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Demographics for Congregations

People often ask me about demographics for congregations.

People who think that their congregation would be benefitted by having some demographic information may wish to begin with the bottom section, “The Question You Should Have Asked.” It is helpful to have good sources of demographic information such as I describe below. But the big challenge is using it to good effect.

There are two basic types of sources of demographic information: stuff that does not cost money and stuff that does.

Free Stuff

The big development over the past decade has been the increase in good, usable free demographic information in a form that is usable for congregations. This last qualifier is very important. There has been a lot of good information available for a long time. The catch has been that is has been very hard to access and to put into a form that is usable to someone without a degree in statistics. Now, with the development of the web, there is beginning to be much more stuff useful to the non-expert. Myself, I believe that one day this free stuff will become so good that the companies that try to see the stuff will be put out of business. I have four€”or better make that six–favorite free sites. The first two of these basically piggy-back on the demographic services other denominations provide their congregations.

  1. http://map.nazarene.org Only place I know that you can get growth rates over time by zip code for free. You can get a good basic report by zip code.
  2. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/growth_60791_ENG_HTM.htm?menupage=50929. What you basically get here is a stream-lined version of a Percept report by zip code. The only funky thing is that you must start by using the Episcopal Church parish locator (http://www.ecdplus.org/parish/) to find out what Episcopal congregations are in the area you wish to study (zip code) and then look for the report you want by the name of that congregation (funky but then it is free).
  3. http://www.thearda.com/congregations/index.asp. The American Religious Data Archive is a truly wonderful store of free, user-friendly statistical information about religion in America. It is oriented to students and researchers but they have compiled a tutorial which will walk you through the process of gathering demographic information useful for congregational planning. A woman by the name of Heather Kindell has compiled a tutorial that takes you from website to website building a very serviceable report for use by congregations in their ministries.
  4. www.esribis.com/reports/ziplookup.html ESRI sells a lot of stuff but they do give away descriptions of the fastest growing segments by zip codes. Good for congregations to ask themselves whether they are serving/attracting the future of the community.
  5. http://www.nces.ed.gov/surveys/sdds. This site, sponsored by the National Center of Educational Studies is my favorite new discovery. Designed for school systems€”and searchable by school system-this site basically has all the demographic information that schools need for planning which is basically the information that congregations also need for planning. It does not leave you with a nice, neat report the way some of the other resources recommended do but it has great breadth.
  6. www.census.gov. The US Census “Quick Facts” is quite helpful and is searchable by county, city, or zip.

Stuff That Costs Money

Someday in the not too distant future the quality of the free materials may become so good that this will put the companies who charge out of business. The time is not yet. For now, there are companies that will create nice custom reports for congregation (largely by packaging in a more usable form Census data for which you have already paid as a tax payer). The costs are low enough that they should not be a barrier to those who are serious about working on these issues. The best known supplies of these commercial demographic reports to congregations is Percept (http://www.perceptgroup.com/). By marrying US Census information with consumer information, Percept will give you a variety of levels of study. The UUA has negotiated discounted prices. These are available through the UUA in Boston. The person to contact is Susanna Whitman (swhitman@uua.org, 617-948-4270). Susanna Whitman is also very good at leading people through deciding what would be most useful. The basic Percept product is called a Ministry Area Profile and a full sample is available on the Percept website (http://www.perceptgroup.com/Products/MinistryAreaProfile/MAPfront.aspx). Full price is about $320 and discounted price through the UUA is something like $225.

There is another Percept product that can be very helpful. This is called the Context report and this combines the Ministry Area Profile with a survey of your congregation leaving you at the end with a report that compares your congregation with the surrounding community. Full price is about $700 and, again, Susanna Whitman can help you with the details and get you a discount.

The Question You Should Have Asked

The real question comes in using the demographics. In spite of my own interest in statistics, I fear I have come to the conclusion that most of the time demographics are used in congregation in ways that are unhelpful. Demographic information can be used helpfully when used to point to conversations people in a congregation need to have with each other and with those in the surrounding community and when it is used to point to relationships that a congregation needs to build.

In working for some years as the research director at the Alban Institute (that consults with churches and synagogues) I concluded that some groups, and I would be tempted to say especially UUs, hope to find in demographics a quick and relatively arm’s length way to see into the reality of the areas where they were located. It does not work. Anyone thinking that demographics might be useful needs to get this truth firmly in mind: a right-brained person with a pile of numbers never convinced a left-brained person to do anything.
However, good numbers, numbers that paint a picture that helps start a conversation, can be a very helpful beginning to a process.
Every community has people who know a huge amount about planning and future development. Most congregations already have links to these people and to the communities from which they would like to attract more members or where they would like to develop ministries. If demographic information provides a stepping stone to developing these relationships, they can be useful.

Ian

Comments:

  1. David Pratt Says:
    August 16th, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Nice advice!

  2. Ian Evison Says:
    August 16th, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks. I think you were one of the ones who advised me that I really should watch for these recurring questions and then make of those blog entries. Please encourage my old colleagues to copy shamelessly.

  3. Susan M. Smith Says:
    August 20th, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Excellent resource, Ian. Since I like to tell the future by reading Percept surveys, I thought I might chime in on how to make these more useful. In “reading” these for a congregational presentation, I eliminate all segments with no listed tendency to be UU and take my potential household numbers only from those who have some such tendency. A tension that is readily evident is that the top three segments likely to be UU want completely different things from congregations, particularly worship style and programs.

  4. Ian Evison Says:
    October 31st, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Susan: interesting–and I had not thought of this. Reminds me of an old comment that those who disagree with traditional religion do it either in the name of head or heart. In diverging from traditional religion they are united. Yet, if these two groups try to do anything with each other, it is a constant struggle.