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ian-ghostranch08Greetings! I'm writing on behalf of the staff of the Central Midwest District to wish you and your congregation a good year.  We thank you for your dedication and willingness to serve.

We want you to know that we are here to give you any support you may need to make this a productive year.  Please feel free at any time to phone or email any of us on the staff.  My contact information is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 773-326-9787 and Dori Davenport Thexton’s is.

ian07At our recent Central Midwest District Assembly I found our Saturday panel of growing congregations absolutely fascinating.  Six themes I heard that Saturday morning resonated with things I have heard many other leaders say about what they have found to be key to their growth:

Multi-generational congregations.  Emily Gage of Oak Park, IL, Bill Sasso of Carbondale, IL, talked about how children and adults were involved together in social justice work.  Thirty years ago when congregations were driven by the devotion and commitment of stay-at-home mothers, church was a place that mothers could go to have some space away from their kids.  An entire structure was built around this from the separation of worship and religious education to how we structured the work of the church whether this be social justice or work parties.  Today, increasingly, church is a place where parents come to connect with their kids and even their partners in an age of dual careers and endless activities where the role of parent is reduced to chauffeur and cheering section.  As one young parent put it:  “this place has got to help me be closer with my kids and my partner or I am gone.”  It used to mean that a congregation was family friendly if it provided child-care.  Now that is less clear:  an event with child care is an event which expects children will not be part of the activity.  How do we reinvent our religious life together so that it is more about doing things together than doing things apart for adults and children?

Incremental planning.  Michael Brown of Peoria, IL, talked about planning as part of the ongoing life of all committees and task forces, not just an exceptional process to be done every few years by a strategic planning committee.  In the 1990’s great stress was placed on how important it is for congregations to have strategic plans.  While it is important, the overall lesson learned was that planning is most effective it is become part of the overall work of the congregation and of each group within it, rather than a rare and exceptional type of work done by a few.

Proactive about conflict.  Roger Bertschausen of the Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, WI, talked about their Healthy Congregations Team that works to resolve conflict and promote healthy communications.  "Often through painful experience our congregations seem to be learning that they need to be more intentional about building healthy community."

Integral social justice work.  A number of the congregations spoke about what might be called integral approaches to social justice work.  This is social justice work as work of the larger congregations and not primarily work of either a social justice committee or of the minister.

Bite-sized involvement.  A number of the congregations also spoke about the need to create more “bite-sized” opportunities for involvement, ways of getting involved in the work of the congregation without first volunteering for a committee and perhaps without ever going to a committee meeting.

Embracing diversity.  Khleber Van Zandt of the First Unitarian Church of Alton, IL, talked of the shift in their congregation to embrace a greater range of the diversity of their surrounding community.  In particular, Khleber talked about diversity being more than a black-white issue and indeed their challenge and opportunity has been to move to embrace greater diversity of social backgrounds and sexual orientations.

There is no such thing as a formula for growing a congregation.  Yet these six things seem to be themes I hear from those who are growing.


Ian Evison
Congregational Services Director

ian-ghostranch08Certain necessities of life for me are only available at a farm supply store. For example, to prevent slipping on the ice the very best thing is, in my view, chicken grit, far better than either salt or sand. Thus it was that I was waiting in the check-out line in a farm supply store the other day—where I had gone to purchase chicken grit. The cashier and the customer in front of me were commiserating about the difficulty in finding work. The customer, it appears had been out of work for the better part of a year. She was hopeful, she said, the economy seemed to be picking up. Yet, having been out of work so long, debts had accumulated. She was going to need to find a really good job to have any hope of digging herself out.

Something about this echoes what I have been hearing from you, our congregational leaders. It does seem to you that things are picking up. Some congregations have reported unexpected success in fund-raising and unexpectedly strong payments of pledges. And yet the strain of the past year of recession has built up and continues to build. The prospect of better future income does nothing to pay down the debts that have arrived already.

The same dynamics seem to operate at a metaphorical level. This has been a year of strain. Now we look forward to better times but still are carrying with us the feeling of cumulative strain. It remains hard to find the sources of new energy and possibility even as prospects for new endeavors brighten.

