February 17, 2021 Tony Morgan

Key Data Trends from 9 Months of Pandemic Ministry – Episode 181 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

The Unstuck Church Report Q4 2020

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What should churches be measuring right now? We refreshed our Vital Signs Assessment to help churches track and monitor both digital and in-person ministry and we found some interesting trends.

Over the last year, we’ve been hearing some of the common themes:

  • “We need help planning for the future.”
  • “How do we regain momentum from pre-COVID days?”
  • “How do we navigate as a multisite church?”
  • “How do we build a hybrid church?”
  • “How to we create a successful digital ministry strategy?”

After all of the disruptions we’ve experienced in the last year, there’s now a sense among church leaders that they need to figure out what the next steps look like. I think churches are realizing we just can’t wait for the end of COVID, whenever that might show up. We need to start taking some of those steps now.

Every quarter, our team releases The Unstuck Church Report to help church leaders monitor what’s happening in their church in areas like ministry reach, connections, staffing, leadership, finances.

We refreshed our Vital Signs Assessment to help churches measure what a healthy hybrid church looks like moving forward, where we’re not only looking at physical gatherings, but also digital ministry. So this particular report is from data that we gathered from November of 2020 through January of 2021 from more than 130 churches.

In this week’s episode, Amy Anderson and I dig into some of the key findings for churches in this season like:

  • Metrics that every church should be tracking
  • Trends in staffing and finances
  • The biggest red flag we see from the data
Measure the things that help you make decisions. #unstuckchurch [episode 181]Click to Tweet Just because your church is financially healthy, doesn't mean you have a healthy church. #unstuckchurch [episode 181]Click To Tweet

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  1. How can we be praying for you as a lead and your church?
  2. What stories can you share of ways churches are responding well during this crisis and focusing on opportunities instead of loss?

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Transcript 

Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Every quarter, The Unstuck Church Report gives church leaders an insight into what’s happening in other churches in areas like ministry reach, connection, staffing, leadership, and finances. Now that we’re nearly a year into the COVID pandemic, we’re beginning to see some new trends in ways that ministry has changed. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy will sort through the data and share some context on what we’re learning from the research. If you want to follow along with The Unstuck Church Report as you listen, visit theunstuckgroup.com/trends and sign up to get The Unstuck Church Report in your email. And while you’re at it, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the podcast show notes if you haven’t yet. You can do that at theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.

Amy (00:57):

Well, Tony, before we dive into today’s conversation, is it just me or have things been a little bit crazy around here in recent weeks?

Tony (01:04):

Yeah. Crazy in a good way. But yeah, just recently we had over 500 people register to participate in our most recent masterclass, which was all about building a hybrid church. That was a lot of fun. But then also we’ve had a number of churches reaching out to us to help really provide some consulting, some coaching for individual churches. In fact, January was a record month for us. We had 18 different ministries that had committed to engaging with The Unstuck Group. And it’s around a variety of topics, but some of the common themes that we’re hearing, we need help planning for the future when the future still seems so uncertain. We’re trying to regain momentum from pre-COVID days. There’s actually been a lot of conversation around multi-site and mergers in this seasons. So, it’s been good to work with churches around that. And then again, hybrid church, digital ministry strategies, primarily there’s been a lot of work around that as well. So, you know, churches are winning in the season but after all of the disruptions we’ve experienced in the last year, they’re feeling this sense of needing to figure out what the next steps look like. And, I think, churches are realizing we just can’t wait for the end of COVID, whenever that might show up, we need to begin taking some of those steps now. And if you’re interested in learning what that would look like for us to work with your team, we would be very interested in that conversation. And so you can reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com/start to begin that conversation.

Amy (02:47):

Well, Tony, that gives us a sense of the trends at The Unstuck Group. But now the focus on today’s conversation is about trends that we’re seeing in churches. And every quarter, our team releases The Unstuck Church Report to help church leaders monitor what’s happening in other churches, in areas like ministry reach, connections, staffing, leadership, finances. And before we go into the specific numbers, Tony, can you just tell us a little bit more about why we offer this resource?

