A Quick Look at Written Congregational Surveys

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Surveys that work best come out of an understanding that the job of leadership is not to “make people happy” but to help the congregation live out its mission. Surveys that are useless at best and divisive at worst typically seek to honor personal preferences about various areas of congregational life (including the minister).

Mission-Oriented Questions Vs. Personal Preference Questions

For the most part, when we ask about personal preferences, we are educating people to think that it’s all about them. We are feeding a consumer mentality of “What’s in it for me?” as opposed to inviting people into a covenantal understanding that we belong to one another and that together we are called to do what we cannot do alone. Good surveys may focus on the needs of people but that is not the same as the wants.

Examples of Mission vs. Personal Preference Questions

  • How well do you think the music in our worship services speaks to the current diversity in our congregation and our hoped for diversity? What kind of worship music do you prefer?
  • Are you given ample opportunities to bring your time, talent, and treasure to this congregation? Are you comfortable with the ways we talk about money?

Balcony and Self-Assessment Questions

Good surveys invite people onto the balcony to see the big picture and invite them to see their part in that larger context. They can educate people about the role of the congregation and its mission and, as a result, about reasonable expectations.

Example of Balcony/Self Assessment Questions

Disagreements and even conflicts are a normal part of congregational life. We are in covenant to “walk together no matter how difficult the way.” Beloved Community means that we will find ways to honor our differences, navigate our misunderstandings, and work together to build the common good.

  • Do you know where to turn for help if you are not in right relationship with someone in the congregation?
  • Of the following skills, which are ones you would like to learn more about or have a chance to intentionally practice?
  • To what extent do you agree with the statements: This is a congregation where the personal preferences of a few people can bring things to a halt. We know how to disagree openly and stay in relationship.

Commitment/Action Questions

Although not always a great substitute for face-to-face conversations, surveys can be used to gauge where the energy and resources are when prioritizing the work of the congregation. These are best when the mission is already clear and projects agreed upon and leadership is seeking to prioritize projects in a way that will guarantee success. For example, a survey might list five projects that have already been identified as important and gauge the level of interest in them (as in “what would you help with” and “how much money would you give”) as opposed to asking what an individual would like to see happen, only to find out that they want to donate a statue of Millard Fillmore (blessings on the memory of lay leader Tom Berg, who would often use this as an example).

If people are asked to prioritize projects, it should be in the context of the mission. For example, “Given that our mission statement calls us to ________________, how would you prioritize the following?”

This is not to say that finding out about the passions of individuals is not important. Ideally we will have ways to find out what is important to our members and to help them focus their giving on those things whether or not the congregation is the direct beneficiary. That would be a different type of survey or perhaps better done in small groups and individual conversations.

Additional Thoughts

Surveys should not be used as a substitute for direct communication or difficult conversations. They should not be a ploy for “making people feel heard” or “gathering evidence or ammunition” for a decision that has already been made. They can be a great help to leaders in creating priorities, assessing the overall ministry of the congregation and identifying areas of strength and those in need of attention.

About the Authors

Jan Christian

The Rev. Jan Christian served as Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region from 2015-1019. Prior to working for the UUA, Jan served for thirteen years as minister of our congregation in Ventura, California. During that time, she also served for eight years on the Unitarian...

Pacific Western Region of the UUA

For more information see the UUA.org page about the Pacific Western Region.

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