Leading in this time is going to require us a challenging combination of deep empathy for what our people and congregations have been through and also a willingness to challenge our congregations to do new things. Paradoxically, in congregations new energy does not come from letting people rest, but rather from posing the right challenge.



Cooperation within our Midwestern region (Heartland, Central Midwest and Prairie Star Districts) continues to develop with our now monthly online educational events and with the addition of our youth leadership school. Internally, on our district staffs we are working on strengthening our cooperative structure to support and growth this work.

This has included, particularly, more differentiation of roles on our district staffs in such matter as finance, IT, and publicity. It will include a new role of lead staff person for the region, a position in which I will have the honor to serve on an interim basis. We hope that over time strengthening our structure for cooperative work will make some of the business and technical sides of our work less energy consuming thus allowing us to turn more of our energy outward to work with congregations.

Our plan and hope is that these developments be seamless for congregations. The new role of lead regional person is also connected to changes at the national level of our association. For more information about that see: http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/150302.shtml



This advice might at first seem perverse, given that you who are reading this are UU leaders and I work for our association.  And sometimes, just sometimes, I do indeed wish someone might take our advice.

Yet, consider the matter from another angle.  One of the big shifts in congregational life is the increasing need for congregations to focus on their specific and unique missions.  In the post-World War II era we had one of the biggest booms in congregational church building the world has ever known.  In that era what worked was having franchises that specified every detail of the enterprise and following all these details completely.  This is pretty much the formula  upon which the great franchise operations were built up through the 1980s, whether this be McDonald’s or Howard Johnsons.  When you brought the car full of hungry tired kids into the restaurant there was nothing surprising or even interesting about it  that could be in the least bit welcome—especially if you found it in the washroom.  Uniformity of brand experience was a value that trumped anything else.  It was worth sacrificing a lot of other good things about your dining experience—including taste and nutrition--if you knew the kids would get those French fries quickly and that they would eat them without complaint when they arrived.

Tis the season that congregations begin to talk about evaluation –apparently. A number of requests for advice about this have arrived in the past month. It is time I put my thoughts in more coherent form.

This is another of those questions where it is not possible to have an answer that is both good and short. My answer, you will find, is about 78 pages shorter than the most commonly used UU resources on the subject, but still long enough.

If you have suggestions out of your experience for revision of the advice I give here, that would be wonderful.

1. The Basic UU Answer

The basic UU stuff on this at the moment consists of two documents: Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment.

Two important virtues are that they are comprehensive (40 pages each) and available free and they are instantly available on the web: http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/ministerialdevelopment/16229.shtml
Their third virtue is that, to the extent that there is a standard UU thing on the subject, these are it. So, in using these resources you would help familiarize with the things that are currently most discussed in UU circles.

Trouble with this first answer is that the process to which it points is so long and complex that I have rarely seen it used.
Another excellent UU resource — and more recent — is assembled by Laurel Amabile with a lot of good material from Dan Hotchkiss and others. I suppose the reason it is less discussed is that it is primarily directed to religious educators. Yet the content is applicable to all congregational leaders: Resources for Staff Evaluation, Review, and Assessment Processes: http://tjd.uua.org/re/Collection%20of%20Resources%20Staff%20Reviews%20and%20Evaluations.doc

2. The Answer for Those Who Think They Want to Use a Survey

I have previously blogged my views on surveys. Frequently when congregations propose doing evaluations, they presume that the chief method they will use is a congregational survey. This is a bad idea. Evaluations become very important lessons in communication for congregations. Surveys are by their nature anonymous and indirect. Anonymous, indirect communication is the bane of congregational life.

Yet, people do use surveys as a central tool in evaluation. For those who choose to do so there are many resources. In this internet age, a Google search with the terms “minister,” “evaluation” or “assessment,” and “survey” or “questionnaire” will get you lots of examples to crib and adapt.


