What Is A Church Member Worth?

dollarWatching Dollars Fly Out the Church Door

Today’s topic is almost never addressed in church circles. It goes contrary to “church think.”


What is a church member worth?


I often skirt this issue, but this is the first time I’ve addressed this as the key topic. It is important. Where money becomes an issue, power follows.


Church members don’t want to be thought of as dollar signs. Church leaders don’t want to admit this is ever a consideration.


Like it or not, economics comes into play with almost every decision made by church leaders.


What is a church member worth? What is a congregation worth?


These are difficult questions when sanctuaries are full and denominational offices safely assume adequate support. How do we answer these questions when the going is tough?


My writing today is prompted by one paragraph from Seth Godin’s blog post, published today, entitled, Please, Go Away. The post addresses how businesses fail to address customer problems, wrongly thinking they are saving money. Invariably,  they make it difficult for clients to interact. They prefer unhappy customers just go away.


Here’s the paragraph.

Any customer that walks away, disrespected and defeated, represents tens of thousands of dollars out the door, in addition to the failure of a promise the brand made in the first place. You can’t see it, but it’s happening, daily.


He is right! And churches suffer from the same thinking. Out of sight, out of mind.


Many church members have a nagging feeling that they must play along to get along. Dissent—even mild dissent—is not welcome.


Try it, if you dare. Write to your leaders. We did. We were ignored. Shelved. Eventually, one national church lawyer responded: We feel no obligation to address your concerns.


The most important part of Seth’s sentence, paraphrased for Church, is that this action represents the FAILURE OF PROMISES MADE TO MEMBERS IN THE FIRST PLACE.


These promises exist on two levels.


  1. Biblical promises—things like love, reconciliation and forgiveness.
  2. Polity promises—the stuff of tradition and constitutions.


In my experience in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, congregations have no way for members to address grievances that are not controlled by people who are possibly the cause of the grievance. If a lay person has no pastor to advocate for them, they will be shut out. The Church has a way of rewarding like-mindedness.


The preferred strategy for dealing with dissent (and it predates Martin Luther) is simple. Go away. “Why can’t you people just move on?”


Here’s the problem with this selfish philosophy—the part no one wants to talk about.


We, as the Church, are shooting ourselves in the economic foot.


Bad behavior is often prompted by economic challenges. Congregational and denominational budgets may be stretched. Any reminder that people might be hurting is time-consuming and expensive. We tell ourselves that they drain our “true mission.” We think of them as “baggage.” Undesirable.


  • We take members for granted, assuming that they will tithe forever, regardless of how we treat them. More than that, we encourage them to leave their estates to the Church!
  • We assume that discontent is contained.  Remove problem people. Problem solved.


The sociology of church is an intricate tapestry of intermarriage, friendship, multiple and overlapping clans, and coworkers. When one bleeds, the other is scarred.


The people who care enough to get upset about things in church are the people who care enough to give.


Most pastors recognize that it takes ten or more new members to equal the giving of old members. And still we approach old members with offensive terminology, inappropriately borrowed from the Bible. Church leaders dismiss existing memberships as “old wine skins.” Others ascribe a twisted interpretation of the Resurrection story—They must die so we can live. Oddly overlooked are all the directly applicable biblical teachings that are inclusive and do not give up on even the weakest.


Problems ignored are problems that fester. New members, as they too become taken for granted, will remember how their predecessor members were treated. They will give with more caution and may never be as devoted as those who conveniently “moved on.”


I can cite numerous examples of the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to our little congregation because of actions of pastors and decisions of the regional body. I won’t share them publicly, because they are stories of real people with real hurts. I know them by name. They don’t need more hurt. But I make this one note: The problems they encountered were invariably caused by leaders thinking in practical, managerial, often selfish ways, with no love in their hearts for congregation members and no thought of the future—perhaps because they didn’t believe in the future. Perhaps they don’t believe the promises they teach!

Most lay people are not ready to give up on the future. They came to church where they were asked to believe and act with faith. They embraced a God who cared about each one. When circumstances change, it is the job of leadership (the promise-makers) to help. Maneuvering and manipulating, so leaders can start fresh is breaking pastoral promises—and it is creating long-term problems.


Another important point that goes beyond most Church leaders’ understanding. Out of sight is not out of mind! Once people “move on,” the Church loses influence. The members excluded from Church still live in the community, which is likely to be more accepting. Their hurt will be all the more difficult to address by alienating them.


What’s the answer?


  • Model ministry after Christ, who did not serve with economic interests in mind—anything but!
  • Find ways to address concerns—the earlier the better. Solve problems when they first occur. Listen.
  • Don’t wait for people to come to you. Interact regularly.
  • Make sure you are not just listening to one circle—the ones you know will agree with you.
  • Turn to the Bible. There is a wealth of church leadership advice there that has stood the test of time.


If we fail to deal with problems early, we are hiding the “lost coin.”


Perhaps it would help for every church leader to mentally envision a dollar sign on the back of every member. This may not help them serve their congregations spiritually, but it will be the last thing leaders see when they are tempted to stand by the church door, counting devise set to reverse, clicking away as they contentedly watch members walk away.


And then the dollar sign won’t be imaginary.