The Struggle with Metrics and the Desperate Need for Outcomes ©

Just recall when you last visited your family doctor. Quite typically she or he looked first at some basic numbers even before physically examining you. They checked to see what your pulse was, they ascertained your height and weight, they listened to your breathing and checked your oxygenation level, they…well, you get the drift. There are some numerical metrics that are key to accessing someone’s health.
Recently, I engaged in separate conversations on the subject of metrics in the life of the church with two people whose insights I hold in high regard – Gil Rendle and Rev. Mike Ramsdell. While the content of this blog is my own, I have permission from both gentlemen to share some of their reflections. The title I have placed on this piece of writing is indicative of the subject I invite us to explore – “The Struggle with Metrics and the Desperate Need for Outcomes.”
Have you ever asked yourself why the Bible shares some numbers? Look at Mark chapter 6, verse 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.” Or take the second chapter of Acts as example, So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” (Acts 2:41) And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) There is more, but I hope the point is made. Someone has remarked that each number represents a person for whom Christ died.
In our UMC clergy culture, we are virtually numbers/metrics phobic. Yet, the numbers (or metrics) tell a story that cannot safely be ignored. Here in Central Texas, we have always led with the narrative or story – often quoting Gil Rendle’s mantra that “the narrative will change before the metrics.” At the same time, we have struggled to understand how to hold pastors and churches accountable for their ministry in ways that are both faithful and fruitful.
Prior to COVID-19, we started with the narrative (always first and most important) and then looked at two metrics – average worship attendance (using a rolling average) and professions of faith/restored. In these COVID times, we restructured our metrics to go with

  1. Number of small groups for discipleship,
  2. Professions of faith/restored plus baptisms,
  3. Average worship attendance (in person + online = total).

While many clergy have been resistive to metrics (especially average worship attendance) being a factor in appointment making, ironically most want their next church to be bigger in average worship attendance. (Or as Mike Ramsdell puts it, “they want a church someone else grew.”) Of further significance, even though we (the Cabinet) have changed the metrics with the most important being the number of small groups for discipleship formation, many of our local church leaders have trouble “hearing” or processing the change. They are still stuck on average worship attendance as the only metric of importance.

Fairly repetitively, from both the left and right sides of the theological spectrum, almost vitriolic opinions are pronounced about how the wrong things are being measured. Some have advocated that the only thing worth measuring is love, justice and mercy. others have postulated (or is the correct word postured) that we must measure growth in discipleship or holiness or (fill in the blank).
In one sense, these critiques are on target and valuable feedback. A pointed and ultimately helpful response is to ask the person advocating for a different metric(s) to be specific and concrete as to how they would measure the desired outcome. In my experience, it is exceptionally rare for those critiquing metrics to actually have some specific system for evaluating outcomes. Gil Rendle’s trenchant comment (see below) is apropos “If you don’t want any metrics, then you don’t really care if you are going to live very long.”
Mike Ramsdell and I have shared a number of conversations about what we paid attention to as Senior Pastors (Mike at First Methodist Mansfield and myself as Senior Pastor at both Bethany UMC in Austin and University UMC in San Antonio). Our collective list ran to something in the neighborhood 10 to 12 items. Here is a sampling from our recent conversation…

  • First, compare this year to last year (make sure you include special big days as almost a separate category, i.e. what was Christmas Eve attendance this year compared to Christmas Eve attendance last year?)  If possible, look back at longer trends like the last 10 years.
  • How many people are engaged in small groups for spiritual formation, prayer, and Bible study?
  • How many giving units do you have – monthly and consistently? (Mike emphasized that this is absolutely critical; “there is no way to spin it.”)
  • Worship attendance – both in-person and online; Use a tight system of measuring online worship. (It is worth noting that the regular worship of God is an absolutely foundational component of discipleship; to paraphrase Wesley, disciples regularly worship God.)
  • Number of people engaged in hands on mission and ministry with those in need.
  • Number of mission projects the church is engaged in.
  • Number of participants in Confirmation class.
  • Number of participants in Vacation Bible School.
  • How many guests/visitors/first time people on Sunday morning? (This is exceptionally important to track.)
  • Track your major special offerings (i.e. Christmas and Easter mission giving and especially those going beyond the local church).
  • How much is giving is coming electronically vs in-person giving?

