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The Data Trap

By Renee Ruchotzke



Attempting to reconcile liberal religion to the scientific method has a long history among Unitarian Universalists. From the Biblical Criticism of the 19th century, to the Process Theologians of the 20th, to Thandeka's Affect Theology today, we yearn to quantify religious understanding and experience. Not surprisingly, UU leaders also yearn to quantify how well we are "doing church." Those of us who work with congregations see different kinds of data gathering and different uses of the data. Some data, such as the numbers that congregations report to the UUA every January, are helpful to spot trends over time:

  • Certified Members
  • Church School Enrollment
  • Pledging Units
  • Total Expenditures

Congregations who care about growth have more detailed tracking, though they still look for long-term trends (i.e. you can't draw conclusions without looking at the data over several months or even years):

  • First time visitors (weekly)
  • Return visitors (weekly)
  • Adults in the building on Sunday Morning (weekly)
  • Children & Youth in the building on Sunday Morning (weekly)
  • Adults in non-Sunday programming (monthly)
  • New members (monthly)
  • Member loss (monthly)

But how do we measure how well a congregation is "doing ministry?" One tempting method is the congregational survey. Surveys are more enticing than ever with popular online tools such as SurveyMonkeyConstant Contact or Google's online forms. These tools compile the answers and put it into a spreadsheet just like the attendance data.

Please Exercise Caution Before Taking Any Congregational Survey!

It is important to understand what information you are trying to discern, i.e. what do you want to know versus what is really being measured. What is the context, i.e. is there a recent or brewing conflict? How are the questions worded? Are there "trigger words?" Is the survey anonymous, invitingtriangulation? Remember that surveys are one-way conversations that don't allow for the give-and-take of covenantal conversations that encourage mutuality and growth.

Evaluating ministry is best done on an ongoing, regular schedule in a way that recognizes that ministry is a partnership between professional and lay leaders. Starting with the congregation's mission (or ends, if a congregation uses policy-based governance), the evaluating body (often a "committee on shared ministry") identifies goals or objectives and a few measurable criteria. Assessment tools are available through the UUMA. Other excellent tools are two books by Alban Institute author Jill Hudson: When Better Isn't Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century and Evaluating Ministry: Principles and Processes for Clergy and Congregations.

So when is a survey helpful? When you are looking to get demographic data (age, culture, household information, distance travelled to church, attendance patterns, length of membership, theological orientation, preferences around worship or music, etc) and some open-ended hopes and dreams questions to help provide a sense of the congregation's membership, such as the survey template provided to congregations in search for a new minister.

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) has served as a Congregational Life Consultant in the Central East Region since September of 2010. As program manager for Leadership Development, she is responsible for providing consultation, programming and training material (including webinars and videos) on...

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