Before a church commits itself to a major program for change, it needs to know what it’s changing. History counts! Visioning the future, a popular exercise in many congregations, is important. There is a great deal of truth in the oft-repeated stricture from a well-known church consultant: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” But such a focus on change, on the future, can lead to a dangerous neglect of a more basic principle: If you don’t know who you are, you can’t know what you can become.

Many faces become familiar at Sunday worship. But there are a smaller number of people with whom we became much better acquainted. These are the folks most likely to be at committee and circle meetings, Bible studies, prayer breakfasts, and potlucks. These are also the people who give the unique flavor or tone to each church. They remain crucial to the congregation in terms of church growth (measured either by total number of members or by level of involvement of members). These are the people that prospective members are most likely to meet. And when peripheral members find themselves becoming interested in heavier involvement (e.g., because of a life crisis), these are the people (aside from the staff) to whom the peripheral folks are most likely to turn. They are also those with whom the pastoral staff spends most of its time.

Knowing something about these people remains pivotal for understanding how your church responds to those proposals for change that comprise a significant part of mainline Protestant church life. In congregations, many interesting new programs are discussed at great length, but only a small proportion ever progress beyond discussion. Even fewer have a meaningful effect. Difficulty in implementing change proves a major source of irritation, frustration, and burnout among pastoral staff members and dedicated volunteers.

From my observations, it is clear that successful implementation does not rest solely on “movers and shakers,” those who hold elected positions or make most of the proposals for change, but also on the broader group of congregation members, the core, whose voices are effectively raised in response to new ideas.

Your core doesn’t have to be totally representative of your congregation. There may even be good reasons for it not to be. You may be hoping to change the direction or orientation of the church. If so, you need to be sure that the nature of the core will help and not hinder those proposed changes.

For example, one church desperately needed to increase its membership. Unfortunately, its core was composed almost exclusively of long-time members. It was clearly going to be difficult to recruit newcomers of any age when even the current members who had been at the church for 10 or 15 years seemed to have little or no influence on decision making in the congregation.

There is no magic formula for what size a core should be. However, before you spend time and effort on ambitious proposals for change, you should have a clear and accurate view of the size and makeup of your core.

Constructing the Core List

In all but the smallest church, it is hard for any one person to know all that is going on in the congregation. For that reason, I suggest that the group that is given the responsibility of preparing the core list should consist of three to five individuals who together have firsthand knowledge of all of the major areas of congregational life. Make sure that the group includes women and men and that its membership is not restricted to one age group.

You may wish to rely almost exclusively on members of the pastoral staff to help you develop your core lists, or you may want to include others in the group. For example, if your pastor is relatively new, you probably should also tap into the invaluable knowledge of longtime members of the congregation. Your new pastor is likely to find his or her own understanding of congregational dynamics growing exponentially if he or she lets these laypeople take the lead in the process.

Once you have a group in place, ask the committee members to individually write out a list of all the congregation members he or she considers part of the church’s core on the basis of the following criteria:

If a significant change were to be proposed for the church, would the individual play a role for or against, and would the person have any significant impact? (In making this decision, we’re not asking you to evaluate whether an individual is a good or bad core person.)
Whenever possible, committee members should include a best guess at that person’s age and profession next to each name on the list. Keep in mind that eventually your final core list should not identify individuals by name but instead be presented in terms of such variables as size of core, distribution of ages, gender, professions, and years in the church of the individuals in the core.

It is important that members not consult with each other or with any other people in the congregation when constructing their original lists. In fact, it is vital that they treat the whole process as confidential. Otherwise, it is easy to see how this process could be misperceived as a popularity contest and end up with hurt feelings.

Committee members should come to the meeting with their initial lists of core names. However, the first order of business should be for each person simply to report on the number of individuals on his or her list. It is almost inevitable that there will be some variation in length, and these simple differences should lead to a discussion of how each person went about constructing his or her list. Although everyone had the same basic criteria to work with, they are broad enough to allow a variety of interpretations in practice. Talking through your differences will help the group come to an agreement about a more complete set of criteria that are best adapted to the unique characteristics of your church.

After that discussion, we suggest that people be given a few minutes to review their lists and edit them in light of the group’s more complete set of criteria. These edited lists should then be the basis of your group’s comparison of lists of names and its compilation of a composite core list.

Remember: Don’t let your group get tangled up in long arguments over whether one or another particular individual should or should not be on the list. The overall structure of the core is what counts, and that is unlikely to be affected significantly by a few names being added or subtracted.

After the discussion of the core lists is over, I strongly suggest that the preliminary lists be destroyed. Names should be eliminated from the composite list as soon as there is complete demographic data on individuals (e.g., age, profession, years in church).

How Do You Analyze Your Core?

Now that you’ve developed your core list, it’s time to analyze it.

For example, what percent of your core are:

  • Men? Women?
  • 19 to 39 years old? 40 to 59 years old? 60 or older?
  • Members of your congregation for 1 to 9 years; 10 to 19 years; 20 to 30 years?
  • Managers or professionals?
  • Life-long members of your church’s denomination?
  • College graduates?
  • Single, married, divorced, or widowed?

Although you can compute all these figures by hand, it is faster and easier to put them into a simple spreadsheet like Excel. The spreadsheet will instantly calculate percentages and allow you to sort and resort your core list. (For example, you can re-sort your list by years in congregation to see if the core members who are recent members, i.e., 1 to 9 years, are also younger people, i.e., 19 to 39 years old.)

What Does This M
ean for Your Congregation and Its Future?

Once you have analyzed your core list, you need to consider the implications for your congregation of what you have found. Those implications obviously depend upon your church’s particular context, its concerns and worries, its resources and goals. But there are some questions you almost certainly want to ask about your core:

  • What percentage of your worshiping community is in the core?
  • If you compared the basic demographics of your core with those of your worshipping community (e.g., its percentages of men as opposed to women; older as opposed to younger members; very long-time members as opposed to more recent members), how representative is your core?
  • If there are any key demographic groups missing or underrepresented in your core, why is that the case?

That last question is important. Remember that your congregation is unique, and that uniqueness reflects its distinct history as well as its current dynamics. You must take the time to understand why your congregation’s core developed its present profile and how that profile has influenced the life of your faith community (including how your church has responded to programs for change). Otherwise, you won’t know whether you need to find ways to alter the core (in its size or composition). And if you do decide that it is important to alter the size or composition of your core, this background knowledge will help you develop successful strategies for changing this vital element of your faith community’s future.

Excerpted and adapted from Be Not Afraid! Building Your Church on Faith and Knowledge copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.


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