Discerning Vitality and Sustainability in Congregations and Judicatories Part 1: “Defining Terms”

By Ken Howard

(The first in a series on vitality and sustainability in congregations and judicatories)

Congregational vitality and sustainability are terms we hear a lot about these days. Indeed, they are essential issues with which congregations and judicatories need to grapple if they are to survive and thrive in these challenging and uncertain times. While vitality and sustainability are often used interchangeably, they actually describe to different (though related) issues. 

So let’s start by defining a few terms…

Vitality vs. Sustainability

Congregational vitality is a measure of the health of its internal functioning, while sustainability is a measure of whether it has the resources necessary to support itself in its current context.  So a congregation can be both vital and sustainable. Yet it also can be vital but not sustainable. Or it can be sustainable but not vital. But they are also related in that a low-vitality congregation in a high-sustainability area may have room to increase its vitality. And a high-vitality congregation in a low-sustainability area is likely to lose vitality over the long run. Our Congregational Vitality Assessment (CVA) and our CVA Judicatory Platform (CVA-JP) measure both vitality and sustainability, doing so separately and breaking each into its constituent indicators.

Assessments vs. Indexes 

Similarly, when looking at the vitality and sustainability diagnostic tools, assessments and indexes, while related are two different ways to skin the proverbial cat (ouch). 

Congregational vitality and sustainability assessments generally are based on responses to several questions about each of the different areas of congregational functioning and yield answers about each of the component parts of vitality and sustainability. Assessments are direct, graded, criterion-referenced measurements that provide objective answers at a point in time. They make judgments based on facts that either inform or imply what the decision-maker should do about it. Example (sailing): Is your boat currently leaking? If yes, fix the leak. If no, good to go.

Meanwhile, vitality and sustainability indexes are typically generated by algorithms that compare different indicators over time.  Indexes are a collection of indicators that sample and describe the relative overall direction of factors that are correlated with a particular concern and may be predictive of it but do not measure the concern directly. They describe a trend and let the user discern what the trend means and what to do about it by filtering insights through the organization’s vision, mission, commitments, resources, etc. Example (sailing): If you continue to sail in the direction you have been, are you heading shoreward or toward the open sea? If you mean to sail across the ocean blue, go on with your bad self. If not, better tack toward the shore.

The CVA and CVA-JP are examples of the former, while the Congregational Vitality Index (CVI) and the Congregational Sustainability Index (CSI) generated by MapDash for Faith Communities are examples of the latter.

Coming Soon
Discerning Congregational Vitality and Sustainability Part 2: “Diving Deeper Into The Tools”