Ten Rules of Thumb for Healthy Churches in America


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?

Posted on March 4, 2013

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Great stats. Thanks Thom.

  • I returned to your site to comment and ask a question about your post on questions to ask in an interview but then saw this post and thought it may be more relevant to my question. It provided good insight but I’m still unsure. I’m expecting an interview at a small church looking to hire an assistant pastor to help in young adult and youth outreach to help grow the church. I was wondering if I should be concerned about taking a position at a much older established church that had plateaued, if not possibly dwindling, and the new position staying relying on growth in a year or two.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Matt –

      I would love to offer you guidance, but I am unable to do so with the information you gave me. I do promise to pray for wisdom for you.

  • #9 is kind of a hang up for me, because what I read is that its healthy for churches to maintain a certain amount of indebtedness. Would a healthier & more Biblical approach not be operate – day to day, plan, budget, dream, cast vision – debt free?

  • P Taylor says on

    Dr Rainer could you give current budget composition analysis for a healthy church? Thank you.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      As a very rough guideline, about 20% debt, 45% personnel, and 35% for all other.

      • Hi Dr Rainer,

        I so much appreciate your practical and thoughtful insights. I’m a pastor of a new church plant and I was wondering, what would be a healthy budget for a church plant. We have no debt and I’m bi-vocational so I don’t draw a salary from the church. With that in mind, I’m curious to know how much we should be spending on facilities vs ministries vs saving up money.

      • Hi Dr Rainer,

        I so much appreciate your practical and thoughtful insights. I’m a pastor of a new church plant and I was wondering, what would be a healthy budget for a church plant. We have no debt and I’m bi-vocational so I don’t draw a salary from the church. With that in mind, I’m curious to know how much we should be spending on facilities vs ministries vs saving up money.

        Thanks so much in advance.
        Tony Huy

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Tony –

        I wish I could help. I am reticent to prescribe budget allocations to an individual church without more information. Though rules of thumb provide guidelines, every church, including new churches, have their own unique contexts. When I had my own consulting firm, I would spend at least a day or two getting information before I ever offered specific guidelines.

        Blessings to you.

      • Tony,
        Dr Rainer has more insight into this, I m sure, but I have been serving in mission settings for most of my ministry — 40 years long now — part of that time as a church planter — and I would encourage you to consider two things on your church budget early on: (1) to seek to give 10% of your undesignated giving to outside mission causes and (2) to put a priority on purchasing quality discipleship or teaching materials for your church. If you place a priority early on on giving to missions and spending for discipleship, God will bless your church, I believe. I would also add to not be ashamed or hesitant to preach and teach about giving — in the right spirit and with the right personal example, of course.

      • Thanks David and Dr. Rainer for your replies.

  • Chad McDonald says on

    The $26/person, does that include all they give to the church or just regular offering? Does that number include what they may give in separate church offerings like building program, missions, sunday school, etc…?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Chad –

      That number only includes undesignated or budget offerings, not the designated offerings you noted.

  • Thom, what are some suggestions that you’ve seen be successful when it comes to recording and measuring conversions?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      B –
      So much depends on the background and polity of the church. Most Baptists, for example, use the metric of baptism only after someone has been immersed in the presence of the local congregation.

  • richm612 says on

    Isn’t #4 up to God……. We cannot manufacture conversions!

    • I do not read anything about manufacturing those numbers. This article is about measuring them in a church which is growing at a healthy rate.

    • I would agree that it ultimately is up to God but ask yourself, “Is our church provoding an atmosphere that promotes love and leads people to Christ? It would surprise you how many churches do not actively pursue the lost. Are you reaching oput to the lost and helping them get plugged in your local congregation? You cannot maufacture conversions but you can sow seeds. If you sow enough seed you will reep a harvest!

  • Our mortage payment seems so high even though it falls within about 25% of our budget.

  • Thom,
    You do a superb job in your books in dealing with church growth and missional topics. However, as a pastor/church planter not in America – I laughed most of the way through this list. This is probably a great list for American churches – but I have to think non-Americans would start cracking up as well when they read this.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Randy –
      I’m glad I brought some laughter to your day. I just changed the title of the blog so that the readers will know that these rules of thumb are for American churches.

  • The acres needed is way low for our area. State and local codes for parking, percentage of ground cover, water retention, set backs, etc. would make 1 acre far too small.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Your situation is true in many areas Rick. I remember that was the case when I served as a pastor in Florida.

  • Chris Cannon says on

    Wow! Very enlightening and challenging. We are in So Cal, leasing a warehouse. We average 1,200 on weekends…and have less than an acre of land. (Us So Cal people don’t really know what acres are!) My guess is we are behind in conversions. No way for us to measure that, at this time. Good food for thought. Thanks for what you do for us pastors!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That is incredible Chris. Where do people park? There’s no way you get 500 to 600 cars on one acre. Thanks for the input.

      • Chris Cannon says on

        Ah yes! Forgot to mention we have a reciprocal parking agreement with our neighbors. We have more parking than any church should be allowed to have! For free! Huge blessing! I failed to take that into account when doing the math. That’s why you’re the man, Thom! Thanks for all you do!

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Thanks for the explanation!

  • Don Matthews says on

    Concerning the 80% rule I would say that if you wait until you are 80% full you are already losing people. When you get to 65% full you need to start making changes so you never get to 80%.

    • Thom Rainer says on


      Well stated. The only caution I would give is to make certain you don’t lose the dynamics a crowd brings. Sometimes you can move too quickly, and thus a move at 85% or 90% is better. Every congregation is different.

      • Don Matthews says on

        Yes I agree. However, if the problem is parking, SS or worship space there a long lead time to go through the planning and implementing. It needs to be in process as you get to that 80% level. You can push the envelope as long as the people see that we recognize the issue and are in the process.

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