Capacity

Anyone who has ever worked with a college or university knows the importance of determining capacity. It is a key measure of accreditation reviews. But how often and in what ways do local faith communities think about capacity? Capacity is often an important factor in determining the success of a congregation’s vision.

More often than not, a local congregation looks at capacity primarily in terms of financial resources. Can we afford this project? Where can we find the money to support this? Will we need to raise more money or can we take it from somewhere else? There is no doubt that financial capacity is important. 

Sometimes when a congregation asks the question about capacity they focus on physical space. Do we have space for a new program? Will we need to stop an existing program to make room for the new? What will be the impact on facility maintenance? 

Other times when a congregation asks the question about capacity it relates mostly to the church staff. Does the pastor have time for this new mission focus? Can our music staff support a second worship service? Who will handle the scheduling of the new events? 

These financial, facility and staff questions are important for the visioning process.

But in my experience few congregations focus on one of the most important aspects of the congregational capacity question. Do the members and related volunteers have the capacity to fulfill the new vision? This an important question no matter how small or large the congregation is.  Larger congregations might have a reservoir of untapped potential in people only modestly committed or connected. These individuals can be energized by a new vision that catches their passions. But smaller congregations have more of a challenge. It is an unfair fact that the congregations who are in real need of both human and financial capacity often have less of it. 

Although any size congregation can benefit from a few ways to expand an understanding of capacity, smaller congregations can really benefit in achieving their vision by improving their capacity in the following ways:

    •reduce time spent on organizational structure,

    •multi-task by working on more than one element of the vision at a time,

•expand the pool of volunteers by looking beyond members to include other supporters and  constituents, and

•look for other organizations with whom you can partner.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these.  Many congregations find most of the volunteer energy goes into committees or familiar organizational tasks. Though there is likely much of importance there, most congregations are over-organized for their maintenance and under-organized for their mission and vision. Addressing this imbalance is a good first step. 

Most vision plans have overlapping elements. If the congregation seeks an increase in spiritually oriented programs and desires to draw new folks, work on these together since there is a synergy there. Review each element of the vision plan in order to find the places of convergence.

Almost every congregation has a constellation of folks who might use the facilities, participate in mission projects, and attend special services, etc. who are not called “members.” But sometimes folks in this constellation can be helpful in implementing aspects of the vision plan.  Expand the definition of member.

Finally, congregations do not have to accomplish a vision alone. After all, a good vision plan reaches out into the community. Find partners in the community who might both benefit and help. Perhaps a local nursery or landscape company would be interested in helping with community vegetable gardens to support those on low incomes. Perhaps a childcare center would be interested sharing in programs on parenting and family needs. Where two or three organizations gather together a vision plan can be improved.

Clearly this is a brief and incomplete review of the question of congregational capacity. But hopefully this offers a few places to begin as your vision planning team spends time exploring your congregational capacity.


Join Carol Howard Merritt and Rev. Stephen Sterner for this month's CPR Connects Chat for more on this topic! Tuesday, January 24 at noon EST. Click here to RSVP.


Rev. Stephen Sterner has Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Lancaster Theological Seminary. He has been an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ for 43 years, serving in new and historic churches across the US. In 2008, he became Executive Minister for Local Church Ministries of the UCC, where he advocated for local UCC congregations, was a member of a task force that developed a new governance structure for the UCC National Setting, and was a member of the UCC Council for Higher & Theological Education. He is also a former Pacific School of Religion trustee, former Acting President of PSR, and has also served as the Interim Conference Minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC. Beyond his experience as a pastor and UCC national executive, he also has experience in developing sustainable endowments, and building partnerships with communities and organizations. Rev. Sterner currently serves on the Board of the Center for Progressive Renewal.

"I believe leaders today are called not to resist change or simply name it, but rather to help organizations sort out the necessary changes to enhance their vision and mission for the future."