Thankfully, if you restrict your search to UU examples there are not quite as many examples. Yet they are used and do have their uses in specialized circumstances. The UUA Transitions Office uses one in the evaluation of interim ministers:

An approach to evaluation focusing on a survey is pretty much the polar opposite of the 80 pages of Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment. One lies at the extreme of length and process orientation and the other at the extreme of short, mechanical, and process challenged. Wisdom lies somewhere between these extremes.

3. Ian Evison’s Answer

So, answer number one is so big and complex people do not do it. It contains lots of good stuff but people look at the complexity and their brains freeze. Answer number two — the survey–models and teaches unhelpful patterns of congregational communication. It gives little guidance to establishing good practices for evaluation.

What to do? In my view, there is a pretty strong consensus across denominations about what the basics of good evaluation should be. And it does not take 80 pages to set this forth.

A little playing on the web came up with a very good summary — 4 pages. And really the last two pages of the 4 are the crucial ones. The “Ten Principles of Pastor Evaluations” really represent the core of present wisdom on the subject. It needs a little translating out of Methodist into UU. And principles two and ten don’t apply directly, but the rest are excellent.

Those who wish to begin doing evaluations might want to have a meeting with the appropriate leadership group and read aloud and discuss point by point these or my midrash on them (below). These basic principles are what underlie the 80 pages of the UU version — so, if you want elaboration on how you might do the things suggested in a UU context you can then go to Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment.


My redaction of these principles is as follows:

  • Evaluate the minister in the context of the whole congregation’s ministry. Evaluate the minister only within the larger context of an evaluation of the whole ministry of the congregation. When the minister (or ministers) is evaluated but the whole ministry is not, it invites the unstated and untrue assumption that the minister is responsible for everything that happens in the congregation. This ends up blaming the minister for all the congregation’s strengths and praising her or him for all its strengths. Ministers don’t need to be invited to see themselves as the center of the universe in this way!
  • Evaluate against goals. Evaluate in the context of the congregation’s goals for the year and the mission of the congregation. Evaluations that fail to evaluate against overall goals of the congregation and the minister’s role in achieving those turn into beauty contests. Evaluations that ask how well people liked this or that (rated on a one to five scale), push ministers to please people and avoid offending people — and away from focus on achieving mission.
  • Do not tie directly to determining compensation. Do not, do not directly link evaluation to compensation. While, in the business world, it is popular at present to find ways to link these directly by having evaluation be an immediate prelude to compensation discussions, it is far better in congregational life to separate the two in the year — perhaps with one in the spring and one in the fall.
  • Collaborate. This should be a collaborative process. Agree in advance on what will be evaluated and how. This avoids a lot of misunderstandings.
  • Take the time this needs. Evaluation done well takes time and attention — lots of intentionality and good discussion. Another reason to do evaluations at a part of the year that is a long way from the compensation determination and budget building process is to ensure that evaluation is not rushed. Evaluation is communication and good communication takes quality time.
  • Agree what use will be made of the evaluation. Agree, in advance, on what will happen to the results of the evaluation: Who will receive them and what use will these people make of them? The single greatest failing of evaluative processes in congregations is that they are introduced as a means of dealing with emerging conflict or disagreement. The proper response to emerging conflict is conflict resolution, not an evaluation process. Evaluation not only tends to fail as a conflict management strategy. It also tends to undermine the institutionalization of evaluation in the life of the congregation. Use evaluation as a conflict management tool and you teach that it only should be and only needs to be used when there is conflict.
  • Strengths and Weaknesses. Focus on both strengths and weaknesses. No congregation was ever made great by a process of focusing on and eliminating weaknesses. Likewise ministers.
  • No anonymous feedback. Build agreement in the congregation in advance that anonymous feedback has no role in the process. Evaluation processes are one of the key ways in a congregation that good communication is taught and learned. Good communication needs to be open, honest, and direct. The gain to the congregation and to the process of communicating in this way far outweighs anything that is lost by leaving anonymous comments out of the process.
  • Less is more. For most of us, it is very easy to lists or our weaknesses, and fairly easy to list our strengths. The challenge is to choose the one or two improvements we might make that would be both most possible and salutary. Likewise on the side of strengths: which among any person’s strengths is it most important to develop at any given time? An evaluation process is generally most helpful, not in its listing of strengths and weaknesses but in its collaborative discernment of where to focus attention. The committee that facilitates the evaluation process must have the courage to say that some feedback should not be given attention.
  • Do it yearly. Most congregations at some point have done evaluations. Their failure is often in institutionalizing it into a yearly process. The last act in an evaluation process should be to put next year’s evaluation on the calendar.
  • Keep it simple. With all due respect to our eighty-odd pages of UU documents on evaluation, committees charged with devising an evaluation process often devise processes that are complex enough that it pretty much assures that they will not be repeated. An evaluation process needs to be simple enough that it can be continued even in those years when other things must have higher priority. This advice may seem to contradict the advice to take the time it needs. It need not. Simplifying the process can also open space for better quality conversation.
Hope this helps.

