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What In The World Do People Want?

Church Wellness

That question arises in every kind of enterprise. Managers try to gauge what is selling – and why – and what is languishing on the shelves. If no one is buying, say, sardines, why stock them? Even if the chef prepares a terrific halibut steak, lack of interest in halibut means change the menu. Even the most traditional universities are reexamining courses in the classics because few students take them.

One aim, of course, is to deploy resources effectively and, in commercial enterprises, profitably. Sardine shelf space could go to taco shells and yield more revenue. Giving up endowed chairs in, say, Latin and Greek would free up academic resources for computer engineering.

A second aim has to do with planning. When you craft the menu for June, should halibut remain on it? Or in the church world, if people no longer attend the parish picnic in October, should you schedule it?

Hardest evaluations are those where you don’t know the people you’re trying to reach. You know that current shoppers have lost interest in sardines, but what does the next wave of potential shoppers want? Korean ingredients or Mexican? Computer engineering is hot in 2016, but will the class of, say, 2024 be heading in a different direction?

In the church world, you need to know what is and isn’t working. You need metrics. You can’t just keep doing what you enjoy doing if no one is “buying” it, or continue what worked a decade ago without asking whether it is working today.

People change, interests change, new generations bring new yearnings. To be a responsible leader, you must know what those changes are. Moreover, the changes don’t just happen at the trailing edge, but throughout the population. That means trying to reach Millennials will require knowing who Millennials are and what they value and seek. At the same time, Gen X is going through its own changes. So are middle-agers. So are the active elderly and the health-challenged elderly. Every age group is dealing with change, and failing to see those changes means getting out of touch with even your regular constituents.

I am convinced, for example, that churches ought to be putting up affordable housing for seniors. I hold that opinion because I have heard seniors talk about the matter and read studies. With similar data – conversations, focus groups, online articles, studies – I am convinced that churches ought to be launching day schools for at-risk children, starting with preschool (not daycare) and continuing into the elementary grades.

Sometimes you get the best data you can and then do some guessing – being sure to create metrics to test out your guesses and being ready to abandon those that prove wrong. For example, I have been advising churches to stop focusing so much on Sunday morning worship and to allocate resources to midweek and Sunday evening opportunities (perhaps worship, perhaps something else), as well as small groups. But I also advise: don’t just swallow the next magic pill. Ask some potential participants if a Wednesday family-centered activity would be helpful to them. Then measure response, and adjust accordingly.

Finally, don’t single-shot your efforts. The future won’t lie in sardines being replaced by taco shells. You have many shelves to manage, many products to consider, many appetites to anticipate. Running any enterprise is complicated. I remember when Episcopal Church leaders were saying that moving everything to the eucharist would save the church. It didn’t. Things aren’t that simple or easy.

Responsible planners must consider many age groups, many socioeconomic groups, many societal trends, many changing interests, many opinions, many difficult decisions about allocating limited resources. It is folly simply to ask the pastor what he or she feels like doing, or to ask the longtime members what they will support. A history of stocking sardines can’t be allowed to hold a shelf hostage. A chef who is obsessed and stubborn about halibut can be sent packing.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns. His website is Church Wellness – Morning Walk Media

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