Ten Rules of Thumb for Healthy Churches in America

March 4, 2013

Using rules of thumb to gauge church health is problematic because they are, well, rules of thumb. There will always be exceptions, extenuating circumstances, and even disagreements on the right metrics.

I thus realize I am taking a risk when I publish these broad guidelines. There is the greater risk that someone will take these numbers as infallible and perfectly suited for his or her congregation. Please let wisdom prevail. So many factors, such as demographics, multiple sites, and history will always provide better insights than mere numbers.

Nevertheless, I provide you these ten rules of thumb as a starting point. You can then wisely discern how well and specifically they apply to your situation.

  1. Number of acres needed for church site: one acre for every 125 in attendance. This ratio is based on useable acres. That number is affected by zoning requirements, water retention requirements, and property shape, to name a few.
  2. Parking Spaces: one space for every 2 people in attendance.
  3. Parking Area: 100 spaces for every acre used for parking.
  4. Evangelistic effectiveness: 12 conversions per year for every 100 in average attendance. Different congregations used different terminology: conversions, baptisms, professions of faith, salvations, etc. In this metric, the number refers to those in the past year who became Christians and became active in that specific congregation.
  5. Seating space per attendee: 27 inches. That number was 20 inches at one time. It has changed due to larger posteriors and greater cultural space desires.
  6. Maximum capacity of a facility: 80% full. This old tried and true ratio is still good. When a facility is 80% full architecturally, it feels 100% full.
  7. Retention effectiveness: For every 10 new members added per year, average worship attendance should increase by 7.
  8. Effective giving; For every person in average attendance, including children and preschool, $26.00 in budget receipts. For example, a church with an average worship attendance of 100 should average at least $2,600 in weekly budget giving. This ratio is obviously greatly impacted by demographics.
  9. Maximum debt payment budgeted: 33 percent of annual income for most churches. Up to 40 percent for fast-growing churches.
  10. Maximum debt owed: 2.5 times the annual income of the church for the previous year.

So how do you evaluate these rules of thumb? How is your church doing? What would you recommend I change or add?

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96 Comments

  • Rob Blackwell says on

    I strongly disagree with the max debt payment budgeted and max debt owed numbers. If you’re spending 33-40% of your budget on debt, that’s a lot of money sucked away from ministry. Numbers at that level will typically make debt service the 2nd-highest spending category (after salaries, and ahead of all ministry departments combined!). The fact that the 33% ratio means that the banks will allow us to borrow does not mean we should. If you agree that debt should only be used to enhance ministry, it’s necessary to keep debt payments low enough that they don’t impede ministry. We’re currently wrestling with what that number looks like after working for years to decrease it; our current debt payment is 15% of unrestricted revenue and total debt/annual budget is 1.3 x UR, and it is still impeding ministry. I would be very interested in information on objective sources for objective criteria if anyone has them. Thanks.

  • Hey Thom,
    I hear a lot of statistics about WPCG as a measure of church financial health, but I can’t find statistics about Giving Units. Yes, I understand how to calculate Giving Units and have begun tracking them at our church, but I don’t know how to interpret the data.
    Where can I find info about research and statistics concerning Giving Units in a church?
    For example, what’s the average number/percentage of Giving Units in a church? What’s the average amount each Giving Unit contributes?
    It’d be great to know more about statistics related to Giving Units, not just the per capita giving.

