Congregational Size and Perceived Social Support: “Come early; stay late”

Ed. note: In response to the recent discussion on “Supersizing parishes,” Pray Tell reader Jack Rakosky submits the following.

Size, Conflict, and Opportunities for Interaction: Congregational Effects on Members’ Anticipated Support and Negative Interaction. by Christopher G. Ellison, Neil M. Krause, Bryan C. Shepherd, and Mark A. Chaves  Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion (2009) 48(1): 1-15.


Mark Chaves has pioneered an innovative way of studying congregations. He began with a national sample study of individuals (the 1998 General Social Survey) which asked half of the individuals an extensive list of religious questions as well as the name and address of their congregation. He then did a second survey by contacting the pastor (or other significant person) for detailed questions about their congregation. Liturgists should note that this data has so much detail about worship (e.g. use of incense) that it actually constitutes a national random sample of data about worship services. The researchers were then able to combine the two data sets of personal religious experience and congregational characteristics.


An extensive literature documents the positive effects of church attendance on a variety of mental and physical health outcomes and measures of well being. These might be mediated through the person’s perception of congregational support. In this study, this hypothesis was assessed by the following two questions.

  1. If you were ill, how much would people in your congregation help you out? 
  2. If you had a problem or were faced with a difficult situation, how much comfort would people in your congregation be willing to give you?

On the average people reported relatively high levels of anticipated support (3.24 on a scale of 4). This high level of perceived potential support may be as important or even more important that actual social support in maintaining ongoing health and happiness.

What objective characteristics of congregations might have influenced a person’s perception of how much help that they might receive?

Size: Congregations were divided into those with more than 2500 adult members (23%) and those with less than 2500 members. The larger congregations produced lower levels of anticipated social support.

Frequency of attendance: positive related to anticipated social support; both are positively related to financial giving.

Formal opportunities for interaction: The number of all types of groups in the congregation was totaled. The average respondent attended a congregation with 10.5 group activities. However the number of formal groups is unrelated to anticipated support, even when adjusted for size of congregation.

Informal opportunities for interaction: This was measured by the number of minutes the pastor estimated were spent socializing before and/or after services. Congregations which reported more than 30 minutes of informal socializing time were perceived as more supportive.

Number of staff members per member: Marginally negative relationship, i.e. the greater the number of staff members the lower the levels of support expected from fellow churchgoers.

Catholics reported lower levels of anticipated social support even when these were adjusted for congregational size. This variable was included in the study because previous research had found that Catholics perceived less social support in their parishes.

My interpretation

This study is about anticipated support, not actual support. Therefore larger congregations with greater resources (money, people, groups) may provide more actual help. However, even if they do help people in general, congregational members do not perceive them as likely to help them personally. The challenge for large parishes with many ministries may be to find a way for the average parish member to personally experience this supportive network rather than read about it as items in the bulletin or on a web site.

American Grace presented a good case that the health and happiness benefits of church attendance derive from the religious social networks involved, namely families, friends and small groups. Someone who does not have one or more of these religious networks does not get these benefits of church attendance. However people who have social networks but who do not attend church do not receive the health and happiness benefits either. So worship (love of God) and social networks (love of neighbor) have to go together to produce the benefits.

The benefits of small groups on health and happiness are particularly well documented. However in this study, the number of small groups in a congregation as reported by the pastor does not affect a person’s perception of how supportive the parish is. Again this is a study of perception. People may not be aware of how many groups there are, or whether or not they are likely to be supportive to them personally. The challenge again for the large congregation may be to turn an organizational chart of many small groups into a personal experience of perceived likely support.

The most important finding of this study is that people perceived their congregation was more likely to be supportive if the pastor reported that the amount of time spent in informal social activity before and/or after worship was greater than 30 minutes. Why might this particular time be so effective? First it is in close proximity to worship. Experiencing giving and receiving both the love of God and of neighbor in such close proximity may be very important in establishing a general sense of security and support. Second, it is an informal interaction rather than structured. Research has indicated some tension in small groups (e.g. bible study) between the organizational demands for transmitting content and the personal desires of members for social support. Third, it is very efficient for people to add 30 minutes to a worship experience rather than spending another 30 minutes preparing for and getting and from a group meeting that may last 60-90 minutes, not all of which may be personal interaction with others.

“Come early, stay late”

My thinking about “come early, stay late” was inspired by four years on a pastoral council listening to complaints about people coming late and leaving early. It occurred to me that they had little incentive to come early or to stay late, so naturally many would arrive late or leave early.

