Metrics: Olympics or Otherwise

I’m excited that the Olympics are cranking up. Like most sports it offers a respite from the work-a-day world of mundane responsibilities. Then we can get really serious about something that matters: college football. Whoa! Sports isn’t just a metaphor for life. For many it is life. Ask Michael Phelps who has been a tadpole his whole life, or the child warriors who have balance-beamed/beaned themselves in the head since they were toddlers. The Olympics and all sports are about dedication.

That’s why we can’t abide cheaters. You either earn it fair and square or not. There’s honor in giving something your best shot and losing to a better person. There’s a whole gamut of different emotions if somebody doped their way to victory. It makes the whole notion of accomplishment a sham. As much as I like the idea of giving all the little-leaguers a trophy for just being on the team, it lessens the achievement it takes to be the real deal and come in first.

I’m glad that the Olympics has drug testing and I’m fascinated by the last surge the swimmers make as they touch the timer at the end of their swim. We need photo finishes and all the other measuring devices to help keep us honest. Some would say that’s the purpose of using metrics in the church, too. You know, the weekly dashboard reports that get sent in electronically denoting worship attendance, professions of faith, monies raised for missions, number of people in small groups, and numbers of people doing mission work. Yes, sirree, measure up in these categories and you’re a “vital congregation!” Gosh, if it were so easy.

While I might support local churches using these numbers themselves to gauge their own spiritual progress, I have a hard time seeing me as a District Superintendent measuring a church or clergyperson’s worth on numbers that could be easily falsified or misunderstood. That’s about as inaccurate as using someone’s salary level or years of service to denote how good someone is in ministry or how bad a local church is because their church can’t afford the extravagant cost of direct billing. What I’m trying to say doesn’t mean that I don’t support accountability. We’ve been measuring this stuff forever at Charge Conferences and with year-end statistical tables, and the church is still in decline. Maybe doing the weekly math will help keep some honest, but forced compliance will likely flip the intrinsic joy of doing ministry into just another extrinsic hoop through which to jump. Coercion is not a good motivator.

Then there’s another problem. Numbers lie, except maybe in the Olympics. Thank God I have a District Statistician that alerts me to churches whose numbers have jumped or declined significantly. We make phone calls to see if somebody made a mistake. It happens enough that I am convinced that the only way to measure a local church or clergyperson’s effectiveness is through lots of personal contact. I have to know the lay of the land with churches and people. I cannot sit at Metrics Central and let impersonal numbers do all the talking. They cannot tell the whole story. I can’t even trust my own perception alone. I may hear a sermon and think it was yuck, but standing around the shade tree after the service with the church people I may learn that Pastor _______ spent most of the week helping a bereaved family or a crisis-facing teenager. Then who gives a rip if that sermon wasn’t up to Fred Craddock standards? The incarnational presence of that follower of Jesus was off the charts for those who knew better than I.

Therefore, I have to listen, intuit, and use any means possible to sense the sometimes imperceptible growth of the Kingdom in a given place. Metrics may help but the church isn’t the Olympics. Yes, I agree with all the fruitfulness stuff that Jesus talked about, but I also know He said that the Kingdom is like a slow growing sprout from a mustard seed. Oh, Lord, inspire us to do ministry more than measure it. Is there a middle way that honors the Holy Spirit’s timetable, and acknowledges our panic over numbers?

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11 thoughts on “Metrics: Olympics or Otherwise

  1. Great post, Tim. It got me thinking that gauging the “success” of a church is more analogous to an Olympic sport like gymnastics, rather than swimming or racing. The winners of sports that are judged my a time clock are pretty cut and dry, but the winners in something like gymnastics are also determined by the judge’s subjective opinion. Sure, there are some numbers assigned to different tricks and points deducted for falling, but a big portion of the scoring comes down to what the judge thinks of a particular athlete’s performance and how they stack up. So, for me, thinking about a more subjective evaluation of a church and/or pastor works a lot better than a “time clock” type of measurement. You can use numbers to look at some of the work, but in the end, what’s the interpretation of the people the church is reaching? That has a lot to do with it as well. Thanks for posting and getting my thoughts going in this direction.

