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"As a Member of My Congregation, My Opinions Seem to Count."

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

This week I continue my discussion of the 12 specific items that Gallup has discovered best measure the level of engagement members feel toward their respective congregations. The seventh congregational engagement item is "As a member of my congregation, my opinions seem to count."

In a 2001 study of congregation members*, Gallup found that less than half of those members (47%) strongly agree with this statement.

The low percentage of "strongly agree" responses on this item is significant because faith communities do not function very well when their members feel insignificant or irrelevant. The quickest way for this to happen is for leaders to make decisions that affect members without getting their input first. Although they may not always agree with their members' opinions, wise leaders will always ask what their members have to say.

Case in point: one congregation was faced with the potentially divisive task of changing worship times to accommodate an additional service in a contemporary style. First, the task force sent information to the congregation informing members of the need to make changes. They then asked for members' input on the issue, using written surveys, phone interviews and listening group sessions. The task force used this information, along with regional demographic data, in forming a new schedule.

The next step was to inform the congregation of the new time schedule and when it would start, giving members plenty of time to decide which service they would attend. Importantly, members were also given the detailed reasons for the changes, acknowledging that different opinions were heard and evaluated. The task force also told the congregation that they would be back in six months with a progress report. When the six months was up, they reported on the progress: worship attendance was up by 33%, Sunday school attendance was up by 42%, and 60% of new members joined as a result of the new service times and format. Even those who did not agree with the changes could see the point of making them, and eventually wound up supporting them.

Here are a few reasons members may not feel their opinions do not count in their congregations:

  • Their opinions aren't being recognized by the right person. Sometimes the leader of the congregation is not the best person to be listening. Members may want other people to be paying attention. Maybe they prefer the lay leadership. Maybe they want other members to be listening. Finding the right audience for each member is vital. If you do not know who that is, ask.
  • They believe that the leadership has already made the decision. Sometimes members may think to themselves, "You're asking what I think, but you don't really care. You've already made up your mind." There is a pretty simple solution to this problem: be honest. If you have already made a decision, tell that to your members. But if at all possible, involve your members in decisions regarding the congregation. Weigh their ideas, make your decision, and then explain why you made it. Even if some do not agree, honesty will get you a lot farther than feigning interest.
  • Your congregation/denomination has a history of tending to shut people down. If you are in a congregation that historically has not cared about what its people think, you have a long road ahead of you -- but you can change the culture. Often, certain channels of communication have become plugged. Ineffective leaders or other individuals may have stifled (or are stifling) the flow of opinions. As a leader, your job is to identify those blocked channels and clear them. If you do not know which communication channels are being blocked (or which individuals are blocking them) ask your members.

Healthy performance on this item boils down to communication. Communication is vital to the health of any organization, and the larger your congregation is, the more effort it takes to maintain clear lines of communication within it. Finding out what your members think -- even if you do not agree with or act on their opinions -- is critical to your effectiveness and success.

The SE25 are protected by copyright of The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, 2001.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 729 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, conducted October through November 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3.6%.


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