Leaders should keep track of what matters most: their congregations

Stephen Macchia

Dr. Stephen A. Macchia, a contributing writer to Church Executive, is founder and president of Leadership Transformations Inc., Lexington, MA [LeadershipTransformations.org] and is the author of five books on church assessment and leadership.

For 14 years he was president of Vision New England, where through servant leadership, spiritual formation, team building and networking the results were a growing prayer movement and healthy inter-church cooperation in the region. He serves as a member on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.

When we were in elementary school our teachers were always conscious of our whereabouts and our presence. When we went to high school, our cumulative grade point average mattered for graduation, college and any post-grad studies. As adults, we keep track of our vocations, our families, our portfolios and our possessions. As church leaders, we monitor our finances, facilities, programs and schedules. But what about our most important commodity: our people? How well are you keeping an eye on the flock under your care?

As it just so happened, over the past several months I have only been home on Sunday to attend our local church a handful of times. I’ve either been out of state teaching doctoral students, leading weekend retreats, attending conferences, traveling on an international missions trip, or preaching in another location.  I’m not a church drop-out, faith flunky or disillusioned soul; I just haven’t been in our church much this past season.

With the exception of a few dear friends, no one else seemed to notice my sporadic attendance. Because we go to a large church, there simply are no structures in place that would register whether I’m present or absent. With so many others filling the pews each week, I can come and go as I please. The reality of anonymity in a larger than normal church has made me wonder whether or not it’s good, and what (if anything) should be done about it.

When people mattered

It used to be that as the church was growing we actually did take attendance. Each person and family who was present in those early years mattered quite a bit. We had the registration pads in the pew rack that we filled out and passed down the row each week. The ushers collected them after each service and piled them up for the volunteer and staff secretarial team to attend to the following week.

Each Monday morning several hours were taken keeping track of who was present the previous Sunday morning for worship. Using a massive Rolodex, the named card was removed, the date was stamped, and the card was placed back in alphabetical order. When a new name on the registration pad was discovered, it was almost as if bells were rung in celebration. A new card was created for that visitor or new member and the Rolodex continued to grow.

Around the table was healthy chatter about who was in the hospital, who lost a loved one, who got a new job, or who had a relative in town. Not gossip, but truly caring conversations about how the church family was doing week by week. When it was noticed that a certain person or family hadn’t been seen for a while, a call or visit was made, a note was sent, or a meal was delivered.

As the church outgrew the sanctuary and moved next door to the new one, it was hard to keep track of everyone like we used to be able to do so easily. This was one of the growth pangs. We hired a caring and fellowship pastor who was the best gift our church had seen in ages.

The caring pastor and his assistant started to figure out creative ways to track attendance and keep their eye on the personal needs of the members and regular attendees who made up our congregation. A daily telephone prayer line was updated for greater efficiency in communicating births, deaths, sickness, military service, church program requests, missionaries and many other concerns. It was staggering to calculate how many would call in for the daily devotional thought and an update on prayer needs.

Reaching out

Each Sunday included prayer for anyone requesting it after each service, teaching the congregation how to reach out to people in need, and the new role of Shepherding Elders was established. These elders conducted weekly calls to their entire shepherding groups and they hosted social gatherings each quarter. The congregation felt cared for on a personal basis.

However, the weekly registration pads in the pew began to disappear as the new shepherding system provided a more personal touch. The caring and fellowship ministry seemed to have worked and lasted several years. But as most programs go, this one also got tired and the generation of the really good shepherds was not readily replaced by the new crop recruited behind them.

We certainly don’t take attendance anymore. People can come and go as they please and no one seems to take notice. The numbers seem to hold their own, but since so many are transient in their traveling from church to church, or sporadic in their attendance, it evokes the question, “What, if anything, can we do about keeping track of our people?”

Is record keeping ancient history?

The weekly attendance record keeping systems are ancient history. Instead, many larger churches count overall attendance numbers each week and tabulate total financial response in the offering plate. They keep good records on who’s coming to children’s Sunday school. But who keeps track of the general adult congregation week after week especially if they aren’t enrolled in a formal class or program?

Another church that I worked with several years ago painstakingly sat down with their leadership team of staff and elders each quarter and reviewed the entire list of names on their church roster.

Next to each name was placed a green dot (as far as we know all is well), a yellow dot (we’re aware of a few issues but they are stable), a red dot (there’s a crisis in this household), or a white dot (we haven’t a clue who these people are or what their life situation today is like).

For years this church kept up this system, until the numbers were too overwhelming and the passion for maintaining personal contact with each family subsided. Today there is no system in place. The attendance is no longer being taken and people are coming and going unbeknownst to the leadership. The church subsequently hit a plateau and no growth has been experienced in several years.

Reach the current generation

In an age of anonymity, a healthy church keeps track of their members and friends. Especially if the church is going to reach this generation and the next who are crying out to be known and loved in authentic, life-giving and  transformative ways.

In addition to the programs that minister to the masses, our intentional focus needs to be on knowing people by name and serving them with joy. It may not be a formal attendance taking system, but certainly each church should consider the impact.

It may come by way of an elder process that keeps in touch with all the families on the roster on a regular basis. It may come via small groups or life community fellowships. However it is fulfilled, one can be sure that the vitality of any congregation will be proportional to the personal care of her people.

If all you’re doing is considering the needs of your flock in generalities or overall statistics you may be missing out on ministry like you’ve never experienced before. Don’t lose the vision or passionate joy of serving others in life transforming ways. Instead, attend to what you value most: your people.


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