Needs Analysis for Small Houses of Worship (Part 1)

There are well in excess of a quarter of a million small houses of worship in North America, according to the latest data from the National Congregations Study, conducted through Duke University. (For additional information about the National Congregations Study, go here.)

For reference, the generally accepted definition of a small congregation is characterized by size. A small HOW is usually described as one in which the congregation has around 200-300 regularly attending members. (This is usually measured by averaging average attendance over a six month period. It is important to recognize that the original survey was done in 2006-2007, and only partially updated since then. The six month period is nominally measured from Oct-March to account for holiday and seasonal weather related variations.)

Since the original study is now a decade old, we need to adjust the data set to include the best estimate of the growth curve for total number of congregations in North America since the original study was done.

A Growth Rate of 3% to 5% Per Year

Based on the publicly available data from the National Council of Churches and other similar organizations from various denominations and faiths, which is unfortunately incomplete, that growth is showing an annual average of between 3% to 5%. (The survey data has not been updated every year and in many years the response rate was very low, therefore the data is incomplete and overall accuracy is limited.)

That growth rate would produce a total congregation count exceeding 270,000 facilities for calendar 2018/9- based on a mid-point averaged 4% growth rate over a 10-year span or about 1,100 congregations added per year (net growth rate-best estimate.

Most integrators and manufactureres tend to view the small HOW market as a large number of small groups with limited resources. As we will see shortly this is an erroneous assessment and one which creates significant opportunities for those willing to bring resources and knowledge to the table.

The Missing Ingredient

Without question, the biggest single issue facing suppliers, integrators, consultants and others who provide services to this market is the widespread lack of needs analysis capability within most small congregations.

The level of expertise needed, along with their limited access to adequate resources is a serious problem, and one that has not been effectively addressed by either the integrator or manufacturer communities — at least so far.

The proof is still evident, as I originally noted in an October 2017 column, and regrettably, it does not appear that much has changed since then.

The problem is still severe and remains a core issue for every small HOW facing any form of technical system change or upgrade — and this includes not only the obvious AV/lighting and related products, but things like flooring, seating, infra-structure sub-systems, educational and life safety system and a host of other products and services.

Who is Doing What — When — and How?

How does the small HOW congregation determine what to do and where do they get the advice needed? The second part of this series will explore that topic in more depth.

While those questions are an enormous problem, there is a deeper and more important issue that must be addressed by all BEFORE even beginning to do proper needs analysis.

That issue is centered on something far more basic and critical to the whole project development and completion cycle/process. It is — how do those who want to work with a congregation determine who needs to be involved in the decision tree? And more importantly, who should be involved but isn’t?

It is essential to determine with some degree of certainty who the lead person is on the financial side of the project — or in more prosaic terms — who the major donor to the project is. In the majority of smaller HOW projects, there are one or two principal donors, usually people who normally prefer to remain in the background.

The issue is not that they don’t want to be part of the process or that they are not interested, it’s that the visible decision makers will be significantly influenced by the opinion of these donors, even if you as a supplier, integrator or other professionals are not made aware of their influence or input.

That hidden influence is there and it really matters! The problem is finding out who the whole list of key influencers really is and what level of input they have. Let’s be extremely clear on this point — determining who has what level of influence on a HOW decision process can be a complex and confusing process.

Remember, although it is not always the case, a large percentage of smaller HOW facilities are located in areas with lower-than-average income levels, and therefore these congregations have to place a serious emphasis on fundraising.

This additional pressure on the project must be recognized and considered by anyone seeking a relationship with that congregation. But this aspect of the small HOW market also has a hidden upside — these small resource-limited congregations will work tirelessly to raise the funds they need IF you can show them the benefits and positive results produced by your solution(s) and services.

Going the Extra Mile

If you can help them grow, help them do a better job of serving their community in some way or improve their overall worship experience, they will go the extra mile to achieve the needed fiscal result. This aspect is often overlooked and well worth the time to consider carefully.

It is often very difficult to accurately determine who is actually involved. But it is also an absolute that the groups of people who are out front on the project are NOT the whole story — ever!

In the second part of this series, we will look in more detail at methods for organizing and executing an appropriate initial needs analysis. In the final part we will explore how to turn that initial analysis into a working document that can enable a project plan to be developed and create the necessary internal support structure to insure that the HW can properly manage and execute their goals.