Disengagement: The Growing Enemy

Man engaged in conversation.The world is transforming rapidly and the challenge of engaging people is getting harder to achieve. 30 years ago, you could expect to see about 80% of a church family in a Sunday Service every weekend. 10 years ago that percentage had dropped to 70% and today the figure is closer to 60 %. As time goes on we will face the potential for historically lower levels of engagement and even more active disengagement. Ignoring engagement is no longer a viable option.

What is Engagement?

We hear this term all the time, but what is Engagement, really? When most people use the term “engaged” the first thought that comes to mind is “engaged to be married.” This is quite a useful comparison when we talk about individual engagement because we are looking for similar levels of commitment between two parties. For true engagement to occur, both the individual and the Church to whom he or she is a part of, needs alignment between their vision and goals and the motivation to work together collaboratively on a long-term basis. A working definition for engagement could therefore be:

“The emotional commitment that an individual has to the Church and its vision”

This emotional commitment implies that the individual genuinely cares about his or her Church, the people that are part of the Church and any ministry they may be involve in. Put another way, engaged individuals are not just coming for what they can get out of a Church, but are engaged and enjoy working proactively and with energy and enthusiasm to achieve the Church’s vision.

What Makes Engagement So Hard?

Most leaders recognize that engagement is critical and disengagement a potential disaster, but what can be done about it. The first challenge with engagement efforts is to accurately and objectively measure specific expectations, motivators, and even core values of people; only then can you begin to formulate specific steps that can be taken to raise engagement levels. A newly developed framework and methodology for engagement assessment has been developed by Psychologist, Dr. Dan Harrison which may be a new way to think about this subject and it is described in brief below. Even though this is primarily directed to the commercial world, it can be used by Churches very effectively, especially if we start with staff and those who head up major ministries.

The Harrison Engagement Model

At the simplest level, for people to be well-engaged involves finding out what they want in order to thrive and stay with your Church. Dr. Dan Harrison’s engagement model proposes eight categories or clusters of expectations as shown in the chart below:

Disengagement1For the individual, these categories provide a framework at the cluster heading level to start thinking about what factors are most important to them. For example, how much development should we make available to people? What remuneration expectations exist so that we can encourage greater discretionary effort (this would be applicable to paid staff)?

What kinds of authority are people likely to exhibit and how accountable do they feel for their results? How should we communicate with people about important issues? How much appreciation and recognition should we extend? If we don’t know what is expected and at what levels, how can we possibly adopt changes that will address expectation shortfalls and thus increase engagement?

 How Does It Work?

Assuming that a Church is generally committed to engagement as a concept, the Harrison framework provides guidance on what should be a relatively straightforward assessment of the approach that would seem to be most appropriate, so that leaders can then be consistent in their subsequent actions.

Although people’s expectations will vary greatly, the Harrison framework (which collects information via a 20-minute online questionnaire) captures individual input at a trait level (which are shown underneath each of the eight cluster expectation headings in the chart above). When these are then aggregated, patterns start to emerge and common expectations are then identifiable. These patterns tend to fall into at least two categories:

  1. Some cluster categories will be deemed to be more important than others and should therefore command more attention from leaders if they want to bring about greater engagement. For example, individuals might indicate that work-life balance is more important to them than other clusters and leaders may therefore find it useful to drill into these expectations further and create more flexibility when this need is well-understood.
  2. Within a single expectation cluster, people may present a more complex set of needs that requires some careful thought in terms of approaches that could be taken. For example, in the authority expectations cluster, volunteers may generally want more autonomy or freedom to act and the chance to take more initiative but at the same time want clear structure in terms of guidelines perhaps in order to steer their efforts.

The point here is that a framework such as the one provided by Harrison can provide much greater granularity around the subject of engagement and therefore provide extremely helpful insights into what possible changes may lead to much better results. This is a considerable improvement on taking a “best-guess” or “one size fit all” approach to engaging people which may well work for a few individuals but certainly not all (and maybe not even the majority). 


Any attempt to overcome disengagement or lift levels of overall engagement will require careful thought and planning but even when this is done, general strategies to encourage greater engagement can be very “hit or miss”. Using a diagnostic framework such as the one developed by Dan Harrison can help make these efforts much more targeted and likely to be effective in the long term.

About the Author

This article has been adapted from the work of Dr. Jon Warner who is a prolific author and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology.

If you are interested in knowing more about he The Harrison Engagement Model you can contact me at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Colin Noyes

Colin Noyes is a Brisbane (Australia) based coach and consultant with extensive experience in the areas of organisational health and growth, change management, leadership development, recruiting/staff development and coaching. Read more

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