The Five Traits of Healthy Congregations4 min read

In my role as CEO of Church Extension Fund, I have the pleasure of rejoicing with congregations when buildings are dedicated or mortgages burned, and the tough job of sitting with congregational leadership teams to understand why financial obligations are not being met and questioning whether a congregation can continue to exist. It’s a humbling role that I take very seriously. In 2019, I recorded 33 personal visits to congregations—mostly of the positive nature. While I do not claim to be an expert, these visits give me some unique perspectives on hallmarks of healthy congregations. So here are my 5 traits that I have observed of healthy congregations in Michigan.

Healthy Churches …

1. Engage in their community

Robust community engagement is the norm for churches that report growth and financial stability. This involvement can take many forms but often involves activities that take the members away from the familiarity of the church building. Kid’s events, senior ministries, food banks, lecture series, and just about any event that connects the church to its neighbors, and makes the church and its members an essential element of the community. Ask yourself, “Would your community notice it if the church was suddenly gone?” Engaged churches would be missed!

2. Foster meaningful fellowship within

This observation may sound controversial for those working to engage the community outside the church, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Healthy churches manage both—engagement outside of the four walls, while promoting friendly and meaningful fellowship within. Visitors can sense a church’s level of fellowship. And the place they want to call home is a place where members become the friends who enjoy seeing each other beyond just one hour each Sunday.

3. Demonstrate leadership by both pastor and laity

Trust, engagement, and leadership from both pastor and laity are essential for healthy churches. When I am asked to attend a leadership meeting and the pastor is left out, or if the pastor who is trying to do everything without his lay leaders wants to meet, I usually know what kind of meeting I am heading into. Each have defined roles which must be respected. As with any partnership, if one side believes the other side is not working toward the common goals, progress is thwarted. Disagreements will sometimes happen—but the key is how those are handled. And no matter how hard leadership tries to hide it, the members know when that trust does not exist. Pastors need to listen to the wisdom of the lay leaders. Lay leaders need to be open to new ideas that pastors bring to the table and not undermine those efforts.

4. Operate in fiscally responsible manner

Fiscally responsible churches ask their members for an annual pledge or commitment, create and follow an annual budget, report results, avoid deficit spending and don’t defer maintenance. Here is a good question to keep in mind: “Why would members of a church run its finances any differently than their own household?” As with any relationship, money issues are often at the root of discontent in a congregation. Healthy congregations stay healthy by being proactive and addressing shortfalls or unexpected expenses promptly and in a levelheaded way—before panic or financial emergencies occur.

5. Use electronic giving

This is not CEF marketing. Electronic giving really does work! The 2020 coronavirus pandemic proved it better than any testimonial. Churches that used CEF’s Excel In Giving product (or another electronic giving platform) were several steps ahead of the rest when the church doors were unexpectedly closed. Also, think of how younger generations manage their money. Members under 40 rarely write checks or carry cash. So what do you expect they are going to put in a collection plate on Sunday? Electronic giving allows younger members to give in a familiar way—by using credit/debit cards or texting a gift from an iPhone. It further allows the more mature generations to stay current on their tithe when vacationing or when services are canceled due to inclement weather.

These are largely non-biblical observations. Jesus must be the focal point for any church to be truly healthy. But I do believe that these practices will only help Jesus’s Word and love reach others.

Photo (c) Nicolas Castro/Lightstock



About the Author

Jim R. Saalfeld is the Chief Executive Officer of the Michigan District Church Extension Fund.

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