Tony (03:13):

Yeah, so, we started this several years ago, and I think it just grew out of a frustration I was having that too many churches were only looking at two numbers, their attendance numbers and then their giving numbers, and Amy, you know, this to be true, but as we’ve worked with many churches through the years, we have found that there are growing churches that are not very healthy. So, in other words, their attendance is increasing, but the church is not healthy. And likewise, we have found, and actually this is the more common situation, that churches can be financially healthy, but they’re stuck or they’re in decline. In fact, that’s one of the most common factors we would see in a church that has entered the maintenance phase of the church life cycle is they’re actually, it’s one of the most financially healthy seasons of a ministry. And so, you know, as a result of that, I just recognized, I think churches might be helped if we looked at a broader view of what it means to be a healthy church. And because of that, we started capturing data from hundreds of churches around some other key factors, other key metrics. And through that we’ve found there are some interesting trends. And the bigger question, of course currently, it is, it’s related to COVID. And churches are recognizing we can’t measure the same things that we measured pre-COVID to know if our church is healthy today. And so, as a result of that, back in the fall, actually, you helped with this, several others on our team, but we refreshed our vital signs assessment that we use to capture the data from the churches that we’re serving. And then we opened that up to several other churches as well. And a lot of that pivot that we made with the vital signs assessment was recognizing we need to start helping churches measure what a healthy hybrid church looks like moving forward, where we’re not only looking at physical gatherings, but also online strategy. So this particular report, this time around, this is from data that we gathered from November of 2020 through January of 2021. Over 130 churches participated, a number of smaller churches participated in this. And we had several churches of over 10,000 in pre-COVID attendance that participated as well. And, you know, there’s a lot of good news in what the data is showing us. And, let me just say, I’ll call it good opportunities for churches as well.

Amy (05:56):

You know, Tony, I think our listeners, for those who resonated with your comment, we have to measure different things to measure health these days. Are there any new metrics that have come onto the horizon that we’re sensing? I mean, we have 10 months of data, but we’re still gathering it so we can do comparison data again, but any new metrics that every church should be tracking right now?

Tony (06:16):

Yeah, so the obvious one is online engagement. And, there are a number of ways that churches can measure online engagement. The bottom line on this is you need to figure out how you’re going to measure it. And then you just need to use that as your baseline and monitor trends over time. But for the purposes of this work, we are starting to ask for specific information from churches so that we can compare from church to church and over all of the churches that are participating. And there’s some initial data that we can point to now after the first few months. But honestly, it’s going to take a number more months before I think we can start to see the trends so that that information is helpful for the pastors and church leaders that are listening. Some of it though is just kind of doubling down, Amy, on some of the key metrics that we knew were important and distinctive for healthy, thriving churches. And it’s around things that I would say churches have kind of dug in their heels, not wanting to measure. And so, but it’s so critical, like the number of leaders in our ministry. That we have found to be a critical metric to monitor and it’s really one of the most distinctive measures of healthy, thriving churches and those that are stuck and in decline.

Amy (07:41):

And not to interrupt, but you’re talking about volunteer leaders, right? Not just volunteers, not staff leaders, but leaders who are volunteers.

Tony (07:49):

Yeah. And it’s a common question we get, and I kind of don’t understand why, but it is a common question we get, you know, I think, I don’t know who originated this, but, churches started to talk about, well, if you serve, if you volunteer, then you’re a leader because you’re, in a way, influencing other people. And yes, that’s true. I agree with that. But the data we’re looking for is actually people that are leading other people. They’re leading teams, they’re leading groups. So we’ll get into some of the other metrics as we go, Amy, but those are some of the maybe more distinctive things that we’re looking for in this particular season.

Amy (08:25):

Yeah. Just one more add. Tiffany, our marketing director, early on in the pandemic I loved her advice. She said, when it comes to measuring online engagement, she just keeps championing us to say, “Measure things that help you make decisions.” And so as you’re assessing what online things to measure, keep that in mind. All right. Well, as usual, Tony, we don’t have time to talk about everything that’s in this report. But by the way, to our listeners, we’ll make sure we get a link up for the full report in the show notes, but Tony let’s hit some of the key findings from this quarter’s report. Let’s actually start with the data around ministry reach. What would you like to highlight from that section?

Tony (09:02):

