Statistics and Divination

I read Thomas Long’s essay in the Christian Century today about “Future Fatigue” and it led me to think about my annual one-on-one with my district superintendent.  Part of our discussion will be on how to get the churches in the charge I serve to give goals for ministry.  How will they improve their statistics for 2013?  It is part of a larger movement in the United Methodist Church called Vital Congregations.

Now I am all for vital congregations.  One of my highest goals in ministry, next to faithfully discerning God’s call on my life, is to help the congregations I serve thrive in God’s mission and vision for the congregations.  Vitality and thriving are linked in my mind.  You cannot thrive without being vital and vitality requires the church to be thriving.

What I struggle with is how will making goals help the church thrive or be vital?  Saying that average worship attendance will increase by 5 in the next year will not bring in the requisite amounts of people necessary for the average attendance to increase.  Stating a goal does nothing to realize a goal.  Apple does not sell iPhones because it has a goal to sell iPhones.  It sells iPhones by creating and marketing a product people want to buy.

As a pastor, I cannot predict the future.  My seminary did not offer a course on practical divination.  Just as it did not offer a course on mind reading.  Generally speaking, I want the statistics to improve.  I see statistics as a gauge to measure the health of the congregation.  Improved statistics offers evidence that the situation is changing.  Hopefully for the better.

My desire though for improved statistics is not because I care all that much about numbers by themselves.  I hope they come in the context of a larger story of how the congregation is living out God’s mission and vision.   Ideally they would reflect: more people are turning over their lives to God, more people are growing in love with God and their neighbor.  As a result, each day the community reflects God’s kingdom a little more because of our ministry and witness.

Predicting the future by making goals will not accomplish anything.  People will not come to the church because the church has the goal of improving its worship attendance.  Congregants will not change their behavior based on a goal.  I doubt anyone is going to say “Oh we agreed that our worship attendance will improve by a 100, well now I will start inviting my friends to church.  All I needed was a goal.  Thank you Vital Congregations for showing me the way!”  People do not invite people to church because of goals.  They invite people to church for many reasons, but goals are not a strong reason.  Who wants to come to church to fill a quota?

Goals do create the illusion of control.  Leaders in the United Methodist church feel like things are out of control (declining stats, failure to pass restructure, ineffective pastors creating havoc).   Creating goals creates accountability in the sense that pastors, and maybe congregations, could be held responsible for not achieving their goals.  Whether they are being held responsible for something they can control is a whole different issue.

The congregations I serve know they are struggling.  They are stressed and uncertain about the future.  I am not sure how goals will help.  If the goals inspire them to make changes, it might help.  I doubt it will inspire them.  Living into God’s mission and vision might inspire them, but that mission and vision is not goal driven.

If they take the goals seriously, but continue to struggle, the goals might be counterproductive.  It will quantify their perceived failure in worldly terms.   It will add to the stress and the hurt, but will not lead to change.  The congregations might just become entrenched in the worst ways possible.  A scenario that is just as problematic is that we will set goals and then ignore them.  Unless the congregations are held accountable, there is little incentive to take the goals seriously.  I could be held accountable, but that thought will not change how I minister or how the congregation will act.

We have made predictions in the past and so far we have been mostly wrong.  I have no skill in divination.  No one left an urim or a thummin for me on the altar.  If I asked my parishioners for one of their goats, I probably would get reported to the SPCA.  Statistics are a thermometer, not a thermostat.  At the end of the day, I have trouble seeing how this will help.  Part of me feels like we are going to waste time and energy.  A stronger part of me feels like all of this feeds into an already unhealthy system.  Goals related to vital congregations creates unrealistic expectations in terms of predicting the future, creates possible unhealthy power dynamics if people are held accountable for things they cannot control, and most of all makes us practice divination when we should be practicing discernment.

Project 365: April 28 – Dashboard.”  ©2007 Copyright Allison Meier.  Licensed Under Creative Commons.

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