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Q & A: Healthy Congregations

At the Gallup Summit on Congregational Engagement that took place Feb. 5-6 in Washington, DC, participants were introduced to groundbreaking research on the critical importance of engagement to the spiritual health of religious congregations (see Breakthrough Research on Congregational Engagement.) In this article, Al Winseman, Gallup's Global Practice Leader for Faith Communities, answers some of the questions that summit participants raised about the role of engagement in congregational life.

Q: Would you comment on the similarity between congregational engagement levels and workplace engagement levels? Both have similar national percentages at 26% engaged, 56% not engaged and 18% actively disengaged. Is this a sociological phenomenon? And are these percentages fluid or static?

A: This was one of the big surprises in the data: congregational engagement and workplace engagement are remarkably similar. I believe this shows that many of the benefits people receive by belonging to organizations -- whether they be workplaces, schools, religious congregations, service clubs, etc. -- are essentially the same at the core. In any organization, people need to answer the questions, "What do I get?", "What do I give?", "Do I belong?" and "How can we grow?" The number of positive responses to these questions indicates the group's level of engagement. These percentages are constantly influenced by the organization's leadership and culture.

Q: Do members who are already engaged with the congregation tend to remain engaged, or do they easily move toward disengagement if factors important to engagement are neglected by the congregational leadership?

A: Engaged members can indeed lose their sense of engagement or even become actively disengaged. We see this happen frequently in situations in which members no longer have the opportunity to do what they do best. If they are serving in ways that are meaningful to them and build on their strengths, they only become more engaged. Otherwise, their engagement level drops. Members are particularly at risk to become less engaged during a change of leadership, because basic expectations can become unclear. For that reason, a new leader should clarify expectations very early in his or her tenure.

Q: How comfortable are you with the assumption that, because engagement is "linked to spiritual commitment," engagement must "cause" spiritual commitment to occur? In other words, do correlations imply causation in this case?

A: Engagement is hardly the sole factor influencing spiritual commitment, and there are individuals who are spiritually committed without being engaged. Having said that, Gallup data provide evidence of a causal link between engagement and commitment. But the primary reason we focus on engagement as a way to increase spiritual commitment is because the engagement items are by far the most actionable. It is difficult to ensure that your members' faith is involved in every aspect of their lives (one of the items Gallup uses to gauge spiritual commitment); but it is far more practical to focus on ensuring that members regularly have the opportunity to do what they do best (an engagement item with a strong correlation to spiritual commitment).

Albert L. Winseman is Global Practice Leader for Faith Communities with The Gallup Organization. Winseman leads Gallup's research on the characteristics of engaged, healthy congregations of all faiths, and works with congregations to increase the level of engagement and spiritual commitment of their members. Before joining Gallup, he served as senior pastor of one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States.


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