A "Pat on the Back" Goes a Long Way

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

"No news is good news" seems to be a prevailing management tenet in many workplaces, as well as many congregations -- members only get feedback from their congregation leaders when they do something wrong. This is a costly mistake that leaders of faith communities make all too frequently.

According to Gallup research*, 40% of members of American congregations "strongly agree" with the statement, "In the last month, I have received recognition or praise from someone in my congregation," while 17% "strongly disagree" with this statement. The positive responses may outweigh the negative, but of the 12 items in Gallup's congregational engagement survey, only one other item receives such a low "strongly agree" percentage or such a high "strongly disagree" percentage. This highlights an area of serious concern for U.S. faith communities: many members are not receiving the praise and recognition -- from faith community leaders, and from fellow members -- that they need in order to be fully engaged with the purpose and activities of their congregations.

Further data analysis reveals just how important recognition and praise are to the spiritual health of a congregation. As reported last week (see "Don't Forget to Follow Up" in Related Items), Gallup researchers looked at the percentage of members who "strongly agree" with each of the 12 congregational engagement items, and then divided each of these groups into "engaged," "not engaged," and "actively disengaged" members. Sixty percent of members who strongly agree with the "recognition" item are engaged in their congregations -- the second-highest percentage of the 12 items. Only 2% of those who strongly agree with this item are actively disengaged.

Digging Deeper

Here are a few questions I commonly hear when discussing the role of recognition in faith communities:

  • Why is there such variance in the responses? The presence of "split camps" (a relatively high percentage of both "strongly agree" and "strongly disagree" responses) indicates that while many people do feel that they are recognized, there may be a sizable group within most congregations that feels "out of the loop" or unappreciated. People want to know that they matter, that they are valued. Nearly one-fifth of congregations are not fulfilling this need for members.
  • Does praise lead to engagement, or does being engaged make one more receptive to praise? The answer may be a little bit of both. When individuals feel valued (thereby getting a basic need fulfilled), they are more likely to become engaged with the organizations or people who value them. Likewise, leaders are more likely to notice and recognize the contributions of those who are engaged, because the engaged members are the ones who are more often around to be noticed. The key is to create a climate of recognition in which all members -- whether presently engaged, not engaged, or actively disengaged -- feel welcome to make a significant contribution to the life of the faith community, and know that their contribution will be appreciated.
  • In a faith community, shouldn't people be willing to serve without getting recognition or praise for what they do? In most cases, members don't serve their congregations because they want recognition. However, they do want and need feedback. Recognizing individuals for what they do to further the mission of their congregation gives them confirmation that what they are doing is truly making a difference.

Bottom Line

The process of creating an atmosphere in which people are praised for the contributions they make starts with leaders. Faith community leaders who are authentic, honest, and openly recognize the accomplishments of those they lead will go far toward establishing a culture in which giving and receiving praise is a constant process among all members, and in turn toward building a powerfully effective congregation.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 non-members, conducted in November and December 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6%.

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