I still remember how excited and hopeful I felt when my congregation embarked on the assessment process that was going to transform our ministry and lead us into a bright future. And I still remember the disappointment and let-down I felt when I had to admit that the pastor (yours truly) had recommended an assessment process that hadn’t transformed us at all and had actually offended some people. If I knew then what I know now, I would know that we weren’t alone in that experience!  

Many pastors and other congregational leaders make the mistake I did of thinking that a well-regarded assessment tool, on its own, can make all the difference. We jumped on the band wagon of using a tool that had worked well for other congregations in our judicatory. It was a well-respected, research-based tool that had helped congregations of other denominations and regions as well. What I learned from that experience and from working with the Center for Congregations is that even the finest assessment tool doesn’t stand alone. Making use of a survey or assessment tool needs to be part of a well-thought-out process that matches the particular congregation and its needs and culture. The process may be one of planning, visioning or evaluation. It can be a process focused on developing new ministries, finding a new clergy leader, or wondering “What is God calling us to be and do next?”  

Experience shows that congregations that have had good results from an assessment or survey process didn’t start out with the perfect assessment tool or survey instrument. Instead, they started out talking with one other about the purpose of their inquiry. They began with an overarching question of calling, identity, or purpose, a question specific and unique to their congregation. The discussion around that question then led the congregation to go looking for some data, and not the other way around. Congregations that have had good results from an assessment or survey process considered, first, what they wanted to learn or find out, and, second, what the best way was to learn it. Congregations with good results also asked on the front end what they were going to do with the data once they gathered it. 

After doing that preparatory work comes the time to select from among the excellent research-based assessment tools that are available to congregations or to consider designing your own survey or questionnaire. And remember that surveys and assessments are not the only way to gather data. Depending on what you want to learn, you may make use of demographic studies, focus groups, personal interviews, and community needs information available from your local United Way or other community group. 

In the case of my congregation, the right fit in an assessment tool selection would have reflected not only the recommendation of other congregations in my denomination but also a clear picture of what our congregation was trying to learn and what we expected to do with the findings. In making the right choice, we should have test-driven the assessment and discovered that some of its language rubbed some of our people the wrong way. 

Veteran consultant Alice Mann warns that if the congregation is “allergic” to some language or terminology in the assessment, it can hurt the process. Those “allergies,” she says, can be theological or simply different connotations of particular words. The “allergy” issues can be avoided by selecting a different instrument, by rewording, or by eliminating a particular question. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the assessment process is the same in any significant congregational initiative: communication. 

A friend who is a lay leader in her congregation told me she was left feeling hurt by her congregation’s assessment process. “There was a big push for everyone to do the survey,” she recalled. “And I put a lot of time and care into my response. But then we never heard anything more about it. Nobody knew what happened to the results.” When she asked, she was told that the results weren’t for general consumption but were instead being used as background information by a study team. Another congregation, in the interest of full disclosure, published the raw data of their survey. This sharing actually led to unnecessary confusion and even controversy, since the instrument they had chosen required professional interpretation of that raw data. That’s another reason it’s important to answer two key questions at the beginning of the process: What are we going to do with the information we gather? And what is the best way to communicate our findings to the congregation? 

Congregations that look back on good results have communicated really clearly with their members before, during, and after the assessment process. They have taken charge of a process in which the assessment or survey tool serves the congregation’s inquiry, and not the other way around. If I knew then what I know now, I’d know that an assessment process can be a great experience with useful results, if you do your homework first, choose carefully, and then communicate very well.