Q&A: Healthy Congregations, Part II

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

Q: At what point do new congregation members ask themselves, "How do I help meet the needs of others in their spiritual commitment?" Is there a sequence of concerns they tend to address?

A: Yes. There is a progression, and it is almost identical to the one Gallup sees in other types of organizations. "What do I get?" is one the first questions new members of a congregation tend to ask. This question deals with the fundamental reason people belong to a congregation: to meet a deep inner need to be a part of something bigger. So naturally, a new member is going to determine whether the congregation can meet that need. It's not a consumerist mentality, although it's tempting to try to see it that way. It is crucial to note that if people's basic needs to understand what's expected of them as a member of the organization and to find spiritual fulfillment aren't met by their new congregation, then the chances are good that they will start looking for another one.

Once the "What do I get?" questions are answered positively, members then look to see whether they can make a meaningful contribution -- the question becomes "What can I give?" This speaks to another deep-rooted human desire: to make a difference. Members want to know not only that they themselves are valued, but that what they can contribute is valued as well.

From "What can I give?", members move to the "Do I belong?" stage. The desire to belong to a group of people with common goals is another fundamental human need that congregations should address. Effective congregations are not those in which all of the members act, think and look alike; rather, they are diverse in membership and unified in purpose.

The final stage of engagement is "How can we grow?" After deciding that the congregation offers potential benefits, that they can make a meaningful contribution, and that they do indeed belong, members look for opportunities to stretch their faith and grow. But they are not looking to grow alone -- they want to know that "all of us" are growing together.

Wise congregation leaders pay attention to all four areas of engagement, knowing that each one builds upon the next.

Albert L. Winseman teaches groups of religious professionals about Gallup's research on engagement among religious congregations. Future Tuesday Briefing articles will go into more detail and look at the indicators that make up each level of engagement. To read the first article in the question-and-answer series, see Q & A: Congregational Engagement.

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