Why Should We Listen to the Voice of the People in our Faith-Based Institutions?

Why is leadership so often wrong? Because sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, leaders listen to a few, very loud voices.

by Sacha Litman

Faith-based communities’ ability to lift their congregations to holiness, as well as draw and retain members, depends on the degree to which the congregation resonates with the ideas and direction of the leadership.

The weekly Torah portion read by Jews recently was about the census in Exodus, when Moses asks every Israelite to make a coin contribution so that he may estimate the population. Subsequent chapters of the Bible include more stories of contributions collected from God’s people. These stories often include a morality lesson. When the Israelites are properly aligned with their leadership, contributions benefit the community: they form the tabernacle and tent of meeting, the holy place where God dwells among the Israelites and leads them through the desert. Alternatively, when the Israelites are misaligned with their leadership, as when the Israelites rebel during Moses’ long sojourn on Mount Sinai, the collected funds are sinfully used to build the golden calf, the greatest apostasy of God.

Today, instead of censuses, we take the “pulse” of our congregations through surveys. Over the last 3 years, Measuring Success has conducted large scale surveys to capture the voice of over 20,000 congregants in 40 synagogues across North America. On average, 60% of congregants choose to complete our surveys (higher than average response rate), demonstrating the desire to have their voices heard by their synagogue leaders. What leaders find out is that 80% of what they believed about their congregations is not true. This includes ideas about what’s working, what’s not working, what programs people like best, what congregants need, etc.

Why is leadership so often wrong? Because sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, leaders listen to a few, very loud voices. And as we know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. One or two loud voices do not and cannot accurately represent the voice of a congregation, but they can lead to a lot of empty pew seats.

Some critics say that the voice of the people is less important than the will and the vision of the leadership. Leaders, they say, are deeply enmeshed in the running of the congregation and thus can have keener, more broad-sighted viewpoints. While this is often true, there is immense value in leadership seeking frequent insights from its congregants, who are able to bring their own unique perspective.

This year, Measuring Success partnered with Catholic Leadership Institute to help channel the voice of Catholic congregants in three major cities. As we continue this spring to expand our efforts to capture congregants’ voices through surveys, it is worth stepping back to examine the overall trends in organized religion. Robert Putnam’s recent book American Grace (a sequel to Bowling Alone), as well as Pew’s recent reports, document the decline in participation in organized North American religions. Few leaders, however, have examined what congregations can do to change that trend.

Aligning the will of the people with the leadership’s vision, as the Israelites in the desert taught us thousands of years ago, is one of the few solutions proven to work. Such a solution has already aided a thriving type of faith-based community: the mega-church movement in Evangelical Christianity. Willow Creek, a mothership of the mega-church movement, has a resource center to help other churches learn from its successful approach. And what is the centerpiece of Willow Creek’s methodology? Surveying the membership of each congregation it works with (over half a million congregants have been surveyed) to help the leadership identify whether it is successfully translating its vision and delivering quality programs to the congregation.

You know from your consumer life that big brands in America are attuned to capturing customer sentiment. Research by Bain & Company in Net Promoter Score (NPS) demonstrates that customer sentiment and willingness to recommend is the single best indicator of an organization’s (whether profit or nonprofit) success or failure. The feedback loops provided by NPS enables leaders to correct course and ensure their vision is translated into reality. But this concept does not simply apply to increasing consumer’s consumption of products or services; our data shows it also applies to the loftier, transcendent goal that faith-based communities hold. Learning from your congregants can increase their spiritual growth and Godliness.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of the customer survey movements for many religious groups are former business leaders. Hundreds of Pastors and Rabbis are now taking ownership of the same ideas. Let’s put people back in those pews, and increase membership retention and acquisition. After all, the very meaning of a “congregation” is a gathering of people. Leadership must align with the people by seeking their voice, so that like the Israelites traveling through the desert, they can ensure that God is at the center of the journey towards the Promised Land.

Sacha Litman is the Founder and Managing Director of Measuring Success, a strategy consulting firm dedicated to developing quantitative tools and models to enhance organizational effectiveness.