Monday, May 16, 2016

Why Your ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) Matters

I have seen some interesting comments in recent weeks on Facebook about how people understand or interpret a Church’s Average Sunday Attendance.  Since I am a strong advocate of knowing this number and understanding how to use it, I found some of the comments helpful, but another group of them not so.   
For example, one Priest observed that while they had a small ASA, they had an outreach ministry that served over 50 people a week.  The Priest asked, “Why can’t these numbers be added to our ASA to show the importance of this ministry?  Do we think that those who gather for Sunday worship are the only ones that matter?”  I think the outreach numbers are important, but keep reading to find out why “adding them to Sunday attendance” is largely meaningless. 

In a similar vein, a Bishop criticized “ASA envy” and said that congregational impact on the community is much more important than worrying about where a congregation’s average attendance stacks up against other congregation.  In a way, this is the standard criticism in new packaging that I have often heard from more Progressive church folks.  They used to say, “We don’t count numbers!”  Well as Bishop Payne liked to say, “We do count numbers because the numbers represent people and people matter to both God and the Church.”   

So why does ASA matter? 
Remember that ASA is the average of all people who attend a congregation on the Sundays in a year.  Yes this includes the 8am folks.  It also includes A Saturday night service or a Sunday evening service provided that the majority of those who attend such adjunct services do not attend Sunday morning.   

What we learned nearly 25 years ago was that ASA is a more helpful number than membership.  There are lots of reasons for this, but the basic issue is that Churches and Pastors vary greatly in how they count membership.  For example, it is not unusual for a large Evangelical Church to have large attendance, but smaller membership.  Why?  Because to be an official voting member, the congregation requires that you submit proof that you tithe.  On the other end of the scale are Episcopal and other mainline churches that count people as members who have not attended for years.   

Even within a denomination this varies.  I have found that churches that have a long-tenured Rector often show an ASA that is as low as 20% of their membership.  Churches that have had a change in the last two years of a Rector often have an ASA that is nearer to 50% of its membership.  Furthermore, most new church plants can have over 50% of their members attending each Sunday.  There are reasons for this, but the bottom line is that membership varies so greatly that it is not a useful number for understanding a congregation’s life.  I only use membership in the way I just mentioned, measuring the percent of stated members present on an average Sunday.  In an average Episcopal congregation that number is normally 35 to 40%.  It is variations in this “normal” percentage that gets my attention and has me asking “why?” 

So why does ASA matter?  It matters because when you add the attendance for 52 Sundays (yes this includes Easter and it also includes the summer months) one gets a very consistent number.  Easter doesn’t distort things too much because it is only 1/52nd of the total.  What research on congregations has shown us is that ASA tends to group around certain predictable patterns that reveal a congregation’s culture.  These should be familiar to most Episcopal leaders by now.  They are as follows:

ASA of
20 to 50 = Family Size Congregation
75 to 140 = Pastoral Size Congregation
141 – 200 = Transitional Size
200 – 400 = Program Size
400 + = Resource Size 

By the way, the Diocese of Texas pioneered the use of the term “Resource Size Church” because the general protestant term “Corporate Size” seemed too, well, corporate minded.  In addition, these larger congregations are resources to their diocese; they give more than they get back from diocesan resources.   

So ASA gives us a way of diagnosing the type of culture and nature of the congregation as expressed in these descriptive titles. 

A Family Size Congregation (which usually has a bi-vocational, shared, or retired clergy) hold together around a group of key families and households.  These bonds transcend the importance of the ordained person.  Or as one Bishop used to put it, “Our Family Size Churches are clergy immune!”   I would add that they have to be. 

A Pastoral Size Church is a congregation with enough people and money to have a full-time, seminary trained, ordained leader.  I point out that in a Pastoral Size Episcopal Church that the Parish Calendar and the Priest’s Liturgical Desk Calendar is the same thing. 

Transitional Size is not a true culture but reflects a congregation often caught between the small Pastoral Size and the larger Program Church.  This is a hard transition and few churches make it. I could write a book about this topic.  Oh wait, I already did, The Myth of the 200 Barrier. J 

You might find it interesting that while there are some variations in larger Program to Resource Churches, (see Alice Mann’s book on this topic) the Program Churches can grow to almost 800 ASA by just doing well what they are good at.  As as long as facilities, staff, and program are expanded to incorporate new people growth can continue.  This is why large churches have an advantage over smaller ones.  The transitions from Family to Pastoral and from Pastoral to Program are radical cultural changes.  While there are significant changes when a Church’s ASA passes 800 in the Culture of a large church, this is not a topic for Episcopalians.  We have only a handful of congregations with an ASA larger than 800.   

So, let’s get this straight; there is no virtue in a church simply having a larger ASA than another church.  There are significant and impactful Family Size Churches and there are also dysfunctional ones.  There are significant and impactful Pastoral Size Churches and there are also sick and dysfunctional ones.  And, believe it or not, there are even unhealthy and dysfunctional larger congregations.  ASA is important, but it does nothing to tell you about a congregation’s vitality and health or its mission impact on its community.  These simply have to be measured in other ways and I have always encouraged Dioceses to develop these measurements.   This should address the “impact” and “ASA envy” issues mentioned at the beginning.   

