HOUSTON – Church leaders don’t need to develop new ways of doing church, Albert Winseman told participants in a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-sponsored Leadership Institute July 1: their challenge is in learning how to be the church.
Winseman, who consults with faith-based organizations for the Gallup Organization and is the author of Growing an Engaged Church, said churches tend to use easily measured yardsticks like attendance, membership and giving as indicators of success. It’s more difficult, but more relevant, to measure specific outcomes of spiritual health, he said. Such outcomes include one’s life satisfaction, service to the community, interest in inviting others to church, and the percentage of income contributed.
Church leaders tend to focus on increasing spiritual commitment, Winseman said, following conventional wisdom that increased commitment will lead to increased engagement. Basing its judgment on responses to nine questions relative to spiritual behaviors and attitudes, Gallup found that just five percent of all Americans and 19 percent of church members are “fully spiritually committed.”
Instead of promoting spiritual commitment in hopes of increasing engagement, churches should focus on engagement first, he said. “If you work on increasing engagement, spiritual commitment follows: belonging leads to believing.”
Engagement is not the same thing as involvement, Winseman cautioned. Involvement measures what people do in their congregations, while engagement measures how they feel about it. Thus, it’s possible to be very involved without really being engaged, or emotionally committed, to the church. It’s also possible to highly engaged without being constantly involved.
Winseman described four measures of member engagement. “What do I get?” is not just a selfish question, he said, but a serious one. People have deep spiritual needs and look for a church where those needs are met. “What do I give?” includes more than financial contributions, Winseman said. It concerns whether church members are given regular opportunities to do what they do best, receive appropriate and timely recognition for their efforts, believe church leaders truly care about them, and receive encouragement to continue developing spiritually.
Church members also want a sense of belonging in church, Winseman said. They want to feel that they are part of a family, that their opinion counts, and that church members are mutually committed to each other’s spiritual growth. Having a “best friend” in church contributes to the sense of belonging, he said.
Engaged members want to grow, and engaging churches intentionally promote growth by talking about it, Winseman said. Engaged members believe they have opportunities to learn and grow within their congregation.
Winseman suggested three strategies by which churches can promote increased engagement: clarifying expectations, creating a culture of affirmation, and focusing on followers’ deepest spiritual needs.
People like knowing what is expected of them, Winseman said, but many churches are unfocused in that area. If only 34 percent of a church’s members say they know what’s expected of them, he said, their congregation would be in the top 25 percent.
Expectations should be simple, memorable, and specific, Winseman said, citing a church that promotes five expectations: “worship, grow, serve, give, connect.” The expectations, along with a clarifying sentence for each, are listed in the weekly bulletin.
The struggles that nominating committees have in filling slots is familiar, but Winseman cited another church that emphasized the importance of each position by listing “job postings” and encouraging members to “apply” for up to three positions. In response, the church had more applicants than positions.
A culture of affirmation involves more than just periodic recognition of individuals from the pulpit, Winseman said. Effective affirmation gives regular feedback to participants in a way that is meaningful to them, and that comes from all directions, not just top-down.
Over a three-year period, the Gallup Organization asked 10,000 people to name leaders who had influenced them, and to list three words that describe them. When the descriptive terms were compiled, the four words cited most often were trust, compassion, stability, and hope.
Those words hit at the essence of what church members need from their leaders, Winseman said. People are willing to follow leaders whom they believe to be honest, who care about them, who foster a sense of security, and who give them hope for a brighter future.
Thus, Winseman concluded, church leaders who challenge themselves to grow in those areas will more effective in building congregations of people who are not just involved, but engaged and on the road to deeper spiritual commitment.