A Tale of Three Churches: Strategic Missional Planning in Imperiled Congregations

By The Rev. Ken Howard

On the surface, they were three different congregations in two different parts of the country – one in a northern urban city, one in a mid-Atlantic suburb, and the other in a suburban southern resort area – but otherwise seemed very much the same. But all three were imperiled (e.g., in their judicatories’ version of hospice care), and their human and financial resources were dwindling rapidly.

Their average Sunday attendance was between 30 and 40, with Christmas and Easter attendance hovering around 60, in worship spaces with a capacity of 3-10 times that total. They were rapidly drawing down their endowments, none of which were above $25,000, and roughly two-thirds of their normal operating income was from rentals. Their giving per household was exceptionally high (a point of pride), but this is frequently the case with congregations that know at some level they are in danger of closing soon. They were still imperiled.

That’s when we were called in…

We took all of them through a process we call Neighborhood Missional Assessment, in which we explored the missional opportunities and challenges in the neighborhoods they serve, their vitality strengths and weaknesses, and whether and how they could leverage their strengths to better engage the opportunities and challenges, as well as address their weaknesses. We ran Neighborhood Missional Intelligence Reports to explore key demographic trends and projections that define neighborhood missional opportunities and challenges, and MapDash for Faith Communities to dive more deeply into the demographics and projections they deemed relevant. We used our free Congregational Vitality Assessment to explore their vitality in 10 areas of congregational life, as well as their likely sustainability (with those whose judicatories subscribed to MapDash, we explored their vitality and sustainability scores). And we did trend analysis and projection on their weekly attendance, membership, and income to determine when they each would flatline (all within 10 years).

Here is what we found and how each congregation responded to combat their being imperiled…

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Vitality Check

By Linda Buskirk for ECF Vital Practices

Occasionally, we like to publish posts from guest bloggers, especially when they say nice things about us. This week’s post is an article written by Linda Buskirk of Buskirk Solutions for Episcopal Church Foundation’s “Vital Practices for Congregations” blog. The free, online Congregational Vitality Assessment to which Linda refers was created by FaithX and brought online in a collaborative partnership by FaithX and ECF.

2020 has been a year of difficult “reality checks.”  Yes, it’s dangerous out there.  Yes, you should wear a mask. Yes, you need to figure out Zoom.

Now a new opportunity for a vitality check is available, designed to help focus congregational leadership and planning. 

The Congregational Vitality Assessment (CVA), is now offered at no cost thanks to a partnership between the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) and The FaithX Project.  The CVA provides congregations with an assessment of Vitality (healthiness) and Sustainability (level of people, financial, and contextual resources necessary to survive, or even thrive). The vitality section of the CVA measures ten areas of congregational functioning, such as Vision and Mission, Leadership, Lay Empowerment, Worship, Formation, and Stewardship.

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Missional Planning for Congregations: Where Do We Go from Here?

by Ken Howard

This is the fourth of several posts in the multi-part series on Missional Planning
Click here to read the previous post

Step 6: What Does This Say About Us? (Sustainability).

The data about your communities not only teaches you about your neighborhoods and the people, they also can teach you something about the internal sustainability, external sustainability, and vitality of your congregation.

  • External Sustainability. Data trends on things like population growth, diversity, and generational balance, along with the number of same-denomination congregations located within your MissionWeb, can tell you something about whether the community has the capacity―in people and resources―to support a congregation.
  • Internal Sustainability. Examining similar trends in your congregation, such as attendance, diversity, child-to-adult ratio, and income, can tell you something about whether your congregation has the capacity―in people and resources―to support itself.
  • Vitality. Examining whether your congregation has sufficient desire and will to adapt to the characteristics, needs, and aspirations of the communities and people around it can tell you something about your congregation’s vitality.

For a free resource to help you dive deeper into the question of sustainability and viability, go here to download a copy of our Congregational Vitality Assessment:


Step 7 – Where Do We Go from Here? (Making Plans).

This could be a blog post all by itself, but suffice it to say that if you include the following information, you are on the right track:

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The Religion Singularity Crisis: Avoid the Danger – Discover the Opportunity


By Ken Howard

It has been said that the Chinese word for “crisis” is formed from two ideograms: one which signifies danger, the other opportunity.

Last summer, we published a research paper entitled, “The Religion SIngularity: The Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity” in the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society. The article describes an emerging phenomenon, which we have called the Religion Singularity: the runaway growth-by-fragmentation in the numbers of denominations and worship centers at a rate exceeding the growth in the total population of Christians worldwide.

The danger in this crisis is existential. If the long-standing current trend does not change – and it seems unlikely we can fight it – then it will drive down the size of those institutions to unsustainable levels by the end of this century. We may see the end of denominations and worshipping communities as we have known them.

But how do we find the opportunity in this crisis? The answer lies in point of view and preparation. Once we accept that denominations and worship centers will die in their current form, then we can prepare to ride out the change, so that we might survive and thrive in the midst of the current uncertainty into whatever form the resurrected body of Christ might take on the other side. Faith-based communities and organizations will need to find a way to achieve sustainability in the truest sense of the term: choosing to adapt to their changing environment while remaining true to their vision and mission. Read More »The Religion Singularity Crisis: Avoid the Danger – Discover the Opportunity

Congregational Vitality Assessment: A Free Tool for Determining the Health and Sustainability of Faith Communities


“He who has himself as a doctor has a fool as a patient.”

Or so the old saying goes. And like most proverbs, it contains a lot of wisdom. It never turns out well when people self-diagnose and self-treat, because they have neither the necessary knowledge nor essential objectivity, and at the same time have such prodigious expertise at hiding from themselves things they are afraid to face.

The same is true for congregations. It is hard for most congregations to dispassionately evaluate their own congregational health. The passion that fuels their engagement with their mission also robs them of emotional distance and objectivity. Their passionate desire for the future of their own beloved community may blind them to symptoms of unsustainability.

But perhaps most fundamentally, they have lacked a research-based, empirical foundation upon which to evaluate their health. Until now…

After more than a decade of weighing the research on congregational vitality, in late November FaithX Research is releasing in beta form our newly-developed self-assessment tool: the Congregational Vitality Assessment (or CVA).

The CVA provides a congregation with two scores:

  • Vitality: How healthy the congregation is.
  • Sustainability: Whether the congregation has the people and the financial and contextual resources necessary support itself.

The Vitality score examines 10 aspects of congregational life:

  1. Vision, Mission, & Discernment
  2. Lay Engagement & Empowerment
  3. Context Awareness & Inclusion
  4. Change Readiness
  5. Dealing with Differences
  6. Spiritual Life & Worship
  7. Formation, Education, & Training
  8. Outreach
  9. Leadership & Organization
  10. Stewardship

The Sustainability score examines 2 aspects of sustainability:

  1. Congregational Sustainability: The ability of the congregation to support itself.
  2. Community Sustainability: The ability of the community to support a congregation.

The Congregational Vitality Assessment is based on five primary research sources and more than 40 secondary sources.

The CVA takes about 30 minutes to finish. It can be completed by a single congregational leader, a congregational leadership group, or the entire congregation. It can be done as a standalone exercise or as part of an intentional congregational vitality consultation.

It is available for free download in PDF and XLS versions.

All we ask is that you provide us your feedback.

Send your feedback on your use of the Congregational Vitality Assessment to Ken Howard at

If you’d like to explore with Ken’s availability for coaching, consultation, or presentations, contact him at or 301-704-3290.

Read More »Congregational Vitality Assessment: A Free Tool for Determining the Health and Sustainability of Faith Communities