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Moving beyond anecdotes: developing local church member assessments

SUMMARY: After the earlier article, "Know Thyself", several pastors requested guidelines for doing member surveys. Here are suggestions and a sample questionnaire to get you started.

Look at syndicated resources
Before deciding whether to do a "custom" study, consider whether your church can benefit from existing evaluation programs sponsored by United Methodist organizations. For instance, Discipleship Ministries (formerly the General Board of Discipleship) has the L3 Leadership Incubator programs. The Incubator program provides a small-group environment where church leaders focus on spiritual growth and leadership skills while developing a Ministry Action Plan.

Discipleship Ministries also offers the Vital Signs Assessment Tool (VSAT). The agency will make an online version available later this year. A short survey allows respondents to rate their church on clarity of mission, leadership, and other practical and spiritual issues.

Another alternative is the Natural Church Development (NCD) program.  This syndicated program includes a church-assessment phase to compare your church's results with those from other congregations. Visit www.ncdnet.org for more information.

The Rev. Dan Dick, research director and project manager for GBOD's New Solutions Team, recommends CVI for healthy, conflict-free, midsized and larger churches. He says it also works for healthy smaller churches not experiencing decline. NCD, he adds, is excellent for larger churches that are free of conflict. Congregations lacking a sense of identity and purpose with limited resources may want to investigate Gallup's Living Your Strengths and GBOD's VSAT.

While syndicated approaches may not meet your church's specific needs, they provide excellent ways to identify church issues.

Doing a custom study: keys to good survey design
Assuming your church wants to pursue a custom study, remember to:

  • Keep to your objective.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep it short.

Remember, this is not a fishing expedition. Do not ask questions unrelated to your objective. Every additional question increases the likelihood of someone dropping out of the study. Keep your survey to the point. Shoot for a questionnaire that takes seven to 10 minutes to complete.

Getting started: developing a survey
Let's get our feet wet. I will make some assumptions to help us get started. Then I will show you how to construct a survey.

Assume you will conduct this study either as a mail/written survey or as an online study accessible through the Internet. For those interested in an online study, click here to see a copy of the study in its final form. For those wanting a mail or written survey, get the pdf version here or click on the link at the end of this article.

As objectives for the research, I assume we are interested in growing the church spiritually and numerically. Consequently, we want to understand:

  1. How does the church meet the needs of current members?
  2. What do members see as congregational strengths and weaknesses?
  3. In what direction would they like to see the church move in the next three years?
  4. With the objectives of growth in mind, what support or barriers exist among members?

In the study, we might want to address these topics:

  • individual levels of participation in church life and activities
  • feelings of involvement
  • perceptions of the church, its internal activities and direction
  • perceptions of the church's community outreach
  • attitudes toward worship and church school services
  • member priorities for the church's future
  • willingness to support priorities
  • overall satisfaction with the church and likelihood to remain

In conducting research, most successful questionnaires go from the general to the specific. Click here to see how I set up the survey. It starts with an introduction to explain why we are asking the respondent to participate, promises anonymity or confidentiality, and indicates we will use the information to establish a church vision.

The first questions provide a general indication of the respondent's participation level. As the study progresses, it starts to become more specific regarding attitudes and perceptions.  These sections lead to questions related to preferences for church direction and willingness to support efforts with their gifts and talents. I try to vary the questions so respondents do not get bored or tired.

At the end, we include demographic questions to cross-tabulate findings. Cross-tabulation is a fancy phrase for filtering collected information by age, gender, ethnicity and so forth.

Survey mechanics: collecting data
As the introduction to the survey suggests, you will need multiple ways for people to complete the survey. A survey can be included in the worship bulletin, mailed to members or accessed on the Internet via an e-mailed link. The Internet option saves time and effort, so encourage as many people as possible to participate in that format.

Remember: some members may lack Internet access. Some of your most valuable information may come from members who, for one reason or another, have become less active than in the past. Limiting your participants to people who attend a specific church service may give an incomplete picture of your congregation.

'I have a stack of surveys. Now what do I do?'
Once you collect the data, it is time to tabulate.  You may proceed in any of four general ways:

  • Hand tabulation: Review each survey and record the number of people who responded to each question. This works if you have a very small church or fewer than 50 surveys to process. With more than 50 surveys, this approach makes filtering data by age and gender very laborious.
  • Hire a firm to tabulate data for you. This, of course, will cost money.
  • Buy tabulation software such as Survey System and learn how to tabulate the data.
  • Work with an online service like SurveyMonkey.com to set up the survey and enter data at the question "prompts." Volunteers can handle this slow but reliable method without lots of supervision. If you decide to follow this approach, contact me and I will walk you through the process. Using Survey Monkey will require your church to set up an account and make a minor outlay of cash, around $20. You can cancel the account immediately after the survey.

Filtering data
Filtering data, or cross-tabulation, is important as a way to understand attitudes and perceptions. Do age, gender, ethnicity or other factors help explain why people feel the way they do? Although the Survey Monkey system is not designed as a cross-tabulation package, you can filter answers by responses to any question you ask. From the data, an Excel file can create graphs.

Again, if you decide to use Survey Monkey, please contact me so I can help you work through the process.

Analyzing data
Because the survey questionnaires associated with this article have not been used, there are no standards for what is a "good" number or a "bad" number. Once you reach this stage, I will be happy to help you review at the data and decide what it means for your church.

Local Church Member Assessment Survey (PDF)

For more information, contact Chuck Niedringhaus.