One of the most loaded questions that I get regularly regards staffing and in particular the level of staffing most appropriate to a congregation of a given size.

So, a lay leader says to me: “our minister thinks a congregation of our size needs an assistant minister, is that true?” Or a minister says: “our congregation is stuck at x members; to move beyond that, we need to ’staff for growth,’ don’t we?” When I get questions that so obviously are eliciting ammo for an argument, my first inclination is to mumble or hide. Especially since, the way the questions are presented, it makes me feel like I ought to have a nice clear numerical answer. I feel as though I ought to be able to say: “If you have x number of congregants, then you need at least y staff.”

But I know that matters are not so simple.

What is it that I ought to say? What would be an adequate response? Unfortunately, an adequate response is considerably longer than either side in the debate is likely to find useful on the way to a meeting or as a footnote in the strategic plan.

Thus, I suppose I write this blog entry mostly to resolve my own frustration over my mumbled answers.

I find that this question often comes to me because someone has vaguely remembered hearing that there is a specific rule of thumb or best practice guide regarding the ratio of full time equivalent (FTE) staff to congregants.

This memory is correct, as far as it goes. Indeed, the question shows that those asking have been paying attention to expert opinion on the subject.

For a long time, one of the basic pieces of congregational wisdom -- like the 85% rule -- has been that there is such a ratio. The number made its appearance as part of the congregational size literature.

The size transition framework for congregations originated in Arlin Routhage’s Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry (New York, NY: Episcopal Church Center, 1983). Available online by following the links at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/CDR_series1(1).pdf. This one brief booklet spawned what has become a veritable publishing industry on the subject of congregations and size (though if someone wants a concise “free” 20 pages on the subject this is still the best place to begin.

This original booklet was written with a particular focus on the question of new members and how they are assimilated into congregations of different sizes. A decade after this was written –in 1991 — Roy Oswald wrote a key article drawing out the implications of this line of thinking for congregational leadership. At that point, he and others had been noticing that with frustrating consistency the ministers who thrive in a congregation of one size fail miserably ministering to a new larger size congregation. Why is this? What needs to be done? To answer this question Roy Oswald wrote the article “How to Minister Effectively in Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate Sized Congregations,” (Action Information, vol. 12:2, March/April 1991, pages 1-7 12: 3, May/June 1991, pages 5-7, https://thecrg.org/resources/how-to-minister-effectively-in-family-pastoral-program-and-corporate-sized-churches).

In this article, Roy Oswald said the fateful words:

... if you desire to staff for growth, you need one full-time program person on your staff for every one hundred active members.

This wisdom has insinuated itself into the common lore about congregations through the grapevine, through a myriad of educational events by Alban people and others, and — perhaps most influentially for UUs through Alice Mann’s book, Raising the Roof: The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition (2001), which includes as an appendix Oswald’s article from a decade earlier.

From here the wisdom has found its way into innumerable staffing plans and long range planning documents (some of which I have written). Indeed, if any reading this find themselves pressed for time to write such a document, this line of thinking has become standardized enough that any number of good prototype report explaining this logic can be snagged from the web.

Is this standard advice good advice?

