Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Beware of the church survey

It was a familiar story. A pastor of a small church that averages about 60 people in attendance has been at odds with some in the congregation for several months. It's nothing serious, but it has been uncomfortable. Finally, the board chair decides the congregation needs to be surveyed to determine what they think is needed for the church to move forward. Questions are determined and the anonymous survey is sent out. What no one anticipates are all the comments written in the margins and at the bottom or back of the page. The pastor calls me saying that the comments are not favorable towards him, and he's not sure he will be able to remain there as pastor. The board will meet later in the month to discuss the findings of the survey.

This is a story I've seen played out numerous times, and it never ends well for the pastor. This pastor believes the board chair had no evil intentions in surveying the congregation, and that may be true. In other cases, church boards have used such surveys as "gotcha tools" to justify their desire to replace the pastor. Rather than discussing their issues with the pastor like adults, they hide behind anonymous surveys hoping to get enough ammunition to ask the pastor to resign. They can point to the surveys to show the pastor that his or her leadership is no longer needed or desired by the congregation.

The mere fact that lay leaders of a small church sends out such a survey indicates that they are not really seeking information to benefit the church. If you are a leader of a church that runs 60 people and you don't know what the church needs, you don't need to be in leadership. Furthermore, you aren't likely to find it in a survey of the congregation. What you will find are criticism, complaints, and often the rehashing of old issues.

It would be far better for a church in this situation to invite someone from the denomination or a consultant to meet with the pastor, the leadership, and at some point, the congregation to discuss whatever issues need to be discussed. Out of those meetings could come recommendations from someone who has experience in helping a church turn itself around. Some of those recommendations might require retraining of people in the congregation, and such training might be made available as part of the consultation. In some cases it might be necessary to encourage the pastor to resign. In other situations church controllers may need to be confronted. (I've done both as a consultant.) There are a myriad of possible recommendations that might come out such consultations, but at least they will have been made after having honest dialogue with the leadership and congregation.

Reacting to anonymous surveys seldom produces anything of benefit to a church or pastor. Being proactive in using outside resources to help address problems in a church will usually be much more effective.

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