Congregational Identity

The congregation where I serve is currently in a time of transition.  Our “lead pastor” has taken a new call, which is moving us into a period of self-study.  One of the interesting parts of this process is to attempt to define our congregational identity.  We have a team that is working on our Purpose Statement – an outgrowth of a congregational retreat held earlier this year.  That statement will go a long way in helping us to define what God is calling us to do and be.

Another fascinating tool in this process is to determine the size-based category that our church belongs to.  I like this because it allows churches to examine ministry styles and structures in other churches in their category.  The four groupings are:

  • Family Church – fewer than 50 active members
  • Pastoral Church – between 50-150 active members
  • Program Church – between 150-350 active members
  • Corporate Church – more than 350 active members

(Here’s an interesting article on how to do ministry in each of these groups.)

Several weeks ago a ministry specialist spoke at our Adult Forum and offered the names and characteristics of each of the four groups.  He did not mention the numbers that pertained to each group, just a description of how those churches function.  Then he asked our people to identify which group they thought our church fell into.  An overwhelming number indicated we were a Pastoral Church.  Imagine their surprise when the specialist indicated that this “humble little church in Windsor Heights” is actually a Corporate Church…and one of the largest ELCA congregations in the state of Iowa.

Here are the numbers:


Congregation City Attendance Baptized Confirmed
Hope West Des Moines   4,948 7,377 4,865
Nazareth Cedar Falls   1,176 3,478 2,790
St. Paul Davenport   1,037 2,888 2,376
Holy Trinity Ankeny   831 3,314 2,261
Zion United Clear Lake   767 1,754 1,451
First Cedar Rapids   746 2,417 1,905
Trinity Mason City   647 2,785 2,020
First Milford   614 1,754 1,347
St. John Des Moines   559 2,467 1,944
Faith Clive   551 2,066 1,537
Resurrection Marion   539 1,267 928
St. Paul Waverly   515 1,855 1,401
Decorah Decorah   506 2,068 1,325
Bethesda Ames   469 2,438 1,909
Our Savior’s Osage   467 1,541 1,192
Zion Iowa City   430 2,027 1,512
St. John Cedar Falls   425 2,194 1,336
St. Olaf Fort Dodge   398 1,465 1,111
WHLC Des Moines   360 1,317 1,002
Zion Des Moines   360 1,243 761
Bethany Spencer   345 1,629 1,200
St. John Council Bluffs   327 1,748 1,155
First Decorah   236 1,813 1,477


I found all of this information by using the “Find A Congregation” tool on the ELCA website.  It provides a complete congregational profile for all the churches in the denomination.  The above figures are listed in according to the average number of people who attended worship each weekend in 2007.  I consider the worship attendance number to be the most accurate description of a faith community’s size.  Additionally, in going through our congregational directory, I found about 450 people that I consider to be “active” (attend worship at least twice a month and are involved in at least one other activity in the life of the congregation).  This means that we are firmly entrenched in the Corporate Church category…two sizes bigger than many in our congregation consider us to be.

Furthermore, ELCA churches with over 350 people in worship each weekend are among the 97th percentile in terms of church size.  That means only 3% of the congregations in the ELCA are larger than we are.  Hmmm…

It will be fun to walk through this transition time with the people of our church.  Obviously there are many factors besides “worship attendance” that define a church…but it is, at this point, one of the largest incongruities in how we perceive ourselves.  Perhaps our biggest challenge will not be finding a new pastor, but in establishing and defining our congregational identity.

What about your church?  How do you define your congregational identity?  Are your expectations in line with reality or perception?  Who defines your church’s vision and purpose?  How is that realized?


2 Responses to Congregational Identity

  1. Joe says:

    Great to stop by your Blog. I have been reading your blog for a few weeks and I really enjoy your “stuff.” I am a first call pastor in Upstate NY and I am trying to work with this very subject. I like the idea of asking the people what size they think they are without really giving them the numbers. The church I serve is on the upper end of Pastoral — I really think the transition is tough. I am trying to figure out how to deal with that.
    I look forward to more posts.

  2. Erik says:

    Thanks for reading, Joe…and for your kind words. I imagine life as a first-call pastor can be challenging. The questions I keep trying to ask (to whomever will listen) are – 1. what kind of church is God calling us to be, and 2. how do we structure our staff and ministry programs to be about that purpose. Of course, that might mean doing something different…and there will be changes to grieve along the way. However, I believe that if we are intentional and prayerful about everything we do, we allow God to lead, and we communicate like crazy…then we will come to decisions we can work with. Always easier said than done. Blessings on your ministry!

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