Last year the churches I serve were asked to predict the future. After a series of conversations, we set some goals and submitted them to the conference. Our conference solicited the goals as part of the Vital Congregations program. I had hoped this would be a yearly request and we would not be requested to report on a regular basis to the Vital Congregation program.
At a recent meeting of clergy, we were told that we will soon be able to submit statistics to the Vital Congregation on a weekly basis. We were given the impression that we were expected to do this though it would not have to be on a weekly basis. The presenter said by Easter we should be expecting an e-mail to start the submission process. He tried to frame it in a positive way. Later he sent us an e-mail telling us the program was mandatory and part of our clergy covenant.
At the meeting, I got the impression that there had already been blow back from some pastors on this issue. He was a bit defensive. The presenter stressed how this is a tool. It was not going to be used to attack pastors. Our end of the year reports contain the same information. If the superintendency wanted to use information against pastors, they could already do it.
I wanted to ask the presenter why are we doing this? How will this tool help? At that moment though, I was angry and annoyed and did not think I could ask in a non-hostile way. I also feared that he would just give the same justification that he used earlier – we measure what is important to us.
I have no fundamental problem with collecting information. We need information to get a sense of what is going on in both the local and larger church. Collecting information is at the heart the Methodist movement. Methodists have always collected information as a way to gauge their ministries.
I also do not have a problem with setting numeric goals in a healthy church situation. When a church is thriving, I believe that it should set goals. Goals, involving numbers, in a healthy situation creates accountability. They can be a tool in evaluating the church’s ministry and discerning what God is calling the church to do or who God is calling the church to be.
What I question though is the motivation behind the tools we are creating to collect information. Tools and information by themselves are neither good or bad. It is what we do with tools and information that matters. Information and tools can be used for good, but they can also be used to hurt and destroy people.
I have been trying to understand how these tools will help a church or a pastor. What is the advantage of submitting information on a regular basis? How will this enhance our ministries? Why do we need more frequent information than a year end report?
I can think of three advantages of frequent reporting. The first is that if a pastor or church is totally out of touch with their situation, this might create a crisis. It is theoretically possible that the pastor or the church are blissfully unaware that their situation is deteriorating. Reporting the numbers, might motivate the pastor or the church to confront the deteriorating situation.
A second reason frequent reporting might be helpful is if this more frequent information helped the leadership of the conference be more aware of the current state of affairs in our churches. I heard a bishop complain about how the information he was receiving from the statistical reports was too outdated to be useful. I question why we couldn’t create a better way of collating the year end report information so that the Bishop could have it within a week of being submitted, but there is a case for more immediate information as leaders discern what is best for the conference.
The best case for frequent reporting of numbers is if there was immediate positive response to the numbers. What I mean by immediate positive response is that the leaders of the conference responded to numbers in a way that is helpful. For churches reporting numbers that show marked improvement, the conference leadership could congratulate the church and try and learn what is working in that church’s context. Ask questions to suss out what is going on.
In churches where the numbers indicate the church is struggling, the conference leadership could try and work with the church. Discover why the church is struggling and work together on a plan to move forward. Is there a mismatch between the pastor and the congregation? Are there forces beyond the congregations control? The leadership of the conference could help congregation who are struggling discern who God is calling them to be and how to live into that.
If the information is used in ways to help, I am all for the frequent reporting of numbers on a regular basis. What I fear is that they will not help. My most mild concern is that this will be a waste of time. Looking at all the information I will need to collect on a regular basis, it will be a fair amount of time and effort each week to ensure I have accurate numbers. If the conference does not use this information in a way to help then from my perspective I will be wasting my time.
While I worry about wasting my time, I do have deeper fears I fear that this is the wrong focus for vitality. Numbers can be a tool to gauge the healthiness of a church, but only in a limited way. All the different metrics can do is show you how your ministry is doing in terms of numbers. The numbers give you a sense of the healthiness of the church in a limited way. They do not address the more fundamental issues. Numbers will not tell you is why. Why is the attendance decreasing?
Metrics are a way of looking at the output of the system. The problem lies in the system. Vitality is more an issue of being than doing. What we do and the measurable output are a reflection of who we are. The healthiest way to change the output is not to focus on what we do. Instead we need to focus who we are and who we are called to be in Christ.
