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.


You’re sitting in your annual review. Most of the feedback you’re getting is positive. Not just positive, actually, but really encouraging. There are just a few minor areas for improvement: “I wish you’d handled your conversation with X a bit differently.” “We’ve received some complaints about an example you used in a recent sermon.” “There was a slight dip in numbers late in the year.” And all the steam you picked up from hearing about what’s going well dissipates into the strata. Why, when there are so many more items in the plus column?

Part of the reason is that feedback is, well, backward-focused. And there aren’t any mulligans for moves we’ve already made, so we’re left endlessly replaying situations we cannot change. But in Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church, author Robert Harris introduces the concept of feedforward. Instead of putting the past under the microscope, Harris suggests that questions intended to evoke improvement start with the present moment and look ahead.

  • Instead of (or as a follow-up to) “I wish you’d handled your conversation with X a bit differently,” a feedforward question could be, “How do you want to relate to X in the future?”
  • Instead of (or as a follow-up to) “We’ve received some complaints about an example you used in a recent sermon,” a feedforward question could be, “How do you determine what stories best support your messages? How do you decide when an anecdote might be hard to hear but needs to be included?”
  • Instead of (or as a follow-up to) “There was a slight dip in numbers late in the year,” a feedforward question could be, “What changes can we make in communication, content, support, and timing to help our ministries be as robust as possible?”

This kind of reflection acknowledges that there is room to grow, but it channels that awareness toward action steps. We claim our capacity for positive change instead of being held captive by second-guessing.

Feedforwarding doesn’t automatically happen. It is a different way of thinking, both about ourselves and for the people who join us in ministry. How, then, might you introduce and model the concept in your context?

Creative Commons image “Forward backward” by Khairil Zhafri is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Receiving constructive feedback

This past week I received feedback on a project. The person giving the feedback was straightforward – “this isn’t really what we’re looking for” – and offered some thoughts on how I might shift my perspective. Then he welcomed me to contact him with my revisions so that we could talk further.

What a gift.

Creative Commons "Got Feedback?" by Alan Levine is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Got Feedback?” by Alan Levine is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

No one really likes criticism, but it’s often necessary to get honest input in order to grow. And after so many Sundays of well-intended worshipers saying simply “Nice service” or “I enjoyed your message” at the sanctuary door, it was refreshing to get some pointers about specific growing edges.

Still, when someone gives that elusive constructive criticism, it can be hard to hear. Here are a few questions that might make it easier to take to heart:

  • Is this person right? Sometimes we know in the moment that our critic has hit the nail on the head.
  • Does this person have experience or expertise that makes his/her perspective valuable? It would be unwise to ignore valuable advice from someone in the know.
  • What stake does this person have in my success? If he/she is either completely objective or had to work up the courage to deliver a hard word, the criticism is worth considering.
  • What will I do with this feedback? If I choose to act on it, I need to think about what my first steps will be and what needs to be bracketed for later.
  • How will I stay engaged with my critic? If the feedback is helpful, the relationship is worth pursuing.

(For what it’s worth, I revised my project prospectus and got a green light.)