Big Data: Strengthening a Congregation

Utilizing data-driven benchmarking to sustain and grow your flock

By Dr. Harry Bloom

Studies show that participation in organized religion in North America has been on the decline in recent years. While research indicates that Americans’ involvement has decreased, studies simultaneously show that a majority of congregations consider themselves to be viable in the long-term.

That seems like a contradiction. How can the trend lines for participation be headed south while leadership looks toward viability and continuity in their individual congregations? At Measuring Success, we surveyed more than 112,000 worshipers from Catholic and Jewish congregations over several years to get at some of the answers.

SynagogueThe results of this effort focused on pinpointing the methods congregations can pursue to improve viability. In our work with several faith-based institutions, we isolated approaches that would most improve religious engagement while strengthening and expanding religious communities.

The results indicate that smart, adaptable congregations can improve their outlook through data-driven thinking and an openness to change.

An Overall Decline in Religious Participation in America

Between 2007 and 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted their Religious Landscape Studies survey, which showed a decline in Americans who consider themselves religiously affiliated: from 83 percent in 2007 to 76 percent in 2014. Over that same period, the percentage of Americans who consider religion to be “very important to them” dropped just three points, from 56 to 53 percent.

This indicates that while Americans might have a religious or spiritual sensibility, they might not always make it to the weekly services. Obviously, fewer dedicated congregants present a challenge for long-term planning.

Designing Surveys with Outcomes in Mind

A 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt, “Moneyball,” showed how big data and the careful analysis of metrics and trends can be used in baseball. Politicians have been using similar big data tracking to target voting patterns and voter behavior for at least a dozen years.

Measuring Success has used similar work to help independent schools, faith-based institutions, and nonprofits more effectively and efficiently achieve their mission and be more proactive in their governance.

For congregations, we designed and administered surveys for 225 parishes (among 17 Dioceses) and over 50 synagogues. We ensured an open dialogue by not identifying worshipers to church or synagogue leadership. In our work, we have found that handling privacy in a forthright and constructive manner encourages healthy and honest participation.

What we wanted to see in the surveys were the actions that led to an engaged congregation. We pinpointed leading indicators—factors that predict growth—rather than measuring the growth itself.

Determining the most important individual drivers for worshipers who rank their congregation as “highly satisfied” tends to inform their likelihood to recommend their church or synagogue to others. We wanted to establish those drivers in order to see where and how people connect to their faith. The most significant drivers included:

  • Recommendation of church or synagogue leadership
  • The belief that each member is informed as a disciple
  • Engaging religious services, and
  • A welcoming community

When parishes can see the data that is driving their participants in certain directions, it is possible for congregations to target areas of concern and improve perceived weaknesses. For example, if the survey respondents rated a particular parish as not having a welcoming community, church leaders can make improvements so that newcomers, or the not-every-Sunday churchgoer, can feel more welcomed. If the Sunday Mass isn’t very engaging, priests and lay clergy can be motivated to focus on improving those aspects of the experience.

Another valuable aspect of this research is peer group analysis. The synagogues and parishes surveyed were able to compare themselves to peers in other areas of the nation where Measuring Success had conducted similar surveys.
Paul Wolfson, a former president and board member of Chicago’s West Suburban Temple Har Zion, emphasized the value of data-driven transparency and how it demonstrates a synagogue’s commitment to the opinions and desires of its members, “[t]he data from our customers created focus, which when used in an intentional way allowed us to strengthen the congregation,” he said. “The key is how responsive we as board leaders are to the voice of the customer.”

Janet Jablon, chair of the survey committee at Temple Beth Israel outside of Evanston, IL, emphasized the value of comparing and contrasting congregation data. “It’s amazing what we thought we knew about our congregation’s perceptions but really didn’t. I really enjoyed the process and found it extremely valuable,” she said.

Analyzing the Data

The work that Measuring Success conducted with these organizations produces two main areas of focus. The first is the importance of tracking measurable variables as relates to a congregant’s connection to their faith community. The second is the organization’s intellectual and emotional investment in data-driven thinking to empower their congregations to accurately target and address weaknesses.

While the results of the surveys and the actions necessary to implement lasting change are up to church leadership and the individual parishes and synagogues, Measuring Success’ expertise comes in designing the surveys, getting adequate and honest responses, aggregating and analyzing the data and sharing insights to drive positive change.

The data from these surveys, conducted annually over multiple years, is used to recognize patterns in a given congregation. Over the years, the surveys clearly show that variables can be addressed and improved through data-driven decision-making. This means that leadership can have an impact on the future sustainability of their congregation by following the data and using it to address problems in maintaining membership continuity and attracting newcomers.

Congregations, particularly those who participate in cohorts, can benefit from sharing data and ideas in order to examine which policies may be effective in improving religious engagement over time.

“We would like to stay involved in the cohort to continue learning and getting ideas from other congregations,” Jim Zucker, former president of West Suburban Temple Har Zion, said. “I am extremely grateful to the program for providing us with the data to grow the congregation.”

Harry Bloom is Senior Vice President for Client Solutions at Measuring Success, LLC. Measuring Success is committed to helping those who do good do better with data.