I worked at Alban at the time of the publication of Raising the Roof. Raising the Roof has started as one of Alban’s first experiments in online education. I can then recall discussing (with whom I forget) whether it was wise to include Oswald’s 1991 unrevised wisdom in Mann’s 2001 book.

Clearly, there is some relationship between congregational size and staff size. As congregations get larger staffs need to expand.

Yet, what should the relationship be? We need some new thinking on this. The first problem is that Oswald’s 1:100 ratio is often quoted out of context. It is often cited as if it were a statistical generalization. It is not. It is a consultant’s gut judgment translated into numerical form. It is the gut impression of a very good consultant confirmed by the gut impression of many other good consultants and others. Yet it is still a gut impression that is frequently quoted as if it were a statistical generalization. This is troubling.

To the extent that I have any impression of what the number is, I am rather uncertain that the original 1:100 number is or ever was right in anything more than the most ballpark, order of magnitude sense. Because such numbers are so prone to being used as ammunition in arguments, those who work on such things are loathe to quote specific statistics. In our district, individual congregations have for their own planning purposes collected information from what they regard as peer congregations. My impression is that they find that the average staffing levels (not the normal or best practice level) are rather higher than the old 1:100 level (more staff per congregant).

Beyond the quibbling over numbers, there is a more important issue at stake: While it is true that bigger congregations have -- and need -- more staff, how helpful is it to focus on the FTE ratio as Oswald and Mann have taught us to do?

The original wisdom about FTE ratios was set forth to assist mid-sized congregation in deciding when to add a second minister. For this issue in this size congregation, there is little reason to doubt the wisdom of the advice to focus on this ratio. There gets to be a point where it is too much for one minister and where the minister’s reluctance to let go and the congregation’s reluctance to spend more money just aren’t very helpful.

Yet here we come to the biggest and most systematic weakness to our generalizations about congregational life. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there was a huge explosion of congregational knowledge that claimed to be universal but was largely based on the experience of consultants with mid-sized, mainline, largely suburban, Anglo congregations. While the experience of these congregations has a huge amount to teach, it is a fair question to ask whether the experience of these congregations can be generalized into universal laws. My own prediction is that the next few decades of creativity in this line of work is likely to focus on how these generalizations over-stretched.

But to return to the more specific issue at hand: One crucial thing we know about this ratio is that is it not constant by size. Very small congregations function somehow without any staff. And, as congregations get bigger, staffs increase -- but not as fast as their membership. Bigger congregations have more staff, but not that much more. Again, statistics are hard to come by but the general point is this: In our CMwD, for instance, Rockford with 400 people has two ministers and Appleton with 550 has two ministers. How many ministers would we expect a congregation of 1450 to have? Six? Seven? No, this would seem a reasonable extrapolation but the number is three (First Madison).

What is the point here? Our ideas of staffing ratios have a hidden mid-sized congregation orientation. For very small congregations staffing ratios are irrelevant because very small congregations don’t have staff. And for large congregations, staffing ratios become less relevant because as congregations get larger they must increasingly extend the service by provide more by leveraging staff than by adding staff.

Bigger congregations have bigger staffs. That is true. Yet as a congregation gets larger, it needs to increasingly focus on how to leverage more intelligently: to extend service by doing things differently more than by having more paid staff to do them. For example, as congregations get over 500 they usually find that the minister or ministers will generally do a decreasing proportion of the pastoral care themselves and will devote more time to recruiting, training, and supporting lay people in doing this. Thus, ironically, from one angle, the way a congregation of 1500 does pastoral care may have more in common with the way a lay led congregation of 50 does this than with the congregation of 350.

Bottom-line advice: if you want a general guide concerning staffing ratios the basic advice is still that of Oswald and Mann. Rather than using the old 1:100 figure, it is probably best to check with some peer congregations. And realize that, you need to do more than examine the ration of staff to congregant. As congregations get larger the number of staff actually becomes strategically less important and how their time is used becomes more important. The question of number of staff must not be allowed to substitute for the questions what staff are needed and how they should work so that they can each serve a proportionately larger number of people.

