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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  • Larry Kessler says on

    Do you also do anLysis on how money is managed in these successful churches, salary, benefits, special groups or ministries?

  • rjteague says on

    Thom, I read your long post in the comment stream, and I do appreciate the marks you listed in the primary post. But many of these seem to me to be symptoms of what really makes a church healthy, rather than causes. Intentional prayer… well that’s fine, but what if it’s intentional but theologically off base? Churches will not be dynamic enough or have members mature enough if they neglect Biblical and theological instruction. Yes, that happens in sermons, but if churches are about not just growth but worship of the living God, wouldn’t the Number One Rule be to teach members what that’s all about? Maybe that seems like a given, but there are many congregations in the country today emphasizing growth over substance. I wonder just what they will look like over the long haul. Organizational health in a church is awesome, but it won’t last if the underlying spiritual structure is secondary to growth practice. Which I realize you weren’t really meaning to say, but the list itself neglects the foundational faith health of the congregation, and only addresses the symptoms of it.

    I’d also like to reinforce the comment by Murray Phillips. The church growth movement sometimes seems to me to forget that rural, small town, and small numbers in the cities are congregations with different circumstances, sometimes radically, than big, successful suburban congregations with coffee bars in their gathering halls.

  • Hi Thom, I read your books a lot and must say they are very helpful.
    How would you translate thses rules cross culturally?
    I pastor in London (UK) a church of 500 in a sunday single AM service we have about 10,000sq/ ft in the main auditorium and about 25 car parking spaces!!

  • I am assessing appropriate levels of volunteer staffing for Sunday morning teams and ministries. Are any general guidelines available that suggest ratios for Hospitality, kids ministry, student ministry, adult ministry, etc. based on number of attendees? Our church of about 1200 has good Sunday morning worship and a growing array of community and global missions, We have healthy volunteer participation and I believe our expectations are too high. Churches and companies assess staff headcount and budgets, but does anyone count levels of volunteers? Each volunteer costs something, either at the detriment of another ministry or the volunteer themselves, and our supply is not infinite. I’m trying to make a case for leaders to resist temptation to constantly expand methods and recruit more volunteers (not talking about Gospel outreach here, just service delivery), and to instead establish reasonable levels of satisfaction and contentment.

  • Any simple percentage breakdowns on percentage of church budget allocated for


  • Dr. Rainer,

    In your research and observations, is there a good rule of thumb for number of elders / pastors per congregants?

    Thanks in advance!

  • Thom,

    I am intrigued by what you mean when you wrote “church health.” Does that mean the spiritual health of your congregation? Growth? Measures to make people feel welcomed? Maybe I’m missing something, but when I think of my church and it’s health I think more along the lines of “do I and my people look more like Jesus today then they did yesterday? Last month? Last year? Last 5 years?” Colossians 1:28 pops into mind when Paul writes “we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” I guess when I read your post I’m not sure how acreage, parking, money and facilities make the top of the list. Those things are important and need to be addressed, but seem distant when faced with the task of presenting our people complete in Christ. So, did I miss something? If so, I’d like to know. If not, what would you consider the top 10 things to determine spiritual growth?


    • Thom Rainer says on

      Joe –

      I wish I had not used the words “church health.” I made the erroneous assumption that readers would understand my use of the phrase in the context of my other blogs. Please read my long comment in the comment stream. I hope that can bring clarity to your question.


      • Blogging…where things get scrutinized and not enough grace given…not that you needed it, but you got mine. Thanks for your reply and your longer post. It does help clarify. I’m still curious though…what do you mean by church health? or where would I find your writing on it?

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Thanks for the grace Joe.

        I have not seen nor have I written a concise or a comprehensive definition of church health. We typically write about specific components of church health: evangelistic health; discipleship health; prayer health; corporate worship health; small groups health; adequate facilities; missional health; fellowship health; and others. And even when different persons address different aspects of church health, they often approach it differently. Your question is a good one, but I am unaware if anyone who has tried to tackle that assignment.

  • Craig Kurimay says on

    A word of encouragement. Anybody who has even casually read your posts would have understood that your “statistics” are simply that and in no way were an attempt to corporatize (this is a word) the body of Christ. Pastor Johnny Hunt has said many times, “facts are your friends.” While statistics should never drive the mission and direction of the body of Christ, they can be a helpful tool by adding information for leadership to consider as they prayerfully seek God’s specific and unique plans for their congregations. Ed Stetzer’s research and reporting accomplishes similar objects. Thanks for ALL you do!

  • Steve Morris says on

    I would also like your opinion on ratio of pastors to attendance. I have always heard/used something like 1:150.

    • I have seen the rule of thumb set at 100 – not including the senior pastor. And it would seem the ratio might go down (fewer ministers needed per 100) once you past a certain size, since you would be staffed up. Also fewer in contexts in which there would be a larger number of qualified volunteers. So, I too am interested in seeing your tale on this.

  • Thom, Do you have numbers on how many staff members the average Church has based on average attendance and annual budget?

  • Murray E. Phillips says on

    I understand much of what you said in this article, however, how do you address decline in churches in rural areas or in the inner cities? Are these congregations simply to give up and close their doors? I think we have some bigger issues such as a society that appears not to see “religion” as an answer to the questions of life. I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of fads and programs come and go in the drive to build the “bigger” and “better” church. What I am observing is that most people, particularly those under age 40, don’t see the chuch as something that is relavent in their daily life. It appears that Christianity, in the American context, is all about “show” and not “substance”. Perhaps we need to look to Africa, Asia, and Latin America where the church is growing!

  • Good article. I have served most of my ministry overseas pastoring international English-language churches. Some of these standards apply. Some do not. In Singapore we averaged in some areas 300% space utilization. And in Stuttgart we have 700 worshipping in a building designed for 150. Creative solutions to challenges have helped us get beyond many of the space limitations. Giving to building programs is also not exactly according to the US numbers. I wonder how churches in New York City would see these standards. But there still are some common sense limitations and adjustments that must be made. The ratios and percentages change a bit, but they are still there.