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?

United Methodist Leadership and Football

Whether you are a Blue Hose, Paladin, Bulldog, or Terrier fan, you have got to admit that Clemson and South Carolina’s football teams have made dramatic improvements over the past several years. Why? The players are much the same, so what’s different? Both schools have lost a few headliners as specialists, but the big difference to me is in the coaching staffs. South Carolina has added John Butler as Special Teams Coordinator and Shawn Elliott as Offensive Line Coach. Clemson has added Chad Morris as Offensive Coordinator. All three of these are known to have proven success, vision and the ability to articulate it so that their players are motivated and enthused. Both teams are in the top 25 and are 4-0!

Leadership matters whether we’re talking about college football or the church. Lay and clergy leadership from bishops to the pew is so very important. It’s more than just showing up! It’s having expertise for sure, but in my mind it’s mostly about relationships whether with coaches and players, bishops and the annual conference, or clergy and local churches. Leadership has to be real, relational, and relevant.

Take Bishop Francis Asbury, for instance. I’ve been reading John Wigger’s biography of Asbury, American Saint, and I’ve noticed that Asbury wasn’t known for his preaching but for his time spent with people. African-American Harry Hoosier was the better preacher and got a better response than Asbury. What Asbury did well was stay in people’s homes and share the Gospel in authentic relational ways. He was a great story-teller and he met people where they were. This is one reason why, up and down the eastern seaboard, there are homes with Bishop’s chairs, Bishop’s rooms, and Bishop’s tables in them. People remembered him for his presence in their homes and their lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if coaches and current church leaders had that kind of feel for people’s pulses? Talking about being relevant! It would take motivation to a new level, wouldn’t it? Charles Schwab, former president of U.S. Steel, had a mill manager whose men were not producing their quota of work. “How is it,” Schwab asked, “That a man as capable as you cannot make this shift turn out its quota?” “I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I have coaxed the men, pushed them, but nothing seems to work. They just will not produce.”

This conversation took place at the end of the shift, just before the night shift came on. “Give me a piece of chalk,” Schwab said. Then, turning to the nearest worker, he inquired, “How many turns of the furnace did your shift produce today?” “Six,” he said. Without another word Schwab chalked a big figure “6” on the floor, and he walked away. When the night shift came in, they saw the big “6” and asked what it meant. “The boss was here today,” the day shift said. “He asked us how many turns we made, and chalked it on the floor.” The night crew talked among themselves, “We can do just as good a job as those guys, even better!” The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again and noticed that the night shift had rubbed out the “6” and replaced it with a big “7.” That inspired the day shift not to let up, so by the end of the day they left behind an impressive “10” for everyone to see.

Shortly, the mill which had been lagging way behind in steel production was turning out more work than any other company plant. Without yelling a word or making any threats Schwab had made his point. He said, “The way to get things done is to stimulate a desire to excel.” Good coaches inspire others to dream big and get the job done. My hat’s off to Clemson and U.S.C. Would Jesus “tip his hat” for us as church leaders? One has to be real, relevant, and relational!


What is your dream?

Is it God’s dream for you?

What is your strategy to fulfil your dream?

How do you connect with people?

Call to Action & UMC Metrics – A Wise and Personal Response

I have been back and forth on the new/old emphasis on metrics in the UMC. It’s “new/old” because Wesley himself was a meticulous recordkeeper and valued empirical evidence of God’s work among people. Wesley called the purpose of metrics “sanctification.” However, a friend and collegaue in the South Carolina Conference has just written one of the most insightful cautions about the use or misuse of metrics. He says things that need to be said about the Call to Action Report that I need to hear. Maybe you will feel the same. Give all of it a read! Please! You’ll find the letter in its entirety here.  Here are a few excerpts:

Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings.  I decided to send you this email rather than engage this discussion via Facebook.  I realize that my musings about the State of the Church and how to fix it may be as superfluous as a tail on a watermelon, but the Holy Spirit continues to prod me to share some very personal thoughts and experiences with you.

I have several questions about the CTA itself, as well as its findings and suggestions.

1.  It seems to heavily favor numbers as the truest indicator of congregational vitality and pastoral effectiveness.  But quantity is not a good indicator of quality.  Take, for instance, Joel Osteen’s and his mega-church in Houston… For now, my gut reaction is that using these metrics to determine congregational vitality and pastoral effectiveness is no different than the slippery notion that paying 100% of apportionments does the same.

2.  I’m confused by the lack of biblical or theological underpinning, as well as the outright exclusion of some critically important (and I would’ve thought obvious) spiritual ingredients.

3.  I was left wondering then, as I am left wondering now, with the release of the CTA report, “what is the ultimate goal of catching all these fish we’re supposed to be fishing for?”  My Granddaddy taught me that eating was the ultimate goal of our fishing.  Theologically speaking, I would submit that the ultimate goal of our ecclesiastical fishing is found in the Great Commission.  I’m not sure anyone—from Councils of Bishops, to popes, to Towers-Watson, to fat, bald-headed, liturgically inclined preachers in the middle of Anywhere, South Carolina—could ever improve on that.  And yet, instead of the call to action issued by Jesus (which is very specific and overtly evangelical), we’ve opted for a nebulous, numbers-based “call to attraction” that insists that we attract more people to our churches, but leaves why we’re doing it and what to do with them once they’re there largely undefined.

4.  It also, in my reading of the report, says nothing about geographical location, demographics, economics, or the spiritual condition of the church prior to the pastor’s appointment.  For instance, where is there any real measurement that speaks to the issue of congregations that actually resist change?  What about those congregations which, much like the church that I’m serving right now, refuse to admit that they’re not the healthy churches they think themselves to be, when the truth is that they’re in full-on decline?  What then?