It can be easier to focus narrowly on staffing ratios because talking about better leveraging of staff time can raise very difficult issues staff restructuring. Yet, the two need to go together. If a congregation has grown enough to potentially need more staff, it has also grown enough that the question needs to be raised of how staff time needs to be leveraged differently.


The other day on my wanderings around the district I had lunch with a group of men from one of our congregations. I mentioned to them that I had been noticing a growth in interest in humanism. My conversation partners received this report with the mixture of skepticism and hopefulness that one might expect from a group of veteran birders on hearing a report of a sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

I promised this group that I would relay more particulars. Since this is indeed something I have heard discussed a good deal of late, I thought I would make my report in the form of a blog. For the past twenty years spirituality — however defined — has been on the ascendancy in UU congregations. Often, Bill Sinkford’s Humanism — especially atheism — has increasingly felt itself beleaguered. A landmark for both those who cheer this and those who bemoan it was the 2003 sermon by Bill Sinkford calling for the re-appropriation of a “language of reverence” (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/4479.shtml).Those positively inclined to the current rise of spirituality have taken this as an important endorsement by the president of our association. Those negatively inclined have tended rather to view it as a worrying indication of their marginalization. Indeed, there has been a certain tendency both among its champions and its detractors to view humanism as a spent force, still persisting perhaps as an after-hours aging adult study group but increasingly far from the center of congregational life. The intellectual argument for this point of view is perhaps best set forth in Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism.I do believe that I have begun to notice a reversal of the momentum of the pendulum.The characteristic religious passions of my baby-boomer generation are not disappearing but especially among the youth and young adults I hear new notes sounding. Included in this is distinctly more sympathy for humanism and even sympathy for a rather evangelical form of atheism (if this combination of terms is permitted). I began to notice this two years ago when my wife and I taught a high school religious education class at Cedar Lane. Considering the humanist traditions of that congregation, I tended to consider this a characteristic of that congregation. However, I have repeatedly noticed this subsequently. Most recently, I noticed a brief mention in the new UUA “Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth: Summary Report”:
“One youth at the Metro New York District gathering shared that UU youths’ peers react strongly when they talk about God or a higher power. Other youth identified a ‘fear’ of spirituality and religion, especially Christianity.” (p. 24).

Itis sad to hear that the next generation is not doing much better with tolerance than my own. Yet it is interesting for me to note that this seems to be another sign that the great wave of interest in spirituality may now be giving way among our youth and young adults to something more authentically diverse. Seems like one of the features the post-9/11 religious landscape in UU congregations is a heightened sense of the dangers posed not just by fundamentalism forms of Islam and Christianity but by any dabbling in the more than naturalistic. While my own baby-boomer generation seems on the whole still inclined to continue their endeavors to make our lives and our congregations more “spiritual,” there is around the edges a different discussion emerging. People are reading with great interest books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. A Meadville/Lombard student noted to me that, even more telling perhaps, is the interest on YouTube. “Atheism” by a film student, Zachery Kroger, has apparently become one of the most watched videos on YouTube (http://www.secularstudents.org/node/522). This rise in the new atheism was nicely reported in two articles that appeared in the Washington Post on September 15, 2007: “In Europe and US, Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/14/AR2007091402501.html) and “In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/14/AR2007091402199.html). What do I make of this? As Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, history is ironic in how it twists and upturns our greatest certainties and aspirations. Beyond that, the rising interest in atheism is a hint concerning what the features of the religious landscape are likely to be when us baby boomers finally give way to the next generation of leaders (which we must, eventually!).


One of the questions I am asked most frequently regard use of surveys in congregations. I include here a somewhat patchwork version of advice I have given recently on the topic.

I have a love-hate relationship with surveys, especially surveys used as a part of congregational planning. Frankly, used in this context they can often do more harm than good.

The appeal of surveys is obvious. When used as one among a number of ways of collecting data, they can get great and comparatively easy way to add peripheral vision to face-to-face methods of gathering response. This is especially true since the advent of good, cheap — or even free — software for doing this such as SurveyMonkey.com. These new methods reduce to practically nothing the old tasks of counting survey results and make analysis easier.
There are two key problems with surveys or — to be more adequate — to problems with how surveys are used.

