New Study Identifies Key Factors Impacting Vital Congregations

New Study Identifies Key Factors Impacting Vital Congregations

United Methodist Communications
Office of Public Information

Lively, vital churches come in all sizes, locations, and settings says a new study commissioned by The United Methodist Church, but they consistently share some common factors that work together to influence congregational vitality. That means what works to make those churches energetic and growing can likely work for other churches too.

Dynamic churches with high attendance, growth and engagement tend to have inspirational topical preaching, lots of small groups including programs for children and youth, and a mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services including contemporary music and multi-media in contemporary services. Other factors include effective lay leaders, rotating lay leadership, pastors who work at developing and mentoring lay leaders, and length of pastoral appointment.

An essential finding of the research was that it’s the combination of factors that contribute to vitality, rather than any one or two.

“We’ve taken a data-driven approach to identify what works for thriving congregations large and small, both rural and urban, all over the U.S.,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, chair of the denominational Call to Action committee that engaged the global consulting firm Towers Watson to conduct the study. “While there’s no silver bullet, we believe these findings can lead to vitality for many more congregations.”

“Lively churches offer more than one style of worship. They work hard to make preaching interesting and relevant. They encourage more lay members to take on leadership roles. They start small groups and keep them going,” Palmer said. “If more churches do these things, we believe we will see measurable positive results over time.”

Robust and comprehensive research on data from various sources using proven data collection and analysis techniques was conducted in order to gain highly statistically reliable information about the cluster of factors that lead to congregations being more vital as evidenced by selected vitality indicators.

The process included interviews with stakeholders across The United Methodist Church, group meetings, and surveys targeted at different stakeholder groups. In addition, data on attendance, growth, and engagement from over 32,000 United Methodist churches in North America was analyzed.

Because of the survey methodology utilized and the high response rate, the report concludes that the findings apply across the whole North American United Methodist population and would be replicated if the study were done again.

While the key drivers of vitality were consistent regardless of church size, predominant ethnicity, and geographic location; there were additional nuances by church size and regional area. For large churches, being representative of the community and having pastors who spend more time on preaching, planning and leading worship had a strong relationship with vitality.

In the South Central and Southeast regions, the length of tenure of the clergy as pastors had an impact, while in the Northeast, vitality was related to pastors spending more time on personal devotion and worship. In the Western region, churches that are representative of the community and have a pastor that leads in the context of the community have a higher association with vitality.

The study identified other factors that did not appear to have a significant impact on vitality, including whether outreach programs are local or global, the number of programs for adults and young adults, the use of experiential activities during worship services, length of sermon, type of music used in traditional services, and whether the pastor graduated from seminary or not.

The Call to Action steering team was created to develop a plan that will lead to reordering the life of The United Methodist Church for greater effectiveness and vitality. Palmer said that the information will be used to develop recommendations about how the denomination should organize, the role of its leaders, and how the church’s culture, structure and processes can be aligned in ways that support vitality in congregations.

The full report is available for review at

New Study Identifies Key Factors Impacting Vital Congregations

Call to Action seeks to increase church vitality

By Rich Peck

Many United Methodists would agree there are gaps between where the church is and where it wants to be. A decline in membership in the United States and growing fiscal problems represent two of many such gaps.
The 12-member Call to Action Committee, meeting April 6-8 in Nashville, set plans to gather data from across the United States to help the church discover ways to bridge these gaps.

The committee is a successor to an earlier 18-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness and vitality in “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and addressing the Four Areas of Focus endorsed by the denomination’s 2008 legislative assembly, the General Conference.

Led by Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, the group dreams of a church:
• with more grace and freedom and fewer rules—more accountability to gospel and less conformity to an outdated, bureaucratic system;
• more ministry with the poor and less reticence to link arms with the desperate, the sick and the hungry;
• more dreaming about what will be and less struggling to preserve what was;
• and more trust and less cynicism.

To start their work, the committee employed two consulting groups to gather data from which they can make final recommendations.

Mark Harrison, founder of Manhattan Beach, Calif.,-based Apex Healthcare Group, will conduct an “operational assessment” to provide three to five “doors” that may open pathways to improve decision-making and affordability. He is also asked to find ways to increase effectiveness in addressing the Four Areas of Focus.

Towers Watson, a New York-based organization with 14,000 employees around the world, will provide the committee with information about factors that contribute to church vitality. The agency interviewed bishops, pastors and laypeople to discover six indicators of church vitality. These interviews and responses to a Web survey resulted in the following indicators:
• Average worship attendance as percentage of membership;
• Total membership;
• Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;
• Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership;
• Actual giving per attendee; and
• Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.

Towers Watson staff will mine existing data submitted by local churches and tabulated by the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). The 33,850 churches will be grouped into churches with high, medium and low vitality; and 25-30 percent of churches from each group will be selected at random to determine factors that drive vitality. All individual church information will remain confidential; only the aggregate findings will be used.

The staff will survey all active U.S. bishops, all district superintendents, and pastors and laity in selected local churches. Others will be able to provide insights on a Web site to be announced by May 1.

Once the group identifies structures, policies and practices that encourage vitality, it may recommend ways in which these can be encouraged throughout the denomination. Towers Watson is expected to report its initial findings by late June.

Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee will give a final report to the Council of Bishops in November. The committee will also report to the Connectional Table. Either of those groups could take recommendations to the 2012 General Conference.

Rich Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Nashville. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.