Yeah, so some of the key numbers, and I’m sure listeners are going to be interested in, the first regarding in-person attendance. No surprise. Over the last 12 months, there’s been a decline in the in-person attendance. Yeah, no surprise. To be specific, the data showed about a 30% decline year-over-year. Now some of you are probably wondering, you know, we’re back to in person services, and we’re lucky to see a third or maybe a half of our pre-COVID attendance. And actually that’s what I’m hearing most commonly now on this season as well. But when we asked for the data, we asked churches to look back the last 12 months and we compared that to the year before that. And so since this data was collected in November through January, there were actually some pre COVID months included in the data. And that’s why it was a 30% drop rather than a 50 or 60 or 70% drop. So if you want a sense of how are we doing as far as in-person gatherings, look back at your last 12 months, including some of those months before pre-COVID. And that’ll give you a sense of where you’re stacking up. Another, and I would call this a highlight, and I know churches were forced into digital, online engagement, because of the lockdowns early on, and even now because of the restrictions to in-person gatherings, but there was about a five times or online service views actually increased about five times higher than the year before. And so again, I know a lot of that is we didn’t have a choice, but I actually really appreciate how generally churches made this pivot. And because a lot of churches could have just said, you know, we’re going to wait, or, you know, we’re just going to plow through this and try to figure out a way to get together. And then there were a lot of churches that were talking about drive-in services and things like that early on, but for the most part, churches made this pivot to online. And now, you know, we’re seeing online service views have significantly increased. And of course, I think what’s going to be more telling is in the next 12 months, is that number going to come down as people come back to in-services, will it hold steady or will we actually continue to see increasing engagement online? So that that’s what future reports, I think I’m looking forward to, to just see what does online engagement look like in a post-COVID world? On the other side of this topic though, I mean, there’s some highs as far as, I think, reach are concerned when you’re looking at just that online engagement. But these were the biggest red flags I saw in the data from this past quarter. And it has to do with our engagement of new people, our connection with new people. And, the way we asked churches to report this to us is we have them look at all the new names that they have in their database. And we asked them to provide us how many new people were added to your database in the last 12 months. And then again, we compare that to the year before, and there was actually more than a 40% decline in the number of new people connecting to churches in this last year. And I get it. I totally get it because when the pandemic first hit almost every church just said, we need to double down and stay connected to the people that are already a part of our church. We need to stay connected to our congregation. That’s where all the focus went early on, and not many churches were thinking outside the walls of the church during that season. I get it. But now we’re a year into this, and it’s at the point now where we just, we can’t continue to stay focused on our congregations. We need to look more closely at who we’re trying to reach in our mission field. So, what this is, I think, telling though. The average number of new people added for churches over the last 12 months was 7% of their total database. So as an example, if you’re currently tracking a thousand people in your database, the average church added just 70 people, and you can run that ratio against the numbers in your database and the number of new people that connected to see how are we doing, with that in mind. And then as a result of that, it’s no surprise baptisms were down over 50% in the last year. And again, some of that is just because of the logistics of, we couldn’t baptize people for a number of months, but I think a lot of that percentage is actually connected to the fact that we’re just not reaching new people as churches in this season as well.

Amy (14:08):

All right. Thank you. Let’s actually shift to ministry connections now. What trends are we seeing in that area, Tony?

Tony (14:14):

Yeah. Here, this was actually a point of, I think this is just good news. We’re still seeing 59% of adults and students participating in smaller groups in churches. And, you know, in this season that’s been a combination of both in-person gatherings and then a number of online groups still in churches. My mom is still participating in an online Bible study on a weekly basis. So it’s been fun to see churches, you know, leveraging both environments. And that was only a 2% drop off in group engagements through the pandemic. So again, I just think this is good news that we’re seeing people are still staying connected relationally during the season, even if we’re not able to gather for worship services together. On the other hand, what has dropped off significantly is volunteering engagement. And there was, I guess, about a 20% drop off in the number of volunteers in churches in the last year. It it’s obvious why that has happened, but what we have seen is some churches are still looking for ways to stay connected with volunteers, to mobilize them. I know my wife is still participating in on her volunteer team through this. A lot of that is happening online. Some of it is happening in person. But there are still ways that we can be keeping our volunteers engaged in this season. And I think that’s so critical because that’s where, again, relational connection is happening. And my fear is if we’re just relying on people to either come to a service on Sunday or watch a service online, that’s not going to be enough to actually keep them connected to our churches. And that’s where group connections are so important and volunteer service is so important, Amy.

Amy (16:17):

Yeah. It’s where they find that ownership. And I just speculate, Tony. I’m not a futurist, you know that, but I just wonder how volunteering will change in the months to come as we really seek to find ways for people in the body to use their gifts for kingdom work. I’ve seen a lot more community engagement. And as we’ve talked about in the past, we’re starting to count when people serve in their communities and get out. So it’ll be interesting to see where that trends. What about the volunteer leadership? Any changes there?

Tony (16:45):

Yeah. So we talked about this a moment ago, but it has actually surprised me. And maybe it shouldn’t that through the years when we’ve looked at factors that distinguish thriving, healthy churches and churches that are in decline, it’s actually been mobilizing volunteers in leadership capacities that has been one of the most defining characteristics of healthy, thriving churches. And it makes sense, both because, I think, churches that are doing this well are leveraging the giftedness of people in their church. And when, especially when that giftedness is leadership, it multiplies the impact that the church has having. But the other thing is when you have more volunteer leaders, you have smaller span of care in your church. And in other words, you have more people caring for smaller groups of people. And that’s a good thing as well, I think, for the overall health of the church. And so what we saw in the most recent data is churches, on average, had one volunteer leader for every 12 people in in-person attendance. And if we were to add online, people viewing online, it would actually be one volunteer leader for every 24 people. So that, by the way, is on the high end from what we’ve seen in the past. I mean, what we’ve seen in the past rather than one to 24, like I just mentioned, it would be closer to one to 10 is what we would see in healthy, thriving church.