As this study documents, the presence of many ministries and groups in a congregation does not translate into a subjective sense of being supported by the congregation. The socialization time before and after worship provides a great opportunity for “lite” experiences of these ministries and groups. Some parishes already do some of this as part of their stewardship recruitment processes. However “recruitment” makes the experience too formal and business like. One of the delights of being a pastoral council member of a large parish was being able to get to know its many ministries without having to commit time to them. The “lite” experiences of informal socialization time should emphasize getting acquainted with ministries and groups, and supporting them by interest and encouragement rather than being occasions for recruitment and commitment. Congregations are communities not businesses.

However the dynamic of informal socializing should focus much more upon the interests and talents of the parish members than parish ministries. There should be opportunities for people with professional interests and hobbies to meet other people with similar interests. As someone who worked for the mental health system I would be glad to provide people with opportunities to become acquainted with agencies, programs, volunteer opportunities, and the mentally ill themselves. Similarly I would be glad to demonstrate to people the computer program that energizes my bible study, or introduce them to my liturgical music collection. 

A key element in mitigating the increasing size of Catholic parishes may be to keep the Mass times two hours apart to enable there to be 30 minutes or more of socializing time before and after each Mass to help parish members know each other and the parish better. Think of the time before, between and after Masses as a parish mall that enables people to casually meet one another and become acquainted with their roles in the parish, in the community, and their interests and hobbies.

Jack Rakosky has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current interests are spirituality and voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.





6 responses to “Congregational Size and Perceived Social Support: “Come early; stay late””

  1. Tom Poelker Avatar

    This so closely approaches being obviously true that I hesitate to add a bit at the margin.

    One lesson I have accepted is that building community and improving its liturgy are symbiotic.

    Some of the best parish community spirit has been visible to me in places where they did not have a permanent liturgical space but had to come early and stay late to set and strike the furniture and accoutrements for liturgy, usually accompanied by some equivalent of coffee and donuts. I have always been impressed by the simplicity of getting children enthusiastically involved in the set/strike/pick-up-after-ourselves tasks.

    [Please name this computer program which energizes your bible study.]

    1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      Since I have never worshiped in an environment that was regularly set up and taken down, it never occurred to me they might be very effective ways of building community (e.g. perceptions of social support)

      This finding may seem obvious to the many readers who do participate in preparation for liturgy in their parishes and in “debriefing” afterwards because of their ministerial roles. However the finding is not that people who come early and stay late experience more community, although that may be true.

      The finding is that people who expect community (i.e. social support) are more likely to be found in congregations whose pastors report that more time is spent socializing before and after worship services. This finding occurs even though the same people do not expect more community (i.e. social support) when the pastors report there are many small groups in the congregation, even more small groups per member.

      We expect people who report more time in a community (e.g. more frequent church attendance) to also expect more social support.(one of the findings of this study) Usually researchers try to place these questions far enough apart to avoid people having one answer influence another.

      However the correlation in this case is between a member’s response and a pastor’s response on two different surveys across more than a thousand congregations! That informal socialization could produce that strong of relationship especially when something like number of small groups does not is very interesting. Getting people into small groups has become the conventional wisdom for mega congregations. This suggests informal socializing may be at least as if not more important!

    2. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      BibleWorks is the computer program.

      It helps to be a computer savvy person (e.g. one who regularly learns complex programs without taking a course) however the program does comes with a lot of tutorials.

      I gave it as an example because I think demonstrating some of the things it can do in a casual situation with the option of then spending 20 or 30 minutes with a person who is seriously interested might be a good use of time.

      The recently released Version 9 has the new NAB and new NIV versions. However I do no think it has the old NAB version, although people like myself who are upgrading from older versions will still be able to retain the old.

  2. Tom Poelker Avatar

    $360 is a little stiff for Bible software for those of us not currently in graduate studies in Scripture.


    I wish it had more translations available, but the original languages and interlinear features are a good base.

  3. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar

    There’s always, an online Bible search engine with dozens of languages and editions.

  4. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    BibleWorks is expensive in part because it is a very sophisticated program much like SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Scientists) which is far more expensive. Since I bought it when it was Version 4, I have probably invested close to a thousand dollars with four upgrades. But I think it is worth it for what it brings.

    D.C. Parker in his book The Living Text of the Gospels maintains that the printed texts of our Bibles are an illusion that do not take into account the Gospels as they first existed as living word, then as separate manuscripts, then as a codex, then as a lectionary, then as a printed book available to increasingly numbers of literature people.

    He maintains that we are at the beginning of the new world of the electronic Bible which will transform our experience as much as all these preceding transformations. That is certainly true of my experience of BibleWorks. The issues of literal and dynamic translation become small and irrelevant when you have as much capacity to understand “the text” in relationship to so many other parts of scripture and so many translations as one has in a sophisticated electronic package of research tools. It becomes a “living text.”

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