At the beginning of every year, people often take the time to evaluate their lives and determine new priorities and directions. The same should be true for churches. You need honestly to evaluate your church's progress during the previous year to define the right direction for the new year.
Measure the church's vital signs
You probably have heard discussion about metrics within the church. Metrics serve as indicators much like height, weight, blood pressure, temperature and cholesterol levels. They indicate health or illness and guide further diagnoses. Look at each of the "church vital signs" across the long term to identify potential trends. Start with the VitalSigns Dashboard data; then use charge conference paperwork to collect the past 20 years of data for your church in the following areas:
- Church membership: Membership shows the historical trends of the church and may help show how committed congregants are.
- Worship attendance: Worship attendance shows the "heartbeat" of the church. Review attendance relative to previous years and look to understand rises and falls over the year and over multiple years. Also, compare attendance as a percentage of overall membership.
- Age distribution of the church versus the community: Obtain census data to identify the age distribution of your community and compare it to the same distribution for your membership, worship attendance and discipleship attendance. Examining the differences for each area will show potential issues and opportunities for your church.
- Giving patterns: Stewardship is measured by the total amount given by a congregation to other organizations for support of benevolent and charitable ministries, including apportionments to the denomination as a whole. Understanding the finances of your church and the giving patterns provides an indication of spiritual health and obedience. It also helps you understand the capabilities for the church to make changes that will improve its effectiveness.
- Discipleship activity attendance: Provides an indicator of spiritual formation, which is measured by small groups, Sunday school classes and Bible studies. Look at this as a percentage of membership and a percentage of attendance. Ask if your congregation is committed to spiritual growth through discipleship.
- Missions: Measured by number of people in the congregation engaged in local, national and international outreach.
- Transfers in versus out: Compare transfers into and out of the church. This will show your ability to retain and attract members. Look at significant shifts up and down.
- Baptisms, confirmations and professions of faith: Look at these numbers in the context of your congregation. Are you making the appropriate number of disciples relative to your congregation's size?
- Removals: Look at the number of removals per year and seek to understand the reason for the removals. If they are deaths, compare to baptisms, confirmations and professions of faith to determine if you can sustain the life of the church.
Diagnose the symptoms
Look for changes and trends in the data. At every significant change in the trends, ask what happened. Was there a change in pastors? Was there a plant closing or new manufacturer that moved to town? Avoid blaming others or external factors but look at your church's actions or inactions and how they influenced the trends. Seek out opinions of a broad spectrum of people inside and outside your church and courageously seek the truth. Clarity on the current situation is the only way to create a path forward.
Listen to body language
Take the time to understand your community, calling and capabilities. Start by understanding your community, the specific calling of your church and your church's strengths and weaknesses. Look for needs in your community that both fit with your church's calling and strengthen opportunities for the next year.
Take time to dream
Ask each person on your leadership team, "If you could wave a magic wand to make a midsized miracle happen in this church, what would it be?" Distill the themes about people's dreams for the church and translate them into goals.
Go on a diet
Unless your church is experiencing significant growth, you will often find that you have similar or reduced resources as the previous year. Cut 20 percent of last year's programs to create room for new things in the new year.
Create a budget and shop around
Take the time to reflect and evaluate each potential investment before finalizing your budget. Examine staffing, programs and spending to see if they move your church forward to achieving God's calling and if the church can successfully execute it. Compare the goals of different spending options and see which ones hold the most promise. Evaluate paid and volunteer staffing the same way as financial commitments.
Share the vision and look for quick wins
Assessment and planning are only the first step. Share the vision with the congregations and look for the quick wins to build momentum.
Like going to the doctor, the annual church health checkup may not be enjoyable. However, it can help prevent major problems before they occur as well as provide diagnoses to make the changes necessary to create or maintain a healthy church.