Outputs, or outcomes?

I took several gems of insight away from the keynote sessions at the recent Young Clergy Women Project conference. One in particular helped me articulate a conviction I have held for a long time but have had trouble putting into words, at least in a concise way.

In the world of church, we are too often focused on outputs instead of outcomes.

Outputs are the measurement of the business world. They are easily captured in spreadsheets. In congregations, outputs are the nickels and noses: what money came in this month through the offering plate vs. how much went out for bills and payroll, how many people attended worship this week (and how many of these folks were first-time visitors), what new ministries were added this year.

Now, I’m not saying that outputs are unimportant. Being fiscally attentive is essential to good stewardship. Noting attendance patterns lets us know when we need to re-evaluate our approach and points us to potential pastoral care issues. And taking stock of new ministries gives us some sense of the energy, commitment, and needs among our constituents. (I use the word “constituents” here because it is more inclusive both of visitors to our campus and of the neighbors we work with in the community.)

Outputs, however, are not the best indicators of faithfulness and fruitfulness. Outcomes are. Outcomes are harder to get our arms around than numbers, and that’s why we fall back on our beloved spreadsheets. But which church is growing, in the spiritual sense? The one with a budget built solely on last year’s giving patterns and this year’s pledges, or the one that takes calculated risks rooted in a vision of what the congregation could be and do with God’s help? The one that has ten new members every week, many of whom never connect with a small group or find their niche within the congregation’s mission, or the one that rarely gains new people but is regularly finding ways to share God’s love with the surrounding area? The one that adds new Sunday School classes all the time using boilerplate curriculum, or the one that intentionally teaches and practices disciplines that open participants to the counsel of the Holy Spirit?

Outputs can be useful, but let’s not confuse them with outcomes. They are (some of the) benchmarks, not the goals in and of themselves. Where, then, have the two been unwittingly married in your context, and what separation/redefinition needs to occur for the people in your care to grow in discipleship and service?

Creative Commons image “Output” by Roger H. Goun is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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