It also tells us why adding the folks who come to your Food Bank or other outreach ministry to ASA is meaningless.  If you want to measure impact, just count the people who are served or supported by these ministries.  In addition, you will want to measure the number of volunteers who do these ministries because if it is a small percentage of the congregation, the ministry is at risk.   

How is the ASA trending?
Now, we can turn to one other diagnostic question.  By noting the ASA for say ten years, we now can see the trend for a congregation.  So we can take the graph provided by the staff at our Church’s headquarters and determine whether a Pastoral Church is declining, growing, or stable.  If you are in an Episcopal Congregation that has been stable or growing for the past 10 years, then you are to be congratulated.  You are bucking the overall trend of the decline of the Episcopal Church.  Generally speaking, our Pastoral Size Churches are in decline and our Family Size ones are in serious decline.  These sizes make up 80% of Episcopal Congregations and this is one of the main reasons why our denomination remains in decline.  I should point out that this decline of smaller congregation is a serious crisis for many of our Dioceses.  It is a topic worthy of much more discussion and strategic planning by Bishops and diocesan staff.   

One more observation should be made about all this ASA information.  Note that there are two kinds of growth in churches.  There is growth that is congruent with the congregational culture.  There is also growth that is transformational, from one size to another.  The first type of growth usually feels good to Church people.  The second, transformational, brings stress and sometimes tension.   

Your ASA and how this is trending is a very helpful tool to Clergy, Vestries, Bishops, and Church Consultants.  If you want to use it for other purposes, I will give you some golf advice.  I don’t let my score in a particular round determine my self-esteem.  Do not let the ASA of your congregation determine the esteem of your members or your Clergy person.  These should be measured by the joy, love, mutual support, and caring outreach which you share together as a community in Christ. 




  1. This is a good post. One other problem is when you have a diocese, like the one I'm in, where their only interest in it is to determine Synod Delegates.

  2. I've always been a bit ambivalent about whether that is a good idea.

  3. One thing that should be added is that the same facility at the national church website which serves up charts of ASA and membership will also produce a description of the community surrounding a parish. many rural parishes and some in cities get caught in demographic vises where the people simply are no longer there to attend the church, but if you are in a growing area, and your ASA is shrinking, really that is a sign that something ought to be done.

    I have been watching the statistics for many years now, almost a decade in fact. To me it seems that ASA is a nearly ideal basic measure of religious activity, as it is objective and easy to measure accurately. the problem I see with it is rather obviously in the message: that we aren't doing well. We have seen a 3% drop in ASA basically every year since 2003, and you could argue for the trend starting in 2001. Comparing the numbers for the various rites, it could be also argued that the principal source of losses is departures of adult members. But that is a very unwelcome message.

  4. C. Wingate, yes such contextual information is very helpful to a congregation. Some churches have little opportunity for growth and decline may be the fate of others given the demographics. You will want to see in my next blog how I use this info in a diagnostic way.

  5. Kevin,

    The ASA has generally been the indicator of growth in TEC. Unfortunately, for most dioceses and congregations, there is minimal or no growth. Is this a problem, not really if one looks at the revenue side of the charts, the revenue has in most cases stayed the same or actually risen over the past ten years. So essentially no incentive to grow at least in NC.

    In most organizations growth is important (Healthy things grow). But not so in TEC. Consultants (I being one) like to analyze and find problems. So on one hand your post analyzes ASA, yet also speaks to “the overall trend of the decline of the Episcopal Church and “ the denomination remains in decline”.

    One can always analyze, yet the decline will continue. The main issue in TEC is to arrest the decline and initiate a growth strategy. In my opinion, mainline denominations have to reach a very different demographic than what they have related to in the past. That means new models for congregations, better selection of clergy with entrepreneurial skills and adequate funding to achieve positive growth.

    If the last 20 years are any indication of growth strategies in TEC, nothing will happen. At the national level there is a completely different set of priorities. At the diocese and congregation level, for the most part, maintenance mode is the norm. Of course TEC and other mainlines will continue to exist, but in the case of TEC, the numbers suggest that it is such a small segment of the population that it will become (or is) almost irrelevant unless there is any kind dedicated growth strategy.

    Jim Baker
    Cary, NC

  6. I agree with much of your post. Even if you look at the financial information, while it is often increasing it seldom goes ahead of inflation.

    1. In my recent analysis in the Diocese of Maryland one can see that P&P per attendee has increased, over a decade basically by a constant multiplier. The distribution of income is almost identical in 2005 and 2015 when this adjustment is taken into account.

    2. My experience is that the increase in P&P in shrinking congregations (ASA) is often driven by paying the costs of operations. BTW smaller congregations survive by not paying the compensation of a full time clergy, going to bi-vocational, part-time, or retired folks. Survival is the mother of invention :-)