A Newfound Affinity

Church analyzes gaps to build a happier congregation

by Alan Chow, John C. Howard and Nancy Lambe

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While it might be more typical for companies to use affinity analysis for strategic planning, nonprofits and other organizations should not pass up the opportunity to use it in planning strategies for success.

In the following example, 14 church leaders used affinity analysis for strategic planning and gap analysis in an effort to meet the organization’s goal of becoming a healthy congregation.

Using affinity analysis, the group identified areas that needed improvement to achieve a congregation that is growing in size and spirit, which would in turn lead to long-term viability. Here are the steps the group took:

Brainstorming: First, the group generated ideas associated with the goal. Each member wrote on sticky notes their ideas of what constitutes a healthy congregation. There was no discussion during this thought-accumulation session, which allowed for idea identification in a free-flowing environment.

Scrubbing: Participants put their notes on the wall and stated their ideas. Others in the group were allowed to ask questions for clarification, but no judgments were made.

Clustering: The group took turns categorizing the ideas according to underlying themes or images. Categories emerged from within other groupings. There was no talking until everyone felt the groupings were complete (see Online Figure 1).

This is the key to an affinity diagram, because the lack of discussion forces each team member to ascertain the relationship between items as they are silently presented by other team members.1

Labeling: Members searched for commonality or grouping factors and discussed labels for each of the categories. Large sheets of paper were prepared for each category, which allowed the group to write several ideas on one sheet while providing the flexibility to move the sheets and tape them to the walls in appropriate order.

Organizing: Participants moved the sheets so the most important idea was placed closest to the goal. The group incorporated the application of the interrelationship diagram to help identify the cause-and-effect relationships between the groups and their links to achieving the goal (see Online Figure 2).

From the interrelationship diagram, it became clear that fellowship, caring, outreach and appropriate funding affect a healthy congregation. Visionary leadership influences youth activities, caring and outreach, while youth activities affect caring, outreach and fellowship.

Proximity: The group addressed the individual items posted and related them to potential areas of improvement for the church. Here, the group began to look at the gaps between current activities and the desired activities necessary to achieve the ultimate goal. The group recognized that reducing these gaps would increase membership and lead to increased funding and growth (see Online Figure 3).

Planning: The group reviewed the gaps identified, prioritized them based on importance to the overall goal and selected those the group agreed were most important for the coming year. The group developed plans for each of these areas, which included what would be done, who would lead the effort and who would assist, as well as a timeline for completion.

Before finalizing the plan, the group performed a quick review to ensure the plan aligned with the church’s mission statement. The group then prepared to communicate its plan to the congregation.

Affinity analysis provided a structured method for developing the strategic plan. It provided a means for generating and categorizing ideas, assessing gaps between the current environment and the desired environment, and laying out the planned activities for meeting the overall goal of having and maintaining a healthy congregation. Affinity analysis is a great tool for strategic planning in any type of organization.

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Online Figure 1

Online Figure 2

Online Figure 3


  1. D.L. Kelley, "New Twist on Traditional Quality Tools and Techniques," Journal of Quality and Participation, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2000, pp. 50-51.

Alan Chow is an instructor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. He earned a master’s degree in quantitative business analysis from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Chow is a senior member of ASQ and a certified Six Sigma Black Belt.

John C. Howard is an adjunct instructor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He earned a master’s degree in industrial management at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Nancy Lambe is an instructor at the University of South Alabama. She earned an MBA from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

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