If we focus on numbers, we miss the point. Saying our attendance is a problem will not make our attendance better. If it creates a crisis, in a delusional church, it might help, but most pastors and leaders of churches already have a sense of how their church is doing. If they are not in crisis mode yet, the numbers are not going to spur a change now.
Wanting better numbers will not increase the numbers. A thriving church is complicated. Noticing problematic numbers alone will not solve anything. It may increase the unhealthiness of the system by abandoning core principles, using short-term gimmicks, creating paper ministries, but a focus on numbers will not help with spiritual healthiness. Not all growth is good. Multiplication is not always a boon. Growth of a tumor is generally bad. Replicating cancer cells are not helpful.
I also fear that our focus on numbers is the wrong way to frame church vitality. We are buying into and using language and ideas of the business world and secular leadership. The presenter at the gathering started his portion of the session by calling United Methodist churches “store fronts” and “outlets.” I bit my tongue.
Churches are not store fronts or outlets. A store front is a building. An outlet sells cheap goods. We are not a building. The church does not have a product. As a pastor I am not trying to sell anything.
We are witnesses to the Good News found in Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. The church gathers to be a witness to this Good News and share it. Our primary task as a disciple is to follow Jesus into the world to love God and love our neighbor. As we go out, we invite others to follow Jesus too.
The language of faith is different the language of business and secular leadership. If we focus on the values and priorities of the business world, such as numbers, we can easily miss God’s values and God’s priorities. I agree with Tom Berlin and Lovett Weem’s book Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results that God intends ministry to be fruitful. Fruitfulness though cannot always be captured by statistics. Many prophets in the Bible, who we would say had fruitful ministries, were not worldly successes. Only time would show the fruit of their ministry.
Even more problematic is that sometimes what the world views as success is not vitality. Dan Dick’s book Vital Signs contends that some churches that look successful now are cancerous. They will not be vital in the long run. Vitality, thriving, fruitfulness, all need the long view to really be appreciated.
Framing discipleship in terms of attendance is also problematic Going to church does not make one a disciple. Professions of faith are important steps on the path of discipleship, but they are not the be all or end all. We can give money to missions and not honor God. Christians can become very smart in their small groups, but not grow in their love for God.
We run the risk of having great numbers, but poor discipleship. I keep hearing that we measure what is important, but what happens if the numbers become most important? Instead of the hard work of discipleship, we chase after better numbers? Does God care about our outward metric appearance, or our hearts? Framing vitality in terms of metrics may not be our best path to thriving in God’s mission and vision for the church.
This push for metrics leaves me with many questions. Why are we doing this? How will this lead to vitality? Why now? All we have been told is that we have to do this based on our covenant as elders and that it will help.
The presenter assured us this would not be used as a weapon. If the conference wanted to use this information against us, they could use the year end reports. I did not find this reassuring. We were not told specifically why we had to use this tool. No particular evidence was used to contend this would be helpful. How can we trust that this tool will be used for good?
Now I am not suggesting that there is some cabal of evil conference leaders planning to use metrics to destroy pastors. My fear is that we have the wrong focus and are framing vitality in the wrong way. The harm that may come from our focus on metrics and framing of vitality will be more banal and subversive. This effort is not malicious, but perhaps more dangerous because the problems are more fundamental and the damages less overt.
When we are not told why we are doing this in a meaningful way, it becomes hard to trust the system and those perpetuating it. We are in an unhealthy system. No one has a silver bullet solution to what ails the church. The more we focus on metrics the harder it will be not to use them to in ways that are not punitive. It is easier to look at numbers than to understand what is going on in a local church. Since the conference cannot easily make a local church do anything, the pressure for change falls primarily on the pastor.
Pastors are already stressed out. Change in a local church is not easy. Helping a church be who God calls them to be is difficult. Numbers only add to the dififculty and stress. Instead of discerning who God calls us to be, the pressure becomes to do what it takes to improve the numbers. Increasing numbers does not necessarily mean faithfulness to God or increasing discipleship.
Tools are neither inherently good or bad. They are what we make of them. We could use the tool of metrics in ways that enhance our ministry. My concern is that metrics lead us focus on the wrong things and frame vitality in the wrong way.