In 2005, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC), its leading body, approved “creating and sustaining healthy congregations” as a denominational priority for the following 10 years. The decision’s rationale, in part, was that achieving the long-term goal of transforming lives and communities worldwide was highly unlikely if local congregations were not healthy. Also undergirding this decision was a general concern that the health of a growing number of congregations was in question. Without congregational vitality, denominational vitality wanes.
With this ministry priority in place, denominational leaders took bold steps to identify the essential characteristics of a healthy church and how to effectively assist congregations to become healthier.
What is a healthy church and how to assess it?
Guided by biblical inquiry, denomination leaders identified 11 categories of congregational health and developed a set of defining characteristics for each one. The chosen 11 categories of church health are: centrality of the Word of God, mission and vision, kingdom extension, loving relationships, authentic spirituality, transforming worship, servant leadership, generous stewardship, intentional disciple making, justice and righteousness, children and youth ministry. Though not exhaustive, the list is comprehensive. Though some might wish to prioritize among these areas of health, perhaps arguing, for example, that at the heart of every healthy congregation is the calling to make disciples in obedience to the Great Commission, a church desiring to become healthier should strive to be healthy in all areas.
With the areas of health for a congregation identified and defined, the next step was to figure out how to use them. It was decided to design an instrument for assessing the health of congregations. After reviewing several instruments currently in use, an ad hoc team recommended modeling an instrument after a survey developed and used by the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). This survey covered several but not all of the health areas desired. The challenge was clear: to design a survey that would assess the level of health of a congregation in all 11 areas.
Using their own category definitions, the ad hoc team crafted multiple statements that survey respondents could answer using the following five point scale: definitely untrue, hardly true, somewhat true, mostly true, definitely true. Use of a sixth response, unsure, would allow respondents to reply who could not reply using any of the answers in the five point scale. Two sets of statements were crafted for each area of health. The first set was to be answered from the point of view of how the respondent perceived his or her church; the second set from the point of view of how the respondent perceived himself or herself (the first set we refer to as church-rating items and the second set as self-rating items). While the bulk of the survey content is made up of these two sets of statements, there are also some demographic questions and a question allowing respondents to indicate how they perceived the general overall health of their church currently and five years prior. This assessment tool is called the Healthy Church Survey for which the CRC holds the copyright (a copy of the survey can be obtained by request from the authors).
The healthy church strategic planning process
Asked to serve as the team that would further develop what has become labeled Healthy Church, we, the three authors of this article, began designing a strategic planning process that churches could use.
The planning process begins when a church contracts with a certified coach to implement Healthy Church. We are convinced that coaching is key to successful implementation of Healthy Church. The appointed coach provides orientation to the appointed church health planning team and, with this team, oversees the entire process. A separate prayer team is also needed. The entire period of data gathering and review is conducted within a planned context of prayer and discernment involving the entire congregation, which may include a focused time of preparation for the discernment process that will take place.
Early in the process, overseen by the planning team and coach, the congregation is surveyed using the Healthy Church Survey. The survey is administered entirely online. Five different reports are prepared by a research center and returned to the planning team for review. In addition, the planning team gathers information from the church’s own records, such as trends in membership growth, new members, etc., as well as information about the church’s community.
The planning team is first to review the survey results and other data gathered. Next the planning team together with council/consistory/board reviews the same information. At each step, review of information is accomplished through the prism of three key topics—(1) strengths to celebrate, (2) challenges to consider, and (3) what may God be calling our church to do?—and summary reports are prepared and included in the review process. The same three-topic prism is used with an assembly of the congregation to review the survey results. We call this step the Congregational Conversation. Everyone from teenagers to the elderly is invited to attend this special event. The event participants are given the opportunity to review and discuss in small groups the survey results conveyed in easy-to-understand graphical form. In this way, how a congregation sees its own level of health becomes validated. In addition, church leadership has a rich set of observations and opinions as input into the next step of the process: crafting a ministry plan for the church.
Recorded input from the Congregational Conversation and all summary reports become input for a leadership retreat, organized by the planning team. At the retreat, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis is used to tease out priorities and identify action steps. Results of the retreat are used by the planning team to formulate a ministry plan. The ministry plan deals with the following and perhaps other questions:
- Why are we here?
- Who are we?
- Where has God placed us?
- Who do we or will we serve?
- Where do we believe God wants us to go?
- How will we get there?
- How will we measure progress?
At this step in the process, the ministry plan is presented to the council/consistory/board for approval and eventual implementation over the next three to five years. Consideration is given to whether extension of the coach’s services is necessary for advising the implementation of the ministry plan.
In 2010, Healthy Church was pilot tested in 10 churches, five in the United States and five in Canada. A thorough evaluation was completed and approval was granted to begin making Healthy Church available to congregations of the CRC. As part of the pilot testing, the survey was evaluated and revised. Five churches are now under contract with a coach and at some step in the implementation of Healthy Church.
This past May, several persons were trained in a two-day event to serve as Healthy Church coaches. Forming triads of coaches is in its early stages. These units will be used for the ongoing training of new coaches and continuing education of active Healthy Church coaches.
While Healthy Church has not been actively promoted, our work so far with a few churches has drawn interest from other churches in the CRC. We will contract with more churches to the extent of the availability of trained and certified coaches. If you wish to know more about Healthy Church, we suggest you check out this website, www.crcna.org/pages/healthy_church.cfm.
Stan Koster is a retired educator who serves as a church coach and consultant for the Christian Reformed Church, also presently serving as the Great Lakes Region coaching coordinator for CRC Home Missions.
Rodger Rice, retired from Calvin College as professor of sociology and director of the center for social research, currently works as a church stewardship education consultant for Barnabas Foundation and Healthy Church consultant for the Christian Reformed Church.
Jack Tacoma heads up the Western Canada Regional Resource Team (a group of church coaches) for CRC Home Missions. He is also a leadership consultant and a lay preacher.is also a leadership consultant and a lay preacher.