Several years ago a prominent fast-food chain —seeking to increase sales through meeting the needs of its customers— placed feedback forms on the tables of its restaurants, asking patrons to evaluate the quality of its food and suggest ways of improving it.  Based on customer feedback, modifications were made to the taste, ingredients and preparation of the restaurant’s food.  Successive waves of suggestions and modifications followed until executives, mulling over financial trends, noticed something peculiar: their food sales actually declined rather than increased with each set modifications.   But why?  How could producing food that better reflected the tastes of their consumers be a recipe for disaster?  

The answer is simple.  They listened to the wrong people.  Let me offer an illustration that shows how the restaurant’s good intentions –listening to its customers— led it to make poor decisions.

Let’s say that I —unlike most people— disdain this particular restaurant’s practice of topping off its milkshakes with whip cream and a maraschino cherry.  Tell me, who is more likely to fill out a feedback form requesting a change in the way the restaurant makes milkshakes?  Someone who likes whip cream and cherries, or me?  Me, of course! And as a result, my voice (and taste preference) speaks louder than those who did not fill out the form.  If the restaurant’s practice of making shakes is based on my preferences, a lot of its customers –the silent majority-- are going to be unhappy.   So, in essence, making its food more appealing to a minority of its customers, made it less appealing to the majority.  Fewer sales and lower profits followed. 

What does this story have to do with pastoral ministry?  Plenty!

Parishes do this same kind of market research all the time.  A pastor, in preparation for Advent, asks parishioners in his weekly column in the parish bulletin for their preferences regarding the celebration of the Christmas Eve “Midnight Mass.” Several respond that the Mass starts too late (11:30 PM) for those with little children, and that they don’t like to be on the road at that time of night.  So, based on this feedback, the pastor moves “Midnight Mass” to sunset, somewhere around 5:00 PM.  But much to his surprise, instead of the usual standing room only turnout, the church is about half full.  Changing the Mass time made it more convenient for a minority, but at the expense of the majority, who, over the years, had developed the tradition of spending the evening of December 24th with family, then heading off to Mass as a closing family ritual. 

So what should the pastor have done differently?  He –like the fast food chain-- should have consulted broadly before making a major change. Doing so would have revealed that the present practice was more desirable than the proposed change.  I would advise the pastor to conduct a short, “in pew” survey distributed and collected at each Mass on a given weekend soliciting time preferences for “Midnight Mass.”  If the pastor wants be more thorough, I would recommend placing copies of the survey in the Narthex the following week so that those not present the week of the survey can pick one up, fill it out, and deposit it in the designated collection box before leaving church. 

Pew surveys may not reach all parishioners, but they are inexpensive (no mailing costs) and they do reach the one-third of parishioners who regularly attend. In most situations, certainly those which call for an evaluation of parish life and ministry, this is the population you will want to target.   Those who do not attend regularly are less able to comment knowledgably on such matters.  Online surveys are also becoming popular in church circles.  They are a particularly effective means of reaching parishioners under age 40.

There are plenty of resources available to parishes that which to consult broadly.  Here are a few:

ParishSurvey.Org  (http://www.parishsurvey.org/)
This web site is sponsored by the Office for Research and Planning of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  It contains a wide variety of sample questionnaires used by parishes in the Archdiocese, as well as a downloadable “how to” manual for conducting parish research.

PASS (Pastoral Assistance Survey and Services)  (http://cara.georgetown.edu/serv/pass.htm)
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) offers parishes high-quality parish research for an affordable price.  CARA customizes their questionnaires to meet a parish’s needs and writes up the results in a professional, easy to understand manner.

Survey Monkey  (http://www.surveymonkey.com/)
SurveyMonkey has a single purpose: to enable anyone to create professional online surveys quickly and easily.  The tool allows users to customize the color, size and style of the elements on your survey.  Want to send a survey by email? Simply copy and paste a link to your online survey in an email and send it out to your email list.  Also you can download a summary of your results in multiple formats. If you're a statistics nut, you can download all of the raw data you've collected as a spreadsheet.

The one thought I want to leave you with is that in parish ministry, as in the fast food business, it pays to consult well and failure to do so has consequences.

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David DeLambo is absolutely correct in saying that it is important to consult widely.  His example -- the pastor who changed the time of the Christmas eve "midnight Mass" from 11:30 to 5:00 -- shows that it is unwise to respond to a few complaints and ignore the silent majority.  I wish, however, that he had recommended parish town hall meetings.  The value of the town-hall approach is that the pastor not only gets a fairly immediate response to his questions, but can infer a great deal from seeing who chose to attend the meeting.  If there was only a sparse turn-out, for example, the pastor might infer that the issue about which he wanted to consult was not very important to his people.  Town-hall meetings with an effective group process allow good ideas to come to the fore, and put strident complaints into a context.  Above all, the town-hall format allows pastors to see who has the interest and enthusiasm for a new venture, and so aids volunteer recruitment.  Questionnaires and online surveys have their place, but there is nothing like a group meeting.

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