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Making the best of a “situation”

By Chuck Niedringhaus

SUMMARY:In the last two articles, we provided suggestions on how to collect information for your church’s situation analysis. Now it is time to put together all of the information.

A situation analysis has several parts. The most important is the SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Your research findings or, in the absence of research, your planning team’s perceptions, can help to establish the SWOT.

You may find that you have collected other important information that helps you to understand the church, its membership and the community. Please feel free to list that information separately under “situation analysis.”

Developing the SWOT analysis
To help you look at the information in the right context, I will give you an example from a small, rural church I sometimes advise. If you wish to refer back to the original article addressing demographic information, please click this link.

Demographic information: What the data said:
The community profile for the church’s ZIP code, obtained from the General Board of Global Ministries Research Office, shows a 15 percent increase in the area’s population between 2000 and 2007, with the number of households growing slightly faster. Interestingly, 66 percent of the households have been in the same place five or fewer years, a fact that surprised the church’s board. The age distribution listed by the census shows 12 percent of the populace is older than age 65 as compared with 24 percent 19 years old or younger. Ethnic minorities comprise only 2 percent of the population.

Information for the church shows a slight decline in average attendance, although membership has been stable. Church school attendance has remained roughly the same, but the number of youth and children attending Sunday school is small. Looking at the congregation suggests the average age of members is easily over 65. Giving, particularly direct giving, however, is up during the same period.

What the data might mean:
The demographics of the church do not reflect the demographics of the community. The church membership is older and has not benefited from the influx of new families with children. Despite being in a growing area, the church has not experienced an increase in attendance. Efforts to reach out to new families have been either minimal or ineffective. From this information, the church identified certain opportunities and threats. (Please note that you can list a factor in more than one category.)

Church membership numbers are stable.
Membership commitment to giving is strong.
Members have long-term relationships with the church and with each other.

Church is not attracting new members.
Church is aging and is demographically out
of balance with the community - especially with youth and children.

Welcoming effort aimed at families with children
Potential church growth due to growing population

Inability of the church to attract families in the face of a growing area population

What did you find with your church? Did you find a difference between the people attending your church and those living in your area? If they are not the same, why do you think they are different? Did you find the area has had a sizeable inflow of people? Did your church become the spiritual home for these new residents? If not, why not? What trends in church attendance, membership and giving surfaced? What did the trends tell you about your church and its programs?

Your team also may want to include other information you can find about your “service area.” Knowledge of what support services your community needs can help to identify opportunities to serve, such as “parents’ day out” or older-adult care.

Member surveys:
If you are interested in reviewing the original article on conducting member assessments, please use thislink.

At this point, no churches have used the member-survey template provided in the earlier article. Consequently, we have no guidelines on how other churches responded. In the absence of any “standards,” you will have to decide whether the church ratings you see are “acceptable.” Use your best judgment on what constitutes a “good” score.

The survey asks members to indicate their level of satisfaction with church activities. Generally, responses from members who attend should be positive or supportive. What you hope to see is more people indicating that they are “very satisfied” than “somewhat satisfied.” If you find only a small percentage saying they are “very satisfied,” your church probably has issues to investigate. In addition, if you have more than 15 percent answering “very satisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” to an area, you probably need to list it as a weakness.

The questionnaire includes attitudinal questions related to the worship experience, members’ faith journeys and the type of church they want the congregation to become. If many people in the congregation possess attitudes that conflict with the direction the church chooses to pursue, your congregation may face internal obstacles to future church plans.

One of the most important areas of the survey instrument covers the members’ likelihood to recommend the church to specific demographic groups. Would members promote your church to others? If you do not have a much higher percentage answering “definitely would” or “probably would” for each question, you probably have identified another area of weakness. Be sure to look at this information also by the demographics of your membership. Do your teens or members with children hesitate to recommend the church to others like themselves?

Our example: Small, rural church
Members indicate they are “very satisfied” with the church. They believe it values their participation and promotes their spiritual growth. They approve of the church’s current direction. While most want the congregation to be “somewhat larger,” they contend it should reach out primarily to people with backgrounds similar to their own. In addition, members express little interest in evangelism, outreach or activities that would lead to a church more active in the broader community. Participants express limited interest in caring for the poor or global health. Interestingly, evaluations on the church’s welcoming abilities reflect a divided assessment. Some members question their “friendliness.” On the other hand, members indicate the congregation needs to attract and serve more youth and children and improve those ministries. While few describe worship as an exciting spiritual experience, in general, they are unwilling to accept changes in worship or music in an effort to attract new members. Nevertheless, they are likely to recommend their church to others, although extremely few have invited any friends or relatives to visit. As they look ahead, they expect to maintain their personal membership in the church.

From this information, the church identified certain strengths and weaknesses.

Strong internal commitment to the church
Members support current direction
Church meets members’ spiritual needs
An interest in attracting new membersRetired members represent a pool of talent

Welcoming capabilities
Homogeneous membership unwilling to change
Members focused internally – not service to areaor reach out to others
Uninspiring worship combined with poor
Welcoming skills hurt chances to attract families

Interest in working with youth and children
Re-energize the church with an external focus
Retired members represent potential pool of support

Entrenched internal culture for the status quo
Unwillingness to change or adapt to others

You certainly could draw other conclusions from the data I have shared; however, the example was just to illustrate the process. It is quite normal for a planning process to identify more weaknesses than strengths. Nevertheless, it is important for the planning group not to dwell on shortcomings or “beat up” the church by picking it apart. Please do not forget that the process is supposed to create objectives and strategies that will move your church forward.

For instance, the small, rural church in the example wants to grow. If that is the church’s objective, the next part of the process will be helping the church to identify and address the areas that affect its desirability. The process will help it to establish strategies related to welcoming, youth programs and the like. We must identify our faults before we can address them.

Next month, we will talk about setting objectives and strategies.