by Terry Linhart

There’s an old adage that you “measure twice and cut once” when on a construction project or when working with wood. Carpenters know that a poorly-measured cut costs more than taking an extra moment to examine it again to see if it is all lined up correctly. There’s well-merited pride in such caution and attention to the facts. And I think that most Christian leaders exhibit a similar caution, especially when managing budgets.

Church board meetings function much the same when the financial reports are distributed and decisions are made regarding spending. The care and attention given to the financial data feed the decisions regarding whether to spend or not. At the same time, other decisions (regarding personnel, programs, or structural changes) are sometimes made with little interest in gathering a similar amount of data or making sure to “measure twice” before making a decision. Fortunately, that patter is beginning to shift.

That trend has changed.

There’s an emerging acceptance among Christian leaders to seek out “hard data” to help with decision-making. Certainly, Christians have a commitment to following God’s direction and are to be discerning and prayerful as they lead. However, in the same way that leaders are careful and diligent with the financial data before making decisions, we have seen a renewed concern for gathering quality data before making big decisions regarding their audience/congregation, a new program, or even advertising. The truth is that you CAN assess the “ROI” (return on investment) of decisions involving people and groups. We do this all of the time for Christian organizations.

Money isn’t the most valuable asset to an organization or church, people are. 

It used to be that we would have to convince a Christian organization or church regarding the value of a research project before we could partner with them. Now, they are approaching us for a custom-sized cost-conscious project that will give them the data and insights they need to make their best decisions. I also meet pastors from churches who already survey their congregation each year to get ahead of the ever-changing trends or they have an outside consultant conduct focus groups to discover what people are thinking as the church faces an important transition. The goal isn’t to create a consumer-driven ministry but rather to “spy out the land” and make sure they aren’t missing something.

It’s that latter part that is most impressive and encouraging. I have found a renewed openness and humility toward getting help with research in local churches. There are likely a few reasons for the fresh interest in getting help with quality research:

  • We, as consumers with smartphones, are constantly surveyed. So we have been conditioned to consider research as more common and normal than previous generations saw it.
  • A new generation of pastoral leaders understands how quality data can inform big decisions and avoid greater cost than getting the research done.
  • Many church leaders are already sending simple surveys to their congregations. It allows everyone to be heard and helps to give a context and scope to what is overheard in the hallways or in the church IN box.
  • Most of the popular blog posts and nonfiction books (like Angela Duckworth’s book GRIT, or David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock’s latest book, FAITH FOR EXILES) are research-centered and their “bullet point” approach of presenting the main findings influence the conversations of church leaders.

How Churches Do Research

Here are the four main ways that church leaders are using research/data to help them:

  1. Assessing trends within a congregation: What are people doing and thinking? There is a “user experience” to attending and interacting with a church that is never told to us in church leadership. Gleaning insights into trends, stories, and experiences helps church leaders know the story of what is going on and gives them a richer understanding. And with a skilled qualitatively-trained team conducting the research, most people are surprised (and encouraged!) from the depth of insight they receive when they stop to listen to how people experience their ministries.
  2. Evaluate HR or staff dynamics: Caring for the most important church asset. There is a “user experience” to being on staff in an organization, at a church, or even as a volunteer. Every two years it’s helpful to have an external review of your work situation and how volunteerism is working in the church. Letting everyone “be heard” and discovering what is going on among the staff is helpful to church boards and executive leadership teams. And, given how the different generations think about work, navigating the unique HR challenges today requires better data.
  3. Getting Pastoral Leadership Succession Right. Attend any pastors conference and you’ll notice that many churches are facing potential succession at their church. We pastors are getting older! Add in that we’ve all heard the stories of other churches and it seems like few church boards have had these go as well as they had hoped. We are starting to see some churches handling this more like a building project and working to lead the congregation over a one or two-year process. And, given Arbor’s “veteran” consultants, we bring a level of experience at coaching senior/lead pastors during this process too! We’ve walked this road a few times with churches; it’s not easy but it’s manageable if handled well.
  4. Programmatic analysis from the perspective of those in the programs. It used to be that churches were hesitant to truly explore how they were doing with their various ministries. Now, there’s a renewed hunger for that data so that resources can be allocated appropriately. This is Arbor’s most experienced area as we help large international organizations discover how their initiatives are going across the country and sometimes (e.g. missions) around the world. Multi-site ministries know that the need for this type of research is even more important to their work.

The Benefits of Good Church Research

  • Get ahead of problems.
  • Everyone is heard.
  • Leadership gains a scope and sequence for the future.
  • Moving beyond anecdotes to a level of insight that rivals their fiscal awareness.
  • Costs invested return 10x or greater in savings in other ways.

The “Church Snapshot” Survey

We recognize that most churches can’t afford full-scale projects but want the outside expertise and the depth and quality of data. So, we’ve put together something that solves the cost barrier and allows churches to have a custom-designed and cost-sensitive church survey designed, implemented, and analyzed by the senior consultants of Arbor Research Group.

Quality research and analysis take time and expertise. All of the Arbor team members held positions in local and smaller churches and so we care deeply for the church. From the beginning of Arbor’s days, we’ve been discussing and working on a way to create a cost-affordable “Church Snapshot” project that smaller churches can use yet still can have some custom-designed focus and can be analyzed by doctorally-trained Christian research experts.

We are pleased to say that the Church Snapshot is now in place and being used. It is a short survey we create with you that you can then share with your congregation in a service, via email, or other means. It is custom-designed for your church, branded with your church’s logo and colors, and the data is analyzed by the Arbor team. You’ll receive a written report and a slide deck from the project and we can even arrange a video presentation with one of the Arbor team members to review the findings with your church leadership team or board.

if you’re interested or just want to learn more about how it works and what it costs, just contact me (Terry Linhart and I can tell you more about it. We are very excited to be serving churches in this way and I look forward to hearing from you.

Arbor Research Group is a collective of noted research experts and Christian leaders who work together to provide the highest quality of research and analysis for influential Christian organizations and churches of all sizes and denominations.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash