is that reactive reducing can disconnect from a faith-oriented or hopeful vision for the future. The upside is that reality must be faced or it will impose itself in more painful ways than choice.
A second approach is to try to inspire new volunteers and deeper levels of involvement among the people already present. This could include leaders examining themselves for integrity gaps in their own involvement, making their congregations aware of the issue, challenging people to fulfill their baptismal vows to encourage children in the faith, or hoping that That Sermon will unleash a New Pentecost (Help me, Jesus.). The downside to this is that a church can make faith in God synonymous with faith in institutional continuance and the status quo, which results in disillusionment and potentially unfairly blaming people for being unresponsive to “God’s” direction. The upside is that honest congregational self-examination can open hearts for new works of the Spirit.
While both approaches have their merits, if rushed into, they can miss an opportunity to think critically about a congregation’s capacity. How many volunteer roles are reasonably possible within the group? How many leaders can be expected from this or that size of congregation? What is the burnout-level of a volunteer in terms of weekly or monthly church commitments? If leaders first assess capacity, they will be in a better position to act constructively.
So how does one assess congregational capacity? I asked this question of dozens of other CRC pastors and received more “following this discussion” messages than “read this” or “here’s how” responses, so there remain more questions than answers, but here follows a summary of what I learned.
- Many factors other than raw numbers shape a congregation’s capacity: organizational DNA, accountability structures, training and permission to learn by failure, generational shifts (younger generations tend to make church less of a priority relative to school and sports), age profile of a congregation (do younger retirees have more to offer, or just more doctor appointments?), and leadership in executing healthy endings of less effective ministries and healthy beginnings of fresh ministries.
- With (1) in mind, a few churches replied with their own assessments:
- One church still under its planting pastor expects 10 hours weekly of its members (worship + small group + one other activity, whether church-wide or home-based outreach), and the pastor estimates 50% of members actually do this.
- An established church of around 200 members found it sustainable to have about 75 volunteers for 140 roles, while being sure to end something for each new thing they start.
- A smaller established congregation’s pastor segmented his congregation into active participants (defined as attending 2 or more Sundays per month), a committed core (who attend unless otherwise hindered and who have a volunteer role of some kind), those unavailable to increase participation for legitimate reasons, and those who could yet be engaged to participate more. He estimated that about 25% of his congregation would be in each of those four categories, which yielded a testable hypothesis about how much growth in participation might be possible. Another useful thing about his analysis was that it offered realistic hope for increasing involvement while maintaining a realistic limit to such growth from within the existing membership.
- Because I’m a geek, I made a spreadsheet for my own congregation which measured our volunteer needs in terms of “month-person units.” (This will excite approximately 22% of you. 68% may now roll their eyes. 10% are breaking out in hives because you loathe computer software. Yes, I have a separate spreadsheet which categorizes probable reactions to this post.) One month-person unit means we need one person to do an activity once per month, other than just showing up for worship, Bible studies, or events. Two units could mean one person doing two things, or two people doing something that needs to happen twice monthly. Our total was 162 MPUs (yesss! An acronym!) for about 100 members, of which 58 are doing at least one thing. That means our volunteers average three more-than-attendance activities per month. But if I got more granular in my breakdown, I would expect to find that about 25 people are doing five or more activities per month, with about 30 doing one thing. My basic conclusion was that our leaders’ feeling of being over-extended relative to our capacity was validated by the numbers. The spreadsheet has helped us evaluate where our efforts are focused and prioritize where to use our volunteers. Presently, we’re trying to respond to our reality by both reducing our institutional footprint and by encouraging the congregation to step up.
- There was one non-empirical comment that came through. The book "Sticky Church" suggests 3 weekly spots (4 for some retirees)—Sunday worship, small group, and one other role. One church that aims for this notes that since most ministries have seasons, their average is less than 3 times weekly. This church also differentiates between "sporadic" roles, like serving in nursery every 6 weeks, and more frequent roles.
However your church assesses itself, balance, Sabbath, necessary endings, and fresh beginnings are part of staying sustainably faithful. And despite all the organizational challenges, that churches yet endure to spread the gospel is one of the good signs that God really is working in this world. Onward!