What do your metrics say to your members?

Nickels and noses are the two most common measurements of a congregation’s vitality. That’s because they are the easiest to track, not because they are the most useful metrics. Income as compared to expenses tells us whether we’ll be able to keep the lights on and make payroll each month, which is no small deal, but a simple spreadsheet of revenue and expenditures reveals little else. For example, how many giving units does our church have this year as compared to last year? Did repeat givers increase or decrease their contributions, and what are the pastoral care questions posed by these patterns? We don’t know. Similarly, average worship attendance is just that: a flat number with no nuance to it. How often are unique individuals coming? What patterns do we notice among newcomers? ASA doesn’t give us any of that.

There is another problem with the nickels and noses approach to metrics. What do those approaches to measurement say to our members? When we emphasize a strictly numbers-based view of budgeting, we tell givers that their relationship with the church is transactional. You come, you put some money in the plate, and we’ll give you a feel-good Jesus experience. There’s little theological reflection on how we’re using our finances or education around the spiritual impact of giving on the giver. When we make a big deal out of ASA, we imply that we don’t care who is coming, why, and how often – as long as there are butts in the pews. It’s no wonder that congregations and denominations who put a lot of stock in these metrics are hemorrhaging members and seeing a lot of transitions among pastors, who are told that their effectiveness depends on growing these “vitality” stats.

What, then, would it look like to develop measurements that are meaningful and useful? I suggest using the following factors to name metrics that truly assess vitality:

  • The measurement must be, well, measurable. “Spiritual growth” is too vague to be quantifiable. The number of unique people who volunteer (as opposed to being voluntold) for leadership positions can be counted.
  • The measurement must be within the church’s control. You have zero say in how many people actually come through your doors on Sunday morning. Your church members can control how many potential newcomers they personally invite.
  • The measurement must give ownership to the members. Yes, the pastor needs to be accountable for her ministry. But the church is actually stewarded by the members, who were here before and will be here after the pastor leaves.
  • The measurement must take impact into account. It does no good to track how many pairs of gently-used adult shoes your church donates to a local organization when said organization deals in providing formula and diapers to low-income families with newborns.

Metrics that measure the wrong things can send churches and pastors into shame spirals and anxiety about survival. Measurements that are meaningful for your setting can be a means of discernment and a way of encouraging your congregation and leadership, however. Take care to set your mileposts with intentionality.

Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash.

Five lessons from 2017 and five hopes for 2018

The turning of the calendar provides a natural opportunity for looking backward and forward. Here’s some of what I learned about myself last year:

I’ve been a complacent citizen. In the past, I have either taken for granted that others with concerns like mine would speak up or believed that my lone voice would not make much impact. This year circumstances compelled me to – for the first time – call my members of Congress, canvass, phone bank, write letters to elected officials, march for causes, and poll watch.

I have internalized more bigotry than I realized. The unmasking of white supremacy in the culture at large prompted me to do some inner examination, first as a Lenten discipline, then as an ongoing process. It turns out that forty years of insidious messaging had done more damage than I realized, and I continue actively chipping away at my biases through listening, reading, and interacting.

Scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. (This is not to deny that some people live in dire poverty through no fault of their own.) Sometimes the sermon is as much for the preacher as for the congregation. I often refer to the dangers of a scarcity mindset from the pulpit and in my writing – pointing out that time and again God has done much with little – yet I have fretted over pennies myself. I’m in an online book group that has challenged me to think out of an abundance framework, and when I’ve been able to do it, it has given me a sense of freedom and opened my heart to the dramatic and barely-detectable ways God is showing the way forward.

40 rocks. Many people dread turning 40 years old. I didn’t, and so far my new decade fits me well. The age I feel matches the age I look like on the outside. I see the need less and less to justify my perspectives and my work to those who would poo-poo it. At the same time, I want to remain open to new ideas, new people, and new ways of doing things.

The act of prayer is changing me. I have been more angry and afraid this year than I have ever been. When I’ve caught myself heading down one of these paths, I’ve stopped, taken deep breaths, and confessed my feelings to God. Over time, some of my attitudes have shifted. God is working in me, and I think that the process itself of being honest with God has also made a big difference.

As I anticipate this new year, here is what I am working toward, with God’s help:

To be more generous. I want to grow in my ability to practice what I preach when it comes to the abundance of God’s love.

To be more fierce. There’s no going back to complacency. Lives are at stake. And my voice matters.

To be more vulnerable. There’s a time for privacy, but less often than I have typically exercised it.

To be more resourceful. I want to leverage my creativity and intelligence for good.

To be more connected. I tended to distance myself last year from people who had different commitments than I did. That is neither faithful nor practical.

May your new year be filled with peace, love, and hope.