Mike was constantly saying, “the truth/facts are your friends.” They help you understand where you are and what we need to work on. Both of us experienced our congregants as wanting this information. They like knowing where things stand and, if there are issues, what are the plans to improve things. They want a realistic hope that the future of their church is going to be better. (They don’t want just platitudes; they want concrete plans.)
The dilemma we have experienced at the Conference level is that it is a struggle to get pastors to report two or three metrics, let alone 10 or 11. Some view reporting even just two items as a burden. While I fully recognize that any true reporting on discipleship metrics should involve at least 5 or 6 items, we as a Cabinet in consultation with the Core Team have kept the list to a minimum, in part to get compliance. Furthermore, extensive secular research highlights the important concept of focus and strongly indicates that the “list” of goals should not get beyond two or three. (see The Four Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey, and Huling) The evidence in our “metric phobic” UMC is that many pastors report mission engagement with the poor and needy (a vitally important metric) in glowing terms, while worship attendance, professions of faith and number of disciples continued their accelerating decline. One of the ironies of the Congregational Vitality project related to the Four Focus Areas of the UMC, which Bishop Schol headed (and I was a part of the leadership team), resulted in congregations with a high vitality rating closing because they had declined to the point of no longer being viable.
In a recent conversation with Gil Rendle (the author of Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics as well as a retired Vice-President at the Texas Methodist Foundation in congregational and leadership vitality and prior to that a long-time leader with the Alban Institute, plus time spent as a United Methodist pastor in the Philadelphia area), Gil lamented the inability to help move people to connect doing the math of missions with outcomes reflecting biblical faithfulness and fruitfulness.
Our dialogue went something like this: (These are my typed notes during our conversation and not an exact transcript. They are used with his permission.)

Looking back on The Math of Mission what would you change? The primary lesson is that people don’t have outcomes! We lamented together our mutual inability to get people to look at and set concrete outcomes for ministry. In an attempt to do so with the CTC Cabinet, what we came up with was a glowing list of noble aspirations. Gil commented that in his experience this was normal but very frustrating and ultimately unhelpful.
What, if any, metrics would you stress or lift up before pastors and churches? Post-COVID, we don’t know yet what vitality looks like. The way in which people have engaged congregations has changed. Before 1950, Sunday School was the best metric. By the 1950s, that had reversed and worship attendance was the vital metric. We don’t know how people are going to want to engage post-COVID (we have to learn our way into this). An annual conference needs to be asking itself “Is this a congregation that is still alive?”
“The three metrics we have,” Gil commented, “are perfect for that. These are the metrics a cabinet can use…. They tell you if a place is dead or alive.”
Individual local churches need to ask a different question: What is the fundamental action you are going to make in the next two years and how would you measure that? Gil suggested a DS conversation with local church leadership – lay & clergy – that invites them to set significant outcomes tied to concrete metrics. “You tell us what is your desired outcome and how do you measure it and we’ll be glad to follow it with you.” (If our metrics aren’t the right ones, what metrics will help you get where you want to be?)
What would you say to those who are insistent that they don’t want any outcomes? “If you don’t want any metrics, then you don’t really care if you are going to live very long.” The one thing the pandemic has not changed is covenant accountability in our relationship(s) both to the Lord and to the Conference, as well as to each other! (The intensity in Gil’s voice could be heard over the phone.)
We have kept the list of items to report to a minimum do we need more? For the purposes of appointment making, you only need two or three basics. If you want to talk about development towards vitality, then go to a larger number that is more specific to that situation. Gil encouraged a conversation along the following lines, “At the next charge conference, your DS is going to ask you which three [of a longer list] are you as a pastor and congregation paying attention to?”
What advice do you have relative to building accountability in a system that is resistive to accountability? Part of the answer to that is to hand the work back to them; Our generic metrics (i.e. the metrics the CTC Cabinet has outlined: small groups for discipleship development, professions of faith & baptisms, and worship attendance both in person and online) are going to stay but if you’ll tell us what your metrics (as a congregation) are, we will follow those with you. Together, we might learn what the most useful new metrics are going to be post-COVID.”

Gil closed with a deeply reflective comment that cements both the importance of metrics and the struggle in tying those metrics to the truly vital issue of faithfulness and fruitfulness in outcomes. “If you are a pastor coming out of COVID, you are not returning to the same world.  How are you going to be different and live in this new world as a vital congregation? If you can’t in some way measure it, you haven’t really thought through your desired outcome.”
What is the outcome we need? It is no more and no less that then the conversion of the world and establishment of the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” How now do we set measurable proximate steps to faithful proximate outcomes that advance the kingdom of God? I remind myself and share with you the injunction of the Risen Christ moments before his ascension…

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)