    1. Meg, You said it better than I did. You’re exactly right. What we’ve been missing in the metrics stuff is the subjective component. Maybe the subjective should be weighted even more since we’re a spiritual endeavor. It has to be both/and or we slip into Gnosticism. Thanks for this!

      Sent from my iPad

  2. Thank you, Tim. Once again you speak clearly on issue facing the United Methodist Church. I appreciate your service to our church and your keen observations about the direction our denomination is being led.

  3. Was pastoral effectiveness at the head of things District Superintendents looked at before we considered more detailed metrics?

    Do you think the introduction, though imperfect, has helped orient the discussion and focus in that direction?

    I’m genuinely curious and bring little insight as someone who is not yet an elder.

    1. I have tried to balance a focus on both churches and clergy. From my six-plus years as a DS and in my 33rd year as an elder I can only speak from my personal perspective. I have had very good DS’ that had making good matches for local church vitality as their top priority. I know that I think of local church vitality first which includes coaching pastors as I look at evaluations and deal with issues that arise. Frankly, the key to being heard as a DS isn’t via supposed power of the office but from the power of covenant – covenant between laity and God, clergy and God, connection and church, connection and clergy, etc. The introduction of metrics has been with us since Wesley’s Large Minutes in 1740’s. The focus on pastoral effectiveness without adequate objective and subjective assessment of local churches is too limited. We need systemic assessment from bishops, agencies, annual conference systems, everybody. The “reemphasis” on metrics is a helpful push toward more accountability but must be carefully used or contextualized with extreme sensitivity to be helpful. I am most concerned that it isn’t because we believe gladly in sanctifying grace but are freaked out in panic and are looking for empirical scapegoats for a complex nebulous dilemma.

      Sent from my iPad

      1. I totally agree with accountability at all levels. I do think we need to define what we mean by “disciple” and what we mean by “change the world.” From there everyone in our connection should be tested against that. Are we making disciples? If not, we are failing. Are we transforming the world with those new disciples? If not, what needs to change?

        You mention correctly that Wesley introduced “metrics” early. In fact Wesley dismissed clergy who didn’t show fruit (new born-again believers active in class meetings), but his expectations were much clearer so there isn’t a direct parallel.

        Whatever our mission is it shouldn’t be out of self preservation; it should be because we legitimately love our neighbors and want to increase the multitudes who join us as children of God and leave the bondage of sin and Satan. It’s got to be more about fidelity to God and love of neighbor than us.

      2. John, I support an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Self-preservation folks in the UMC seem to use metrics without much grace. The numbers become an excuse to punish, involuntarily retire, etc. Sure, everyone should be held accountable but some places are stony paths and the Gospel is for the birds. We keep sowing even if it never shows up own OUR metrics. That’s the point. In a real sense, these are not our numbers, the are God’s. Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered…” You are correct that it’s hard to have accountability with very differing definitions of “disciple” and “transformation.” Great point! The definitions make the numbers mean different things in different contexts.

  4. Very Good Word!

    I know that we often have to count numbers and figures because within our system numbers often means money and budget operating etc. But maybe we focus too much on them and just maybe that focus on the masses is the one thing that keeps the United Methodist Church from growing. I am reminded of the story where Jesus tells about the Good Shepherd that left the 99 sheep to go after the one. Often within our “system” we would see that as wasteful and not good stewardship, but how would God see it? Yes, Jesus did minister to the masses at times but His focus was on a small group of disciples. Remember He said He only did what He saw the Father do etc. Maybe we should focus more on what God saw was important. I agree that too many times we try to fit into the system and do what we see as successful within the system when we really need to be focusing on what the Holy Spirit is telling or leading us to focus on. Maybe it is time to get back to the basics of Jesus’ ministry and focus on the core small groups or disciples or the one sheep that is in trouble. So what if that sheep don’t have the funds to support the organization…

    Each one part of the Body is very important. It takes all parts working together properly doing their part for the Body to be healthy. My wife and I were driving to a “Ministry Conference” yesterday that were five hours away from home. At about the time when we got just over half way there when we got a call. An ambulance had been called and my Mom was going to be taken to the ER with fever and chest pains. Now what was more important? Of course we turned around and rushed to the ER in Augusta, GA. Mom needed me. I have been with her in the Hospital ever since. I am going on just a couple of hours of sleep right now. She seems to be doing much better today but have more tests to run so please keep her in your prayers.