  • Thanks for your practical insights Thom. They are a great help to me as a pastor. I suppose it’s possible to overemphasize the practical “nuts and bolts” aspect of the ministry of the church, although I tend to agree with the idea that “facts are our friends.” But it is equally possible to over-spiritualize the ministry of the church. As I tell our staff, we are only humans therefore we can only do human things. Only God can do super-human things (draw people to salvation, empower believers to grow in holiness, etc.). So we are only responsible to do human things, not superhuman things– natural things, not supernatural. God has designed His work to get done this way. When we do human things, then God does superhuman things. “Paul planted (a human thing), Apollos watered (a human thing), but God made it grow (a super-human thing).” To make another biblical reference, we can provide a new wine skin, but only God can pour in new wine. It seems God is pleased to work with us in this way. After all, He doesn’t need us to do His work. He has chosen to allow us to partner with Him in His work no doubt for our benefit, not His. I hope we can get past this hangup and recognize what some call spirituality is often a false spirituality. Let’s realize the most we can do is to create environments or opportunities for God to work, as a farmer can only create an environment for a seed to grow. But unless he plants the seed, cultivates the ground, waters it, etc. there is no opportunity for the seed to come to life and grow.

  • Is there a ratio spread of attenders in a multi generational setting that is considered healthy? For example, a church with an average attendance of 100 would have how many preschoolers, children, youth, young adults, middle adults, and senior adults id considered healthy and balanced.

  • Two things Thom. First, the conversion rate seems high, 12 first time commitments a year per 100 means the church would have a 12% annual growth rate on conversions alone (obviously there is a normal attrition rate bringing that number down a bit). We are a church of 1300 and regularly do outreach and have an invitation to salvation every week (way more evangelism than any church I have been at before) and we had a record year with 58 decisions to follow Christ. If a healthy church has this high of a conversion rate the US would be saved in about 10 years. Seems way high to me.

    Second thing, any ratios for number of ministries to size of the congregation? I always hear simple church rhetoric, but what does more with fewer ministries look like when measured? What are the annual number of ministries launched vs closed? What are the average number of ministries per 100?

  • Stevie mick says on

    Thank you for this blog with many helpful, practical insights, yet also a deep concern for spiritual health. Are you familiar with Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz? I have found his decades of research to be helpful in measuring the spiritual health of a congregation.

  • Thom, I have long loved your books and perspectives on upcoming trends as well as current threads of commonality we need to be aware of.

    In a fast-growing churches, (ours has been 28% average over past 7 years), what is the average stay of a staff member? (Assuming some leave because they don’t have the abilities or skills to lead at the next level.)

  • Hi Thom,

    Great article! Concerning #5 – 27″ per person… Is that 27 square inches per person? 27″ from row to row? 27″ wide chairs? Just looking for some clarity. We 6 yr old contemporary church. We just built a new auditorium that was approved for 445 seats but when we put out 300 of the 400 that we bought, 300 chairs just felt right. We are slowly adding chairs each month as we grow but I’m looking for a healthy stopping point. We are at 80% in our 11am service and 65% in our 9am. How packed is too packed? Our architect gave us some general calculations like: 7 to 10 square feet per person. Our auditorium floor is 3,500 square feet (not including stage & tech booth) so according to our architect, 10 sq ft would be 350 chairs and 7 sq ft p/person would be 500 seats. Just curious about your thoughts on how to space out rows versus room size.
    Second question: Can we expect non-prime service times like a 9am or 1pm service to hit that 80%? Just curious if non-prime service times are kind of destined to be at lower capacities like 65%?
    Thanks again for teaching things I didn’t get in bible school.
    Ben

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Ben –

      Note in the article and comments the name of Tim Songster at COSCO. He is the best source to answer your questions. Thanks.

  • Bill Dodson says on

    Tom:
    I have been financing churches for fourteen years, and I would like to suggest that the percentages of revenue you suggest as maximums for debt service are too aggressive. The 33% mark should be the maximum in a growing church. A mature or plateaued church should be under 25%. There’s no way a church can dedicate 40% of revenue to debt service safely. That level implies far too high leverage and an extreme danger to the ministry should revenue flatten or decline. We saw this happen in the last recession, and the result was disastrous. The most useful measure for determining proper debt service levels is the debt service coverage ratio. This would be derived by dividing EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation) by the debt service amount. The resulting ratio should be no less than 1.25 (125%). This leaves the ministry with sufficient free cash flow to build reserves.

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