In this second post of this series, Metrics, Measurements, and Dashboards, Oh My!, I want to raise the question of the use of dashboards as a means of reporting statistical data. The North Alabama Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has a model of what many other conferences will soon adopt in terms of statistical reporting. As you can see from the link, there are 7 major areas of reporting: Worship Attendance, Overall Membership, Baptisms, Professions of Faith, People in Service, People Served, and Apportionments Paid. Assuming this is the model many other conferences will adopt, it would follow that these are the 7 areas of measurement to determine a “vital congregation.”
Let’s let that sink in for a moment…
The issue for many, I would assume, is not only what we count, or even how we count, but whether or not it’s a worthy endeavor to measure these areas, or any others, in an effort to report to an institutional authority on a weekly basis.
I will admit that I’m pretty split on this issue. On the one hand, these areas are very worthy areas that, when measured, will ensure a congregation and its leadership is held accountable. Churches that think “numbers don’t matter” are often fooling themselves into an early grave. Numbers matter a great deal in terms of the life and vitality of a local congregation.
On the other hand, there is really nothing in these areas that even comes close to telling the narrative of a local congregation. I looked through the dashboard that is offered by North Alabama and found cases where congregations rank high among those growing the fastest in membership as well as declining the most in worship attendance. The apportionment statistic tells nothing about congregational debt. For example, some churches, like homeowners, ventured into the market of new additions and buildings only to come out of it with lots of debt in a declining market.
These churches will suffer for the next few years in paying off this debt. Call me crazy but tracking apportionment paying on a weekly basis smells a bit too much like institutional standards trumping local needs. A recent issue I’ve had is that “profession of faith” would lead you to believe that one is making a first-time profession. This does not account for persons seeking to make a “reaffirmation of faith.” This would include those who grew up in the church, left for some years, and are now back with a desire to join. I’ve had people like this tell me, ”I’m not new to faith, I’m just back.” How do we account for these?
All of this is to raise the question: What, if anything, should we be tracking and reporting on a regular basis?
A friend of mine, John Stephens, has some interesting points on the need to get beyond “bottom-line” thinking and develop measurement that track potential and growth within various areas of discipleship.
Another good resource is this book written from the standpoint of the American business world. I have a seminary profess who like to chide us saying that “the church is always the cutting edge of 30 years ago.” My concern is that the business world is beginning to get beyond the emphasis solely on the bottom-line just as the Church is finding it.
In the end, we have to be about more than so-called “finished products” reported in statistical analysis. Numbers can only show correlations, they almost never reveal causation. And while reporting weekly statistics could prove to get us back on track in caring about the mission of the church, we cannot be consumed by reporting. Doing so will cause us to eventually lose the narrative of each of our congregations, thereby causing them to lose their unique identities as they become “just another number on a page.”
So what do you think? How effective will weekly reporting be in re-establishing the mission of the church in our local communities? What positive steps will reporting help us take? What are the negative effects of weekly reporting?
The Rev. Ben Gosden is associate pastor of Mulberry Street UMC, Macon, GA.