    I said all that to get us to focus on The Body. Each part is important. I could count all the body parts and systems that were doing well and say, she have many more parts of her body doing good and it was just the little muscle we call the heart that was have a little trouble. Still beating but just in an irregular rhythm, why focus on that little muscle. It often becomes when we stop focusing on those, what we see as little parts, which we end up losing the whole Body. I know we have focused on big numbers and it is true that it does cost money to run and build an organization and keep it going but it is love and an investment to life and need of survival to take care of each part of a Living Organism. Does Jesus want a Big Organization or a Living Organism?

    Here I am seeking to follow God’s call and enter the United Methodist Ministry because the Holy Spirit is drawing me to do so. I can and often ask why? I ask God why me? But He keeps drawing me in that direction and I sense that He desires it to be sooner than later. I feel as if that I am behind schedule, almost, within His time table. Even though I have been called for many years, back when my wife and I attempted to enter the United Methodist Ministry over 20 years ago, I did not “fit” within the system. Hey, it is God that is calling me back for such a time as this. I should already be further down the road as to serving and responding to this call. Yet, I know, I have to go through the process set up within the “system” of the organization. A system that I still may not have all the “proper fittings” according to the system of the organization. But as God has called me, I am to mainly be working for Him yet, within the system He is calling me. I have to answer His call on me and respond no matter what the “system” is in order to reach the ones He desires me to reach and help bring life back into.

    It seems all I hear is that the United Methodist Church as an organization is dying. I know the numbers have been dropping in the United States at least since 1968. My father was a Methodist Minister from 1963 until his death in 1993. I was raise within the system. I know that some of the churches my Dad pastored have since had their doors closed. But I have to ask myself, have we been trying to feed the organization and keep it supported or have we been focusing on Life and the Living Organism? We got to focus on Life of the Living Organism. As I sit here with my Mother in the hospital maybe I understand a little why God is calling me into the United Methodist Ministry. For over 34 years now I have been an Emergency Responder responding to those in need, like my Mom yesterday. Just maybe God is showing me that I am needed to respond to help bring the Life of God, the Holy Spirit, to a dying Body. We have to allow the Holy Spirit back into His Church and let Him do what He desires and what we need for Him to do in us and through us to not only Live but to thrive as an Living Organism.

    Enough said for now. Maybe too much said for one trying to join within the “system” while answering and trying to respond to the Call of God. Yet, I felt like I needed to respond to this as I sit with my Mom in the hospital. I pray that God sends many more in and outside of the system of the organization to answer the 911 call and do whatever they need to do to respond to the Living Organism and allow God to bring His Life and Spirit back into His Church again before it is too late.

    Thanks Tim for being one on the leading edge of the response and seeking Him more than the system. I pray that God will truly bless you and show you His Favor above and beyond in the days to come

  5. Joseph, Hang in there and am praying for your Mother. I’m glad you’re answered the call to be one of God’s first responders. It’s a tough business especially when there are times when the fruit of your labor is unmeasurable. I’ve had churches, bet your Dad did, too, where I didn’t see results until I went back years later. That’s the mystery part of our calls. The Holy Spirit produces fruit, but may not happen on our watch. Thinking Parable of Sower: “Fear not to sow on account of the birds!” You and I keep sowing. May not can measure it now, but God knows. We will keep at it even when some think it’s for the birds! Some of my better metrics/reports were really numbers that belonged to previous clergy more than me. We’re in this together. We need to get in gear no matter who gets credit, preferably God! Keep sowing, Joseph! God bless your Mom.

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