General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

The Congregational Census: Finding Out Who We Are

General Assembly 2007 Event 2019
Speakers: The Reverend Phillip Lund, Lifespan Program Director, Prairie Star District; Jennifer Nichols-Payne, District Director for Lifespan Faith Development, Southwestern Conference of UU Congregations

How do we define families? Rev. Phillip Lund, Lifespan Program Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)'s Prairie Star District, has done a lot of work researching this. Lund defined what constitutes a family as those who commit to one another, caring and sharing life's joys and sorrows.

Lund recommends Diana Garland's book on this subject, Family Ministry. She developed "The Church Census" in a Christian context, and Rev. Lund of the Prairie Star District adapted it for Unitarian Universalists (UUs), developing it for three different-sized congregations in the district.

A congregation can use the survey to give clarity on "who we are", and "what our needs are". The survey provides insight into and tools for dealing with church life. It's a way to accurately learn about church families. The survey is not just for families with children but all kinds of families.

The survey reveals the usual demographics, but also captures strengths, challenges and stressors, and faith experiences, and can provide insight into how the church can help families. For example, the survey revealed that families wanted help with learning how to deal with financial issues, and also with relationships between family members.

Here are some questions we should think about, arising from this concern:

  • How well do we know the families in our congregations?
  • How do they handle conflicts?
  • How do they communicate the faith at home?
  • How effective is your current family ministry plan, if you have one?
  • Are you nurturing spiritual growth?

How does the survey work? It's a 5-page survey, and takes 20 minutes or so to complete. The results are completely anonymous. It should be administered by a trained consultant. It should be administered during a time that captures a cross-section of the church. The forms are mailed to Baylor University, then the results are returned to the consultant. The church receives results within 30 days.

What will the results look like? The report will include information on demographics, strengths, stressors and challenges, faith experiences, and how the church can help. The census is descriptive, not prescriptive, although there are a lot of suggestions on what to do.

Who should participate? Everyone age 12 and up! This includes youth and adults, singles and marrieds, members and attendees.

What percentage of the congregation is it important to survey? In one of the congregations surveyed, there were 143 respondents representing 113 families.

When is a good time to do the census? It's the right time if you have not surveyed your church in a year or two, if your membership is significantly increasing or decreasing, or if there is a change in leadership—this is great information for new leaders coming in.

How much does it cost? Consultants are free if you use the program consultant in your district, otherwise the cost is $600 + $1 per survey, plus consultant travel. Most of the money goes to Baylor University and for printing costs. A congregation of 150 people would pay $750 ($600 + $150) plus any consultant fees.

What's in the survey? Some sample questions:

  • How much time does it take for you to travel to church? (This lets leaders know if people are from the immediate community or not.)
  • How much does your family feel committed to each other for the rest of their lives?
  • How does your family handle conflict?
  • What is the congregation doing that is most helpful to your family?
  • What else could the congregation do?
  • How would you define your theological orientation?

The section on family stress can tell you what families are really facing in the world. This is a different way for people to tell you their stories; if they're not able to tell you their needs, they can tell you what they're experiencing. Those using the survey found that people really need help with transitions. The section on "How the Congregation Can Help" deals with, among other things, caring for sick, aged, or disabled family members; Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender issues; serving others outside the family, and parenting teenagers.

Interesting Results
Ten families reported that some of their members attended other congregations. There were 23 church families which had some of their members not connected to any congregation. This raised the challenge of how the congregation might encourage those people to attend the church, such as having evening events. Some families felt challenged to find ways to serve their communities as whole families, which was a tip for the church leadership to plan appropriate programs. Also, families reported really struggling with seeking outside help.

In the question and answer period, someone pointed out that the survey can only reach those who are attending or are members, not those who don't come. The answer was that this survey gives a snapshot of needs for those who are coming, and hopefully this gives a hint about those who aren't coming—including families who have some members who don't attend.

Philip Lund.

The Reverend Phillip Lund, Lifespan Program Director, Prairie Star District

Jennifer Nichols-Payne.

Jennifer Nichols-Payne, District Director for Lifespan Faith Development