Amy (18:20):

All right. Well, let’s shift gears. Again, there are many more trends in the full report, which is available for free, but let’s wrap up today’s conversation talking about the financial trends. So what are the key findings in that area, Tony?

Tony (18:32):

Yeah. Amy, I think there’s good news here. In fact, you know, I was just concerned for churches and the financial impact of the pandemic last spring, but overall, this is very positive. The data is showing that actually there was an uptick in giving in this last year for churches, an increase of about 1.2%, while at the same time, the number of giving units was down close to 10%. And so I think what this tells us, obviously, is the people that were a part of our church before COVID are demonstrating that they’re really a part of our churches now. And there’s some generous folks that have really increased their giving during the pandemic, which has allowed for that overall increase in giving for the church. So that’s encouraging. With that, it’s been interesting to monitor churches, just the amount of cash that they have in reserves. Back before, I looked back at the data. Back before the pandemic hit a year ago, on average churches had about 15 weeks of cash in the bank. And, you know, that’s about what we would expect churches to have, you know, two to three months of cash reserves on hand. That number actually increased though over the last year, and now churches are reporting 22 weeks of cash in the bank. Honestly, I think that’s a little high because stepping back and looking at the mission God’s called us to, I really think we need to be leveraging those financial resources to carry out that mission. And so this is the time for churches to be thinking about our intentional investment strategy. And you know, now that we have an appropriate amount of cash in the bank, how do we invest in our community partners? How do we invest in extending the vision God’s given our church? This is the time to be thinking about having an increasing kingdom impact with those cash reserves.

Amy (20:39):

Can I add invest in your digital strategy?

Tony (20:42):

Absolutely, I mean, that should be a part of the extended vision that every church is looking at right now in this season. You know, Amy, on the flip side of this. This was a surprise. And I don’t know, again, I probably shouldn’t be surprised because this was the trend even coming into the last year. Staffing, as a percentage of the overall budget, continues to go up. And now it’s at about 63% of the overall budget. And in the average church, as you know, Amy, we recommend that churches stay between 45 and 55% of their overall budget. And so, the challenge here is oftentimes what we see in churches is there tends to be a lag between the decline in attendance that they experience and then the decline in giving that they experience. And then the adjustments that they finally make related to staffing budgets. And so churches tend to be slow making staffing adjustments after attendance starts to flatten or decline. And when that happens, a few months, that may be a blip on the radar. But if that extends beyond a few months, that’s a trend that you need to pay attention to. And then you need to adjust accordingly with your staffing dollars. And what commonly that may mean is not only a pruning that needs to happen, but also kind of a repositioning of those staff dollars so that we’re starting to tackle the reasons why we’re experiencing that decline as a church. And as you just hinted earlier, part of that reallocation in this season may be shifting from staffing for physical ministry environments to shifting dollars to our digital ministry environments instead.

Amy (22:37):

Yep. And we just talked about this in the masterclass a few weeks ago, but as you look at shifting dollars to digital strategy, we have to shift ministry to volunteer leaders. So just, it comes back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago. We’ve got to continuously learn how to find those leaders and give ministry away where we can, because digital is going to demand some people with some pretty specialty driven skills as we learn this new muscle in the church. All right. Well, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (23:08):

Yeah. I hope some of you, I hope many of you, actually download the free report. And again, we’ll include the link in the show notes, but some of you may be wanting to actually participate in this assessment going forward. It’s the vital signs assessment. It’s actually included in our coaching toolkit subscription. And so if you want to participate in that, you can go to theunstuckgroup.com/coaching. But like I said, all of this summary data, it’s included in The Unstuck Church Report. We put that report out every quarter. It’s free for anybody to have. I hope you and your team find that to be a useful resource for you to consider. What was the line from Tiffany? What do we measure?

Amy (23:53):

Measure things that help you make decisions.

Tony (23:55):

And we want to help you make better decisions. So if you would like to subscribe to that free quarterly report, you can do that at theunstuckgroup.com/subscribe.

Sean (24:04):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, we’re working every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision strategy and action. If that’s a need in your church, we’d love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast and it’s been helpful for you, we would love your help in getting the content out farther. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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