Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Connected Pastor

I just wanted to mention here that I've started a new blog dedicated to the discussion of technological issues facing pastors and churches.  It can be found here: http://connectedpastor.blogspot.com/ and I've just put up my opening post.  I hope to cover explicitly technical topics going forward - some of which I've touched on here.  Hope you'll check it out and spread the word.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Execution Is Everything

I've been on a cleaning/organizing kick recently. Going through old church files, I came across a document from 1979 entitled "Church Officers' Retreat: Evangelism." It recounted the tremendous dropoff in worship attendance my church experienced from 1963 to 1979 (from an average of 418 to 160, a drop of over 60%). The report then outlined a series of actions they needed to take to stem the tide.

Most of the ideas were pretty obvious. "We must create a friendly, accepting church." "A way must be found to note visitors." "We need to investigate our relationship with blacks and Hispanics." "Minister to singles." "Explore possible service projects in the community."

Not enough of these things happened. Over the next 15-20 years the decline continued, though it slowed and eventually bottomed-out a few years before I arrived. Today we're still growing, and our average worship attendance is now the highest since about 1974. Why? When I looked at the this 1979 report, it seems that we've actually implemented almost everything on the list. We've achieved a significant level of racial-ethnic diversity. We have a singles group. We are definitely friendly and accepting. We have implemented a variety of community mission projects.

The 1979 report even identified some geographic opportunities, such as noting that there is no other Presbyterian presence to our east/southeast. And sure enough, a huge chunk of our growth is families attending who live southeast of us.

The interesting thing is that we didn't even have an officers' retreat to determine that we should do these things. We just started to do them. We consciously focused on how welcoming we were. We paid special attention to underrepresented populations of all kinds, from ethnic groups to singles. We noticed the lack of churches to our east/southeast and focused our marketing efforts in that direction. And it is working.

Lesson: diagnosis is easy, execution is everything.

I'm amazed at the amount of energy we expend (both in our local churches and in our denomination) creating "study groups" to study our situations, diagnose the problems, and propose solutions. It is an absolute waste of time.

You don't need a retreat to determine what's wrong. You simply need to start fixing what's wrong. You already know what needs to be done. Go and do it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Managing by Actual Data

Now that the holidays have passed, I was reflecting on some of the decisions we made to maximize our impact in Christmas season. This year was interesting, in that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday - something that happens every 5 or 6 years (depending on whether there are one or two intervening leap years), so this will happen again in December 2016. Remember, in the Presbyterian tradition we worship on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day (but we always worship on Sunday).

The previous time it happened was December 2005, and that year we made the erroneous judgment that there would be very sparse attendance on Christmas Day. We were wrong. We didn't exactly need crowd control officers on Christmas - it was actually a little below average for the bulk of the program year - but compared to say, summer attendance, it was really good. It was more than we had any Sunday in July of 2005. The crowd was also a lot of drop-ins, as well as people who decided to sleep early on Christmas Eve and come the next day.

So as we planned this year, we decided to trust the data from 2005, not our instincts. This meant that we asked the choir to come back on Sunday morning after a late evening on Christmas Eve (our late service ends just past midnight) and we had coffee fellowship afterwards, because we guessed that a number of the attendees would be newcomers. We wanted this (hoped for) surfeit of new visitors to have a full worship experience.

We were right. Or should I say, the data were right. We had an attendance experience similar to 2005 - good numbers on Sunday, including an unusual number of visitors. We gave them the best we had - full music, a fresh sermon (not a repeat of Christmas Eve) - and not a holiday skeleton crew.

The lesson is simple: make decisions based on actual data. Our instincts, and those of many in the congregation, continued to be that Christmas Day would be sparse. We were able to adjust our decisions to our reality for two simple reasons: we had acquired data and we acted on the data. How many churches fail to acquire data on every event? We count obsessively. We record what we count. We know how many pounds of corned beef were eaten at the St. Pats dinner; we know how many bagels are eaten at coffee hour.

Also important is that it is our data. Our context is not your context. Our data is not your data. For example, our conjecture is that one factor could be the predominance of Roman Catholicism in our area. So many of our members are former RCs it's amazing (mostly divorced RCs who feel rejected by their church). In Roman Catholicism, Christmas Day is when you worship - it is a holy day of obligation. (This is why Catholic midnight mass begins at midnight while our late service ends at midnight. Their worship is Christmas Day, ours is Christmas Eve.)

If you don't have data of your own, you may be able to learn from ours - but it may be totally off for your ministry context. We're grateful that we record as much data as we do, and in this age of everything being in electronic documents, it's easier than ever to find the records. They don't even have to be particularly well-organized - this is what "search" functions are for. My encouragement to you is to write it down. Save it in a Word document, or software such as Evernote, so you can find it. It may not seem useful at first, but it will.

Acquire the data, study it, trust it. Good decisions are easier to make when they're backed by facts.