Recently, I heard a sermon in which the preacher gave some bullet points about the “average United Methodist.”  He said, “The average United Methodist…

-is old;

-believes “good people” go to heaven;

-believes more in “works righteousness” than “salvation by grace through faith;”

-believes God loves us all “just as we are;”

-believes that if the preacher talks too much about sin, he or she is a fundamentalist, but if he or she talks too much about sharing what we have to meet the needs of others, they are a socialist;

-believes that homosexuality is the greatest of all sins, but thinks abortion and pornography are private matters, drug addiction and alcoholism are medical issues, and that divorce, adultery and premarital sex are not matters preachers should “meddle” in;

-gives less than 2% of their income to the church, but wants to dictate ministry;

-gives more, in terms of time, service and income, to civic clubs, fraternal organizations and sports booster clubs than to their church;

-demands the same level of pastoral quality, care and attention as Presbyterians, Baptists and Episcopalians, but pay far less in terms of salary, benefits, and provisions for continuing education, and times of renewal;

-attends worship only one half to three quarters of the time;

-attends Sunday School less than 50% of the time;

-does not attend a Bible study or a Wesleyan small group;

-does not regularly attend meetings of the committees to which they are assigned, yet insist on “running the church;”

-doesn’t regularly read the Bible and can’t name the books of the Bible;

-can’t list (let alone explain) the core doctrines of Methodism;

-has never read the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith;

-can’t give a reasonable history of the theological reasons for the founding or spread of Methodism, or a reasonable biography of the Wesleys, Whitefield, Coke or Asbury, and will act as if they have never heard the names Otterbein, Albright or Boehm;

-can’t speak with authority about the theological differences between United Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, or any other denomination;

-doesn’t understand Communion, but will not come to church on Communion Sundays;

-knows the Apostles’ Creed by heart, but disagrees strongly with several of its points;

-is uncomfortable talking to others about their spiritual state, salvation, eternity, or even their relationship with Jesus, yet wonders why their local church is dying.”


Zingers and Well/Ill-Intentioned Dragons

I’m a creature of habit although I do like to try new things. Being shocked by the taste of a new dish isn’t something I relish when I already know what I like. As I have been engaged in multiple Charge Conferences at churches, and Consultations with pastors, I have attempted to go beyond my comfort zone and ask questions that I hope exceed the mundane same-old-same-old. I like to have time for a town-hall style meeting where we actually air questions that need asking and answering. One question that I’ve been asking to help prod things along is, “Why do we have Charge Conferences? What is the theological reason to do this?”

Now, to be sure, it’s wrapped up in United Methodism’s methodical DNA to add up the numbers of new members, deaths, transfers, and all the other offical things we vote on and hear about at Charge Conference; but all this belies a deeper purpose. Our emphasis on sanctifying grace is supposed to lead us into a closer walk with God, and we believe that we need to check on our progress. Therefore, District Superintendents come around and ask the questions and look at the reports. We’re answering two basic questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?”
So far Charge Conferences have gone pretty well. There have been a few tense moments and I have received and offered some zingers, but that’s all a part of supervision and the give-and-take of being a part of a connectional system. One of the things that I need to work on is not being reactive and staying calm. There have been well and ill-intentioned dragons in more than a few of the meetings in which I’ve been. What to do or say in such a moment is a perpetual question.
The following is an example of a poor zinger plus poor timing, not the way I want to be, although secretly I may be tempted: There were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians. Then their pastor retired, and a new one was appointed. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he was also a good preacher so the church started to grow by leaps and bounds. A fund raising campaign was started to build a new sanctuary. All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At my brother’s funeral, you must say that he was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check. The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” the pastor said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on and on in this vein for awhile, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”



The 2008 General Conference made a number of significant changes in our ordering of ministry. Lines have been blurred, some would say, between the work of Deacons, Elders, and local pastors. My response would be, “They have always been blurred!” In the UMC laity and clergy have always been sharing ministry in so many ways they are hard to keep straight. We have two kinds of Lay Speakers, 2 kinds of local pastors (the Student Local Pastor designation has been dropped), Certified Lay Ministers, Supply Pastors, Deacons, Elders, Provisional Members, and Full Members. Does it matter what our title is, or is our effectiveness more important? I think the genius of the Wesleyan Movement is a focus on effectiveness more than status.

What we need are effective lay and clergy leaders who are responsible, hardworking, and dependable. The bottom line is results! I pray for clergy and laity who will take responsibility and get the job done. The Kingdom is sorely lacking results because the laborers are few! I saw a persosn working in a hotel wearing a button with “W.I.T.” on it. I wondered what it meant so I asked. The hotel employee said it was their mission statement, “Whatever It Takes.” They wanted to remind each other that they were supposed to do whatever it took to get the job done. That’s good advice for us!

There was one particular golfer who exemplifies the need for personal responsibility, whether as an individualist or as a groupie. He had a miserable game one day. It was such a bad round that he skipped stopping at the clubhouse and went straight to his car. As he approached his car he noticed a police car with its lights flashing.

An officer stepped out of the patrol car and hurried up to the melancholy golfer. “Excuse me,” the officer started, “but did you tee off from the 16th hole about 20 minutes ago?” “Why yes, I did,” the duffer replied. “Did you happen to hook your ball, so that it went over the trees and off the course?” the trooper asked. “Yes, it was a terrible shot, but how did you know?” the club member asked.

“Well,” said the policeman very seriously, “your ball flew out onto the highway and crashed through a windshield. The car went out of control, running five other vehicles off the road and causing a fire truck to crash. That fire truck was on its way to a fire, and so that building is a complete and total loss. I want to know what you are going to do about this?” “Hmmm,” the golfer mused. “I think I need to close my stance, keep my head down and tighten my grip.”

Christ is looking for people who will get the job done. I want to be one.