Measuring Congregational Vitality and Sustainability

The Necessity and The Challenge

By The Rev. Ken Howard

In this time when faith communities are becoming increasingly uncertain about their prospects for the future, evaluating congregational vitality and sustainability has become a critical necessity for congregations and the denominational organizations (dioceses, districts, associations) that support them.

Vitality vs. Sustainability

Unfortunately, with currently-available denominational annual reporting tools, measuring congregational vitality and sustainability is not an easy or straightforward task.

They simply do not ask the right questions.

Let’s face it: It is well known that annual congregational reports – with their static, point-in-time, rear-view mirror measures of membership and attendance – do not measure vitality, at least not directly. And there’s the additional problem of what some call the “B.S. Factor”: the strong incentive to estimate to the high side on attendance and to be lax in culling membership rosters. One or two denominations (ELCA for example) are beginning to formulate and test questions to assess the former. But these are not yet in final form or in widespread use

And annual congregational reports don’t really measure sustainability at all, even indirectly. No denominations are currently measuring sustainability.

So when we were challenged by the Episcopal Church’s staff officer for church starts and redevelopment to find a way to gauge congregational vitality and sustainability using only currently available data, we were aware of the magnitude of the task. But we were also excited about how useful such a tool would be if we could meet the challenge.

And after months of researching correlations and developing algorithms, and another month or so of designing, rapid prototyping, refining, and beta testing, we have developed two new map layers for MapDash for Faith Communities: a Congregational Vitality Index and a Congregational Sustainability Index.

Here’s how we did it…

We started defined our terms, clarifying what measuring vitality and sustainability meant:

  • Vitality: an internal measure of congregational health. Asking whether a congregation is doing the right things, and doing those things right.
  • Sustainability: an external measure of community capacity. Asking whether the community in which the congregation is located contains the human and financial resources to sustain the congregation in its current institutional form (though it might be sustainable in some other form).

Measuring Vitality

To gain an indirect measure of congregational vitality from parochial report data, we extract and analyze 5-year trends in four key measures highly correlated with vitality:

  1. Average Sunday Attendance. Upward trend = “High,” Stable trend = “Moderate,” Downward trend = “Low” (“High” is defined as greater than the population growth rate in the surrounding community).
  2. Membership. Ratings: Upward = High, Stable = Moderate, Downward = Low.
  3. Adults to Kids Ratio. Number of communicants above 16 divided by the number below. Ratings: Downward = High, Stable = Moderate, Upward = Low.
  4. Normal Operating Income (or Loss). Pledge and Plate Income minus Non-Capital Expenses (Endowment Income excluded). Ratings: Upward = High, Stable = Moderate, Downward = Low.

We combine these four trend ratings to produce a 9-point Congregational Vitality Index scale, on which 4-6 =low, 7-9=moderate, 10-12=high (see map, scale, and rating below).

Measuring Sustainability

To gain a measure of congregational sustainability we extract and analyze 5-year projections of four key external measures (within a 15-minute drivetime) highly correlated with sustainability:

  1. Population Growth. Upward = High, Stable = Moderate, Downward = Low.
  2. Diversity Growth. Upward = High, Stable = Moderate, Downward = Low.
  3. Generation Predominance. This one is a little more complicated. We track projected change in the balance of generations toward or away from the ideal (20% or fewer aged 65 and up, and one-to-one ratio of 0–34 to 35-64. Moving towards the ideal = High and moving away from the ideal = Low.
  4. Qualified Population. Even more complicated, this is a combined measure of population density and same-denomination competition. We take the total population within the drivetime, divide it by the number of same-denomination churches within the drivetime, and multiply that by 2.5% (the Episcopal Church’s current percentage of the national population). The number of people left over is the qualified population. 0-99 = Low, 100-149 = Moderate, 150+ = high. Whether the number is growing or shrinking is also taken into account.

As before, we combine these four ratings to produce a 9-point, 5-year Congregational Sustainability Index scale, on which 4-6 =low, 7-9=moderate, 10-12=high (see map, scale, and rating below).

Note that, as is often the case, the potential Sustainability of the congregation is significantly higher than its Vitality would suggest.

If you’d like learn more about how you can acquire the MapDash for Faith Communities tool, contact Ken Howard at

Next Week: Measuring Missional Opportunity