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.