The first challenge is that polls are often used as quasi-votes, not as a means to get in view the range of view. So, to use the worst kind of examples (a real one from a recent project), a poll might say that 95% of people think that the signs and communications of a congregations are adequate. What this overlooked was that the 5% who did not find them adequate were the new members and the poll did not include visitors. In any instance where there will be inclination for a poll to be used as a quasi-vote, good scientific method and good consulting both would say that they should be directed to make a clear decision about whether a vote is what is wanted and — if it is — that should be conducted within the procedures for their polity. Polls as quasi-votes yield no real information. In the negative, they tend to hide what is emerging behind the “average” and cause much real destruction. If however, they are used to explore a complex reality they can be very informative.

The second challenge is that congregations are temped to use surveys as a ways to avoid the tough work of face-to-face conversations. People need to be heard and to hear each other face-to-face on any subject that is sufficiently important to warrant a survey. These conversations are most healthy when the people in the conversation speak directly on the basis of their own convictions — not leaning for support on the views of an anonymous percent of the congregation. While the question of anonymity deserves its own separate discussion, suffice it to say here that confidentiality in congregational planning is over-rated. The creative directions in planning focus on face-to-face methods such as World Cafe (www.theworldcafe.com) which has worked well recently for congregations of a variety of sizes in the district.

Yet surveys do have a place. Here are a few guidelines for using surveys well:

  • Surveys work well as a way of understanding the range of views and as a prelude to direct conversations. A good conclusion from a survey is: “we didn’t know so many people thought that; let’s get them together.” A bad way to use a survey is to say: “more people want us to hire an assistant minister than an administrator; therefore we should hire an assistant minister.”
  • Surveys work poorly as a substitute for direct face-to-face communication. The besetting sins of congregational communication are anonymous feedback and indirect feedback. Surveys by their nature tend to be both so it is important not to take any action or draw any conclusions on the basis of a survey alone. They can be a very good way of identifying which conversations you need to have.
  • Always test your survey on a small group of people, if only with your committee or six friends from work.
  • Electronic tools for doing surveys are getting very good. I have used a number. Survey Monkey is my current favorite. You pay a nominal fee per month and they have a free version which is adequate for many purposes.
  • Consult with the senior leadership of the congregation before undertaking a survey. Show a copy of the survey in draft form and then, when the survey is finalized, send them a complete copy of what will go to the congregation.

There is much more to say about this, but this is a good start.


People often ask me about demographics for congregations.

People who think that their congregation would be benefitted by having some demographic information may wish to begin with the bottom section, “The Question You Should Have Asked.” It is helpful to have good sources of demographic information such as I describe below. But the big challenge is using it to good effect.

There are two basic types of sources of demographic information: stuff that does not cost money and stuff that does.

Free Stuff

The big development over the past decade has been the increase in good, usable free demographic information in a form that is usable for congregations. This last qualifier is very important. There has been a lot of good information available for a long time. The catch has been that is has been very hard to access and to put into a form that is usable to someone without a degree in statistics. Now, with the development of the web, there is beginning to be much more stuff useful to the non-expert. Myself, I believe that one day this free stuff will become so good that the companies that try to see the stuff will be put out of business. I have four€”or better make that six–favorite free sites. The first two of these basically piggy-back on the demographic services other denominations provide their congregations.

