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A Quick Question

When is average not average?

The quick answer:  When you are talking about the average congregation.

The longer answer:  Congregations are increasingly portrayed as social organizations that make important contributions to public life. As such, they are subjected to organizational analysis. Statistical details about them—budgets, number of members, demographic facts such as race and social class of those members—are now considered alongside such markers as theological orientation or denominational affiliation.

In the context of organizational analysis, it is necessary, but almost too easy, to talk about the "average" congregation. For instance, political leaders urging greater congregational involvement in welfare reform must think in large, aggregate measures. They might cite the average size or the average budget of congregations when talking about available capacity for service. Educated consumers of such figures, and users of organizational analysis in general, must learn to read between the lines if they want to understand the situation of an "average" congregation.

Indianapolis has 1200 congregations and about 480,000 congregational members. The mean congregation therefore has 400 members. But only 30% of Indianapolis congregations have as many as 400 members. So is 400 the average? It depends on what you want to know.

The median congregation, number 600 if the 1200 groups were listed from largest to smallest, has only 150 members. Put another way, half the congregations in the city have 150 or fewer members.

Why the discrepancy between "mean" and "median"? A relatively small number of very large congregations raise the mean. The number 400, then, really only tells you what you get when you add all of the members up and divide by the number of congregations. But if you were to reach into a hat and pull out a congregation at random, it is likely to have many fewer than 400 members.

The same principle applies to budgets. The mean annual budget among Indianapolis congregations is $260,000. But the median budget is more like $125,000. That is a considerable difference if you are considering the capacity of groups to mobilize resources. One unavoidable conclusion is that the top tier of congregations—something like the largest quarter—has most of the members and most of the money.

Three important lessons follow from this statistical understanding. First, civic leaders advocating an expanded social role for congregations should keep things in perspective. Most congregations look nothing like the big, urban organizations often offered as examples. Programs and expectations must meet organizational reality.

Second, congregations should see their own identities and missions for what they are, recognizing that they may be much closer to the mainstream than some "averages" suggest.

Third, all of us as observers should learn to parse what we are told about congregations’ available capacity and to temper our expectations accordingly. Congregations small as well as large can be very effective social actors, but we need to understand their actions in a realistic context.

Written by Arthur E. Farnsley II of The Polis Center.

For more information on statistics and use of research information for congregational life, visit our page on statistics and poll data within the congregational resources section of this site.


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