Keys to an Effective Congregation

From your Interim Minister

This from Robert Fulghum – “On occasion, in years past, I planted daffodil bulbs on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), as a reminder to myself that hope for better times is not enough – that one must be an active participant in the quality of the future, the planting must be done now.

One year I went so far as to plant an apple tree and some strawberry starts, knowing full well that I would not see flowers or fruit for a long time to come.  But I intended being there.  Hope and faith must be active verbs.” *

This essay draws on Dr. Kennon Callahan’s insight and experience as a long-range planning consultant with more than 800 churches across the country.  His book is entitled Twelve Keys to an Effective Church.  In an act of mercy, I’ve reduced them to 10 keys!

I want us to begin planting daffodil bulbs, maybe an apple tree and some strawberry starts too.  I want to outline for you the primary keys to what makes a congregation an effective one – the strengths, the priorities, the points of focus.  

OUTREACH INTO THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITY: This is the first and most important key.  In fact, all the keys are purposely listed in a descending order of importance.

The target of the outreach is the surrounding neighborhood.  Such outreach places First U on the community grapevine.  Our congregation becomes known as the one that helps people – the one that helped John and Mary, the one that helped Suzie.

PASTORAL AND LAY VISITATION: The second key is that outreach also happens inside our Church.  Members reach out and care for one another through pastoral and lay visitation.

The idea is to have one foot in the surrounding community and one foot inside our Church.  If the focus is on the Church only, outreach into the community is lost.  If the focus is on the outside community only, the strength of sharing and caring in the congregation is lost.

The place to begin is to develop a CARING NETWORK – an organized group of people known to the congregation as those who can help – gather and distribute information, help organize acts of caring among members.  The focus is on people and community.

INSPIRING WORSHIP: This is the third key: worship that inspires, that provides help and hope.  Five important factors –

  • Sense of Warmth and Community
  • How Welcomed Visitors Feel
  • Quality Music
  • Quality Preaching
  • Enough Empty Chairs So Visitors Feel There’s Room For Them

SIGNIFICANT RELATIONAL GROUPS: This is the fourth key.  People search for community, not committees.  A search for community is a search for roots, place, and belonging.  People are searching for a group of people in which significant relationships of sharing and caring take place.

STRONG LEADERSHIP:  This is the fifth key.  Many congregations rotate leadership too frequently to achieve a strong continuity of strong leaders.  The common myth is three years – but it takes nearly three years to grow into a position.  By the time a person has learned the ropes, she or he will have rotated off, and the congregation is forced to begin again.

A wise move for any congregation is to first determine the number of key leaders and their strengths and competences, and THEN build the outreach and programs of the congregation that best match the leaders identified.  Entrust key leaders with solid responsibility and authority.  Never give people responsibilities unless you are willing to give them the necessary authority.

SOLID, PARTICIPATORY DECISION MAKING: This is the sixth key.  Solid decisions reflect wisdom and common sense.  They also reflect a congregation’s ability to make decisions they NEED to make, as well as those they want to make.  Decisions rarely please everyone.

The decision-making process in a congregation must be open and inclusive rather than closed and restrictive.  This does not mean that EVERY member wants to be included in EVERY decision.  Most do not.  Rather, what people want is a sense of openness and inclusion that makes it easy for them to share their judgment and wisdom.

A closing thought about decisions.  Most decisions in a congregation are arrived at in informal conversations and settings before being ratified in the formal arena of a committee or a Board meeting.  So it is most wise that people have sufficient lead time to informally discuss with one another major decisions before the formalities begin.


Two principles apply. FIRST: The purpose of the organizational structure of a congregation is NOT to involve people.  Years ago the myth was spawned that the way to involve people is to put them on a committee.  The results of that myth have been harmful.  It is regrettable that congregations consume so much of an individual’s time in committee meetings that they have very little time for anything else.

Effective congregations conserve their members’ time by developing the most minimal and streamlined organizational structure possible, so that people can be involved substantively and responsibly in the total life and outreach of the congregation.

SECOND principle is the 20-30-50 Rule.  20% of the decisions made in a congregation are strategic decisions that will accomplish 80% of the results.  This 20% should be made by a very wide representation of people in the congregation.

30% of the decisions made should be appropriately delegated to key leaders and chairpersons of given committees.

50% of the decisions made should be delegated to smaller task forces and specific individuals who have been delegated both responsibility and authority.

In short, the 20-30-50 Rule nurtures a strong process of delegation.

A FEW COMPETENT PROGRAMS AND ACTIVITIES:  This is the eighth key.  Effective congregations tend to have a major program that is held in high-esteem by the surrounding community.  It may be a music program, a ministry to troubled teenagers – the list could go on and on.

The list could go on and on, but the programs and activities should only be a few.  There is a myth that the more programs and activities a congregation can offer, the more people it will reach in the community.  The fact is that the more programs and activities the congregation offers, the more fatigued and overworked the leaders and minister of that congregation become.

It is as if congregations seek to recover the busy, bustling days of programs and activities of the churched culture of the 1950s.  Those days are gone and done.

Our hope to be effective and successful in this unchurched culture we now live is to focus on people, not programs.  It is to focus on outreach into the surrounding community, to focus on visitation, to focus on worship, to focus on groups of significant sharing and caring.  Our hope is in developing leadership and in solid participatory decision making.  Only then, after all these strengths are reasonably in place, might it make sense to invest leadership, time, and money into additional programs and activities.

When the time is ripe, the key to program development and program coordination in this unchurched age we now live is to work smarter, not harder.  That is, to do a few things well.  Quit trying to be everything for everyone.  When a congregation does focus on just a few programs and does them so extraordinarily well that the surrounding community is enriched, then that congregation will become increasingly effective and successful.

ATTRACTIVE LANDSCAPING AND FACILITIES: This is the ninth key.  Visitors do form their first impression of a congregation with what they see as they approach the building.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Many congregations do not realize the kind of first impression they make with visitors, as well as with their own members, simply by the appearance of the Church grounds.

What about inside the Church?  The condition of our space and facilities does communicate a strong message about how we think about ourselves.  The more adequate the condition and the more straightforwardly the congregation tries to improve its space and facilities, the more likely that visitors are to think of that congregation as strong and solid.

This is not to suggest that appearance is everything.  Rather, it is to suggest that people do judge a congregation on the appearance of its facilities.

SOLID FINANCIAL RESOURCES: This is the last and tenth key of effective, successful congregations.  Solid finances are a sure sign of institutional health.  A healthy institution has the financial resources available to respond to the creative and compassionate urges within a congregation.  A healthy institution can plan with confidence and vision how it may best serve the congregation and the surrounding community.  It should surprise no one that solid financial resources are one of the ten central characteristics.

What are the ten keys again?

  • Outreach into the surrounding community
  • Pastoral and lay visitation
  • Inspiring worship
  • Significant relational groups
  • Strong leadership
  • Solid, participatory decision making
  • Streamlined organizational structure
  • A few competent programs and activities
  • Attractive landscaping and facilities
  • Solid financial resources

The old Chinese sage Lao-tzu (c. 604-531 B.C.E.) warns –

“If you do not change direction, you may end where you are heading.”

Let this be the day that we begin to plant daffodil bulbs, maybe an apple tree and some strawberry starts too.  Robert Fulghum offers wise counsel when he says “hope and faith must be active verbs.”

In the Spirit of Life,

Rev. Don

*Robert Fulghum, Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door