booksThese days our congregational leaders are more empowered than ever. With more complex and specific information on the internet, members have a lot of resources, whether Biblical interpretations, mission statements, professional pay scales and guidelines for growth. They can compare the websites of different denominations and ministers, and read thousands of sermons. Our lay leaders want to bring their professional skills to help their congregations. They know that in this consumer culture, we want to understand what attracts and motivates members, where we fall short, and why people leave. And with tools like survey monkey online, it is easy for committees to develop a questionnaire that will let members express their opinions.

Don’t let them.

Newton’s Third law of Physics states that “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” That is usually true of surveys. Even mature leaders rarely foresee the effects that subtleties of wording and the juxtaposition of themes can have on our feelings. They don’t spend the time discussing the varying responses they may engender or even the validity of the findings. But the very act of doing a survey sends a message to the congregation that is as unsettling as it is disruptive.

Few things are more dangerous to a ministry than to encourage complaints, no matter how they are worded. Most of us believe that progress is a matter of discovering what is wrong in order to fix it. But this kind of focus recalls old injuries and conflicts, breeds dissatisfaction and empowers detractors. It often widens the conflict that the survey is meant to address.

Whether the survey is generated by the Worship Committee, Membership, or the Stewardship team, inevitably the reactions will focus on the minister. From the quality and style of worship, issues of friendliness and connection, the amount of pledging (especially from the big donors), all the areas of member satisfaction are embodied in the symbol of the clergy. The buck – and the blame – stops here.

Ministers aren’t immune. Surveys are a particular temptation when the congregation is working through an issue or a time of transition. But Susan Nienaber warns:
“If you are a congregational leader, don’t create a survey or send out a questionnaire to the congregation. I’m not saying that this is never appropriate but, generally, it is not helpful to survey a congregation in distress. It is helpful to get information but most surveys are problematic in my experience. Here’s why: First, congregations in distress often don’t ask the right questions. For example, a question like, ‘Are you going to leave the church if . . . happens?’ is a really problematic question and will likely make things much worse. Second, surveys build expectations in members who fill them out and leaders are often not equipped to meet those expectations. Third, it is easy to get into disagreements about the outcomes of surveys – what does the information mean and how should we respond to the information? Fourth, it is easy to get bogged down with too much detailed information. Fifth, it can be difficult to figure out how to appropriately get information back to the congregation. If you must use a survey, better to spend the money on a well-researched tool like the US Congregational Life Survey than to risk creating your own.” [from “What not to do in Turbulent Times” at

What should we do? At the very least, we should create policies that curtail their use. No committee or team should be allowed to generate a survey. Only the Trustees or Executive Team should be authorized to instigate them after serious discussion. Particular care must be taken in wording and themes to make sure they are positive and purposeful. We should work with our denominational experts and resources before turning to the tools available online.

Better yet, the congregation should engage in a more personal process such as Appreciative Inquiry, which builds on the congregation’s strengths and achievements. You can find more information in my blog of February 18th, 2011 and there are numerous resources available online. There are trained experts who can help congregations at all levels of the process, priced accordingly.

Whatever you do, make sure you’re involved. Otherwise you could be creating a monster that will wreak chaos and pain on you and your congregation. Let the buyer beware!

About Rev. Alison Hyder

My name is Rev. Alison Hyder and I am a Unitarian Universalist parish minister from Baltimore, MD. I am a professional Clergy Coach, with degrees in divinity and social work. I specializing in parish issues, helping ministers and rabbis determine their goals in areas like pastoral counseling, congregational relationships, worship, administration, and social outreach, and then develop practical steps for improving their skills and achieving their vision. I find that a fulfilling ministry is often the cure to spiritual malaise. The more confident we feel about our abilities, the better our relationships with other people, and the closer we feel to God. I also find spiritual sustenence in music and painting. I am a sometime artist, performer and handyman. Please visit my site at
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