  1. http://map.nazarene.org Only place I know that you can get growth rates over time by zip code for free. You can get a good basic report by zip code.
  2. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/growth_60791_ENG_HTM.htm?menupage=50929. What you basically get here is a stream-lined version of a Percept report by zip code. The only funky thing is that you must start by using the Episcopal Church parish locator (http://www.ecdplus.org/parish/) to find out what Episcopal congregations are in the area you wish to study (zip code) and then look for the report you want by the name of that congregation (funky but then it is free).
  3. http://www.thearda.com/congregations/index.asp. The American Religious Data Archive is a truly wonderful store of free, user-friendly statistical information about religion in America. It is oriented to students and researchers but they have compiled a tutorial which will walk you through the process of gathering demographic information useful for congregational planning. A woman by the name of Heather Kindell has compiled a tutorial that takes you from website to website building a very serviceable report for use by congregations in their ministries.
  4. www.esribis.com/reports/ziplookup.html ESRI sells a lot of stuff but they do give away descriptions of the fastest growing segments by zip codes. Good for congregations to ask themselves whether they are serving/attracting the future of the community.
  5. http://www.nces.ed.gov/surveys/sdds. This site, sponsored by the National Center of Educational Studies is my favorite new discovery. Designed for school systems€”and searchable by school system-this site basically has all the demographic information that schools need for planning which is basically the information that congregations also need for planning. It does not leave you with a nice, neat report the way some of the other resources recommended do but it has great breadth.
  6. www.census.gov. The US Census “Quick Facts” is quite helpful and is searchable by county, city, or zip.

Stuff That Costs Money

Someday in the not too distant future the quality of the free materials may become so good that this will put the companies who charge out of business. The time is not yet. For now, there are companies that will create nice custom reports for congregation (largely by packaging in a more usable form Census data for which you have already paid as a tax payer). The costs are low enough that they should not be a barrier to those who are serious about working on these issues. The best known supplies of these commercial demographic reports to congregations is Percept (http://www.perceptgroup.com/). By marrying US Census information with consumer information, Percept will give you a variety of levels of study. The UUA has negotiated discounted prices. These are available through the UUA in Boston. The person to contact is Susanna Whitman (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 617-948-4270). Susanna Whitman is also very good at leading people through deciding what would be most useful. The basic Percept product is called a Ministry Area Profile and a full sample is available on the Percept website (http://www.perceptgroup.com/Products/MinistryAreaProfile/MAPfront.aspx). Full price is about $320 and discounted price through the UUA is something like $225.

There is another Percept product that can be very helpful. This is called the Context report and this combines the Ministry Area Profile with a survey of your congregation leaving you at the end with a report that compares your congregation with the surrounding community. Full price is about $700 and, again, Susanna Whitman can help you with the details and get you a discount.

The Question You Should Have Asked

The real question comes in using the demographics. In spite of my own interest in statistics, I fear I have come to the conclusion that most of the time demographics are used in congregation in ways that are unhelpful. Demographic information can be used helpfully when used to point to conversations people in a congregation need to have with each other and with those in the surrounding community and when it is used to point to relationships that a congregation needs to build.

In working for some years as the research director at the Alban Institute (that consults with churches and synagogues) I concluded that some groups, and I would be tempted to say especially UUs, hope to find in demographics a quick and relatively arm’s length way to see into the reality of the areas where they were located. It does not work. Anyone thinking that demographics might be useful needs to get this truth firmly in mind: a right-brained person with a pile of numbers never convinced a left-brained person to do anything.
However, good numbers, numbers that paint a picture that helps start a conversation, can be a very helpful beginning to a process.
Every community has people who know a huge amount about planning and future development. Most congregations already have links to these people and to the communities from which they would like to attract more members or where they would like to develop ministries. If demographic information provides a stepping stone to developing these relationships, they can be useful.



  1. David Pratt Says:
    August 16th, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Nice advice!

  2. Ian Evison Says:
    August 16th, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks. I think you were one of the ones who advised me that I really should watch for these recurring questions and then make of those blog entries. Please encourage my old colleagues to copy shamelessly.

  3. Susan M. Smith Says:
    August 20th, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Excellent resource, Ian. Since I like to tell the future by reading Percept surveys, I thought I might chime in on how to make these more useful. In “reading” these for a congregational presentation, I eliminate all segments with no listed tendency to be UU and take my potential household numbers only from those who have some such tendency. A tension that is readily evident is that the top three segments likely to be UU want completely different things from congregations, particularly worship style and programs.

  4. Ian Evison Says:
    October 31st, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Susan: interesting–and I had not thought of this. Reminds me of an old comment that those who disagree with traditional religion do it either in the name of head or heart. In diverging from traditional religion they are united. Yet, if these two groups try to do anything with each other, it is a constant struggle.