Why I Am Skeptical of Church Surveys

Have you participated in a church survey? It seems quite innocent. The leaders are interested in your personal feedback. You think, "Our leaders are looking out for our best interests." Godly shepherds of the flock are taking their responsibilities seriously. You feel heartened as you open the survey and start to check the boxes and give additional comments. You want to be an engaged member of your church.

As you read through the survey, you start to notice a theme. You notice a few questions and requests for feedback related to the pastor and staff. They are creatively dispersed throughout:

How would you rate the preaching in our church?

Would you feel comfortable inviting a visitor to the church worship services?

Do you feel you are being adequately fed from Sunday to Sunday?

The survey starts to feel like a way to "smoke out" issues that are attached to a broader narrative. Beneath the thin layer of questions could possibly lurk another agenda. The survey might feel as if it is being employed to provide feedback on any number of problems in the church. The survey functions like a 360 evaluation with the critics maintaining their anonymity and immunity for what feedback they provide. This can prove deadly, particularly if the problems are aimed at the church staff.

If you are going to conduct a survey of your church members, here are a few suggestions that I would encourage the leadership to consider:

  1. Do not allow surveys which permit critical comments to be submitted anonymously.
  2. If you are a volunteer leader, don't allow the survey to keep you from the hard work of candid conversations that you should be having with the hired staff. I would strongly urge churches to have regular reviews of staff that are both honest and encouraging.
  3. Seek advice from seasoned churches/skilled organizations that have benefitted from a particular type of helpful research.
  4. If a pastor has been brought into a challenging context and has had to make hard decisions, do everything you can to pray for and guard your pastor in the process.
  5. Regardless of the circumstances, do everything you can to protect the pastor, his wife and children. Needless damage has been done to pastors and their families that leave scars that last a lifetime. Be mindful that you are caring for a family, not just an individual. It is not just the pastor's place of work...it is his family's place of worship.
  6. Create questions that are solution-based. When people are critical, ask them to offer solutions. Those solutions should also include their participation.

When I was a pastor, I would receive an occasional note from a congregant. I was always encouraged with positive and constructive criticism, yet I had one requirement. If the writer would not sign the complaint with his or her personal name, I immediately threw it into the trash. On the other hand, if a name was attached, I would read it and do what I could to follow up with a meeting. This would often lead to mutual understanding through helpful conversations. It actually built community rather than destroyed it.

I would be interested in your feedback. Have you done a church survey? Were you the subject of a church survey? What went well? What did not go well? What advice would you add? Let me know your thoughts.

Copyright © 2014 Timothy S. Lane. All rights reserved.

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.