I have been trying hard to move past reporting numbers on a regular basis to the Vital Congregation website. No one in my congregation is happy about it either, but we have agreed to try and comply. When I read or hear misinformation propagated by the conference and my blood pressure starts rising, I try and take Bishop Lowry’s advice to our conference to “breath deep” and then “focus” on what I feel God is calling me to do to help the churches I serve thrive. Some days it is easier than others.
On Saturday I taught a lay speaking class on Lance Jones and Andy Stanley’s book Communicating for Change. After I was done walking the class through the book, we watched an Andy Stanley sermon from his sermon series “The Comparison Trap.” In the sermon “Land of Er,” Stanley contends the author of Ecclesiastes was right when writing “and I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 4:4, TNIV). As I was watching the sermon, my mind started to drift towards a conversation from the previous day.
The day before the lay speaking class, I talked with one of my friends in ministry. We were talking about lay speaking and then our conversation turned to the weekly statistical reporting. I initially bit my tongue when he solicited my thoughts. My soapbox on the subject is always close by and I could rant for a long time on why this is all so deeply problematic. My friend is not a fan of the reporting either. We both worry that these numbers will be used to label pastors unfairly. He thinks it might create a class system of pastors.
As I heard Stanley talk about how “better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 4:5, TNIV), I started to wonder if envy was the ultimate end of statistical reporting. No one in the churches I serve is happy with our numbers. They were unhappy before I came and we continue to struggle. Yet, this unhappiness has not produced significant change, at least in numerical terms.
I had trouble seeing how weekly reporting would help, but in this past week, a bigwig in the conference directed our attention to a tool that allows us to see every church in the conferences reported numbers. We can see the numbers of any church participating in the program. At the time I wondered how this would be helpful. Were they trying to shame churches?
In the sermon, Andy Stanley talks about how we look to the left and the right to see if we are ok. Are we doing better or worse than those around us? Envy will drive us to try and be better in relation to people we perceive as ahead of us. This statistical project now allows churches to look to the left and to the right. They can see how they are doing compared to the United Methodist church down the road.
Stanley’s point in the sermon is that “there is no win in comparison.” If envy drives us, we will never be at peace. It is as the author of Ecclesiastes suggests “chasing after the wind.” While we should do our best with what God has given us, we need to acknowledge how envy drives us, the damage it causes, and root it out of our lives by the grace of God.
I wonder though if the United Methodist church and my conference are trying to institutionalize envy. If we are not trying to shame churches and pastors, are we trying to get them to be envious of each other? Drive them to perform better statically, by making them look to the left and the right. The more we use the language of leadership and buy into the values of secular society, the more I think it is possible. When you have the mentality of “whatever it takes” and equate discipleship with numbers, the less you have to hold you back from using any means possible. Even if that means is institutionalizing in a small way the sin of envy.