A sample of the metrics dashboard that will be used to evaluate the vitality of United Methodist clergy and congregations based solely upon numerical growth.
The Final Installment
This series has served as my attempt to touch on some of the most talked about issues facing the United Methodist Church as it decides whether or not to shift to a practice of analytical analysis of ministry through measuring so-called “key indicators” for local churches.
In what I promise to be my final words (at least for now) on this topic, I want to talk about the basics of what it actually means to measure ministry and what implications that practice can have on how we actually do ministry.
The woman I called my grandmother was one of those wise, older Southern women who had more things about life she’d forgotten than I could probably ever learn in my lifetime. As a younger child I remember a specific exchange I had with her, one similar to what many children might have.
“Grandma, why did they invent the inch on a ruler?” I asked her.
“So that we could measure things, son” she responded.
“Then why did we invent the foot on a ruler if we had the inch” I asked her back.
She wisely quipped back, “It’s so we can be sure what an inch is and what’s not an inch.”
You see, measuring things is a good practice. Churches and businesses everywhere should make it a regular practice to analyze metrics of progress. Every place should establish categories for analysis that can serve as indicators as to health of the organization. These categories should be firm enough to be measurable, yet flexible enough so as to not be confused as anything more than an indicator of correlation.
Numbers have never been able to tell causation, no matter how hard we try to manipulate the statistics. In fact, number can quite often hide the severity of situations because we become so inundated with them that we forget that actual human life stands behind those facts and figures. Using numbers as the driving force behind telling stories becomes a very banal exercise. But behind the trivial nature of obsessing over numbers stands another reality—as long as make numbers our top priority, we don’t have to make any sort of personal investment. We’re able to simply sit back and point fingers in accusation or wave our pom-poms in adoration.
The secret to numbers is not how you take them or what you take; it’s how and where you use them. “It’s so we can be sure what an inch is and what’s not an inch.” Publishing arbitrary numbers on a conference dashboard will inevitably lead to comparison. We can’t avoid it so we might as well admit it now. Dashboards will inevitably do more to affect appointments for pastors than they will affect the actual life of the local church. Pastors will be held accountable and rewarded based on so-called “effectiveness” found in dashboard reports. All the while, the life of the local church will probably not be much better because we now report statistics across our Annual Conference. So why do it in the first place?
The biggest problem with the Call to Action is not what it reports, although it’s pretty bad. The biggest problem is actually what it fails to report in its proposal. Nowhere in the report does it account for contextualization of ministry. Nowhere in the report, or in any of the subsequent information that has followed, do we hear that being a disciple of Jesus Christ might look differently from one place to the next. After all, ministry will look different in Tampa, FL than it does in Dallas, TX. It will be very different from San Francisco, CA and Atlanta, GA. And Lord knows it’s going to look different from New York City to Vienna, GA. You get my point. Metrics can’t account for the most complex variable that’s ever been introduced to science—human beings.
This is why being a disciple is not a science at all—it’s an art. It’s one that takes practice and training and gets really messy sometimes. It’s an art that is never perfected and whose only hope it found in the ebb and flow of growth, improvement and forgiveness for veering off the course from time to time.
The real issue facing the United Methodist Church is deciding what our real issue is. Are we gearing up for change across the denomination to ensure the life and ongoing financial solubility for our institution amid bleak forecasts that would suggest anything but is possible? Or, are we finally waking up to another reality? For too long we’ve sacrificed actual discipleship for being a good American citizen who follows laws and plays nice with others. The fact is mere church membership and tithing does not make us a disciple—that only comes through the active and ongoing process that seeks to transform us into new people (by the way we never saw this sort of urgency when we were just slowly losing members; it came when we started losing members AND money). And if we expect our members to be transformed, why not demand the same of our institution as a whole?
Numbers don’t tell the whole story of God’s transformative presence in the world. And they sure as heck don’t make disciples. So how about we get our priorities in the right place? How about we quit obsessing over financial solubility and butts in pews and start obsessing with what it means to be a faithful community that helps to form faithful disciples? How about our Call to Action be one that is not inward focused as much as it’s focused on our communities and world—those places deemed our true parish?
We might actually be surprised what could happen when we make this leap of faith…
The Rev. Ben Gosden is associate pastor of Mulberry Street UMC, Macon, GA.