When churches plan, one of the things they often plan to do is grow. They have their reasons: the Great Commission, for one, and the fact that spreading the gospel is a main point of the congregation’s purpose. But when you get past polite chit-chat, other motives will assert themselves.
For clergy, church growth is a career move. I can’t criticize this—my first church grew, and I’ve collected dividends on that achievement ever since. It was only partly my achievement. Nonetheless, let me be the first to say that I have benefited, and one of the reasons I encouraged growth was that I hoped and expected to reap benefits down the road.
Lay people sometimes want church growth as well, of course. When I consult with planning teams, one reason for leaders’ wish to grow that often surfaces is this: “We need the money.” Whether it’s the mortgage or the light bill, many people seem to think a good reason to increase membership is to spread costs more widely, making life cheaper for existing members.
Hoping to reduce one’s share of an expense is mathematically equivalent to hoping for a raise—so perhaps we have established a moral parity between the clergy and the laity that will enable us to move ahead with trust. What were we talking about?
Oh, yes—growth. Or outreach, or evangelism. Yes. Our goal. Let’s be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, and whatnot. Our goal is to increase membership by ten percent so as to bear the costs more equably. Good. Done. I move to adjourn.
Unfortunately, congregations that plan growth for reasons like these find there is a serious shortage of people looking for a church so they can help it pay its bills. Or to enhance the minister’s career. Unless the demographic winds happen to be at our back, we fail to achieve our goal. And why is that?
Because we have failed to respect the First Law of Planning: you can only plan for yourself.
Planning to increase your membership by ten percent amounts to planning for a certain number of unknown people to get up Sunday morning and attend worship, respond positively to the welcome they receive, become involved, and join. That’s not planning; that’s attempted mind control!
The prize winner in the First-Law violation category was a bishop (I’ll be discreet, and disclose only he belonged to a denomination that has bishops) who I once heard announce that his goal was that all his pastors would announce a goal that their congregations’ goal would be to grow by ten percent. I wanted to ask: what is the bishop going to do that’s different from what he did last year?
Similarly, when congregational planning teams propose a growth goal, I am not interested in the proposed percentage. You can run a ten-percent growth rate through a spreadsheet in a flash and learn that in ten years 100 people turn into 250, and thirty years later they have become 4500. Another decade of 10-percent growth creates a mega-church of 11,739.09 souls, give or take .005. Spreadsheets are great for turning nonsense into mega-nonsense.
A better planning challenge for the bishop, from my point of view, would be to find a way to rebalance the political scales between growing congregations (which as a group have little time for denominational politics), declining congregations (which are often active seekers of support and subsidies) and yet-to-be-founded congregations (which don’t vote).
In place of a percentage goal for growth, I’d like the bishop to announce a goal to start more new congregations and to shift support away from weak and dying congregations in favor of growing and effective ones. These are two ways middle judicatories can reliably cause growth, but for the political reasons mentioned above they are not easy priorities.
For congregations, instead of a percentage goal for growth, I’d like a goal for offering a certain number of new face-to-face small groups each year, some or all of which engage in study, worship, service, and social-justice action. The goal should be for offering groups, not necessarily for starting them successfully: only the new members themselves can make them succeed. But a church that can always offer newcomers the chance to be a charter member of a new small group says, “We need you and can offer you the friendship and support you yearn for.”
A church whose current attendance is 150 that decides to offer six new groups a year and systematically invite newcomers to join them will do more for its growth than it could do with an entire pond full of Lotus spreadsheets.
We all have our reasons for wanting growth. But it’s important to remember that the only people who can make growth happen are, by definition, not part of our planning process. With the possible exception of rich, repentant criminals, nobody visits a church in the hope of being asked pay some of its bills. But a lot of people visit with vague hopes of friendship, intimacy, spiritual succor, and support in living a more useful life. You can’t guarantee those things, but by setting goals in terms of what you plan to do instead of other people, you can make your church attractive, with results that can be measured on a spreadsheet.
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “Planning to Grow” originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Clergy Journal (www.logosproductions.com) and is reprinted with permission.
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