Manifesto on Measuring the Profligate Church
Consider this post a call for rebellion against the church metrics movement.
First, you should know the worst part about being a preacher is that we tend to be critical of other preacher’s sermons. When I was in seminary, I heard a sermon on Mark 14 (CEB) where a woman breaks a jar of expensive perfume and pours it over Jesus’ head, and the . The preacher talked about Jesus’ love being extravagant, overflowing, without regard for other people. I remember thinking “Who cares that it’s extravagant? We get it. Jesus loved everyone. Grace loves everyone. Can we talk about the misogyny or the reversal of condemnation or something more relevant, please?”
It’s been in recent months that I’ve began to better realize the importance of emphasizing how extravagant grace really is.
A few weeks back, I learned a new word when I was in close proximity to Amy Laura Hall, a Duke Divinity professor and UM Elder. Her blog and twitter account are named “Profligate Grace” which was a new word for me, worth 4000 points in Scrabble (or if you are under 25, Words with Friends).
recklessly prodigal or extravagant
And “profligate grace” means to Rev. Hall:
I resist the market-driven, cheesy business-model ways of the United Methodist Church these days in part because both parents taught me that there is no way to “count” people and the means or effects of grace. Each life is a gift, a joy, and incalculably treasured by God. So, I am against applying quantified, count-the-numbers methods in public school and church, in organizing and in parenting.
[Profligate Grace] is just a fancy way to say that grace may be hard-won, but it is also not measurable. Solidarity, growth, and human flourishing require thought and care and tending, but that work withers when the results are put to a quantified test.
These quotes really started me thinking about “what are we measuring in the church?”
In a sermon by my Bishop a month ago at a clergy meeting, my Bishop clued us into Jim Noble’s “The King’s Kitchen” which is a not-for-profit restaurant that donates all its profits to charity–$50k last year! Plus it offers on-the-job training and skillset enhancement for homeless or transitional people. Awesome sauce.
Here’s a quick blog post with a CNN video that has the following quote that the Bishop used in his sermon:
Sometimes in life you have to make a distinction between success and significance.
It is exactly this distinction that makes me wary of the Call to Action and the Vital Congregations movement of church metrics. It’s easy to measure success with dashboards, metrics, comparisons of budget. If the numbers go up, you are successful. If the numbers for a program go down, it needs retooling or scrapping.
The problem is measuring significance. As Rev. Hall emphasizes and the woman with the perfume exhibits, grace is profligate.
- It is not measurable. It flows out without regard for the boundaries.
- It is slow and quiet, immeasurable, trusting in the slow work of God.
- It is extravagant like the woman pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ head. The church leadership of Jesus’ day (oh *SNAP* yes I went there!) criticized the quantitative success of the perfume but couldn’t measure the significance of the action.
When the emphasis is on success not significance, we lose sight of what we are really called to do. And if we focus on success, we could miss out on being significant.
I was talking with a clergy mentor and told her about a pastoral situation where I offered grace and help to a youth in the midst of a rural Bible Belt culture that offers neither grace nor help for the situation. I can’t be more specific than that in this public blog post. The mentor’s response?
“You can know what you said is more significant to that youth than anything you’ve done up until now in ministry.”
Here it is:
The Hacking Christianity Call to Action.
Tell the stories of significance in your community, of how you changed lives. Forget the financial report for the missions committee, tell about who you helped and how it changed you. Get rid of the Year To Date report in the bulletin and include a story of how faithful giving changed someone’s life. Let the only money talked about is how the Pastor emptied her Discretionary account helping the poor. This isn’t an ostrich sticking your head in the sand, it is focusing on significance not success.
Talk about the social holiness work you’ve done, holiness which resists metrics. Tell stories of how you extravagantly wasted money on helping people, kicked out big givers who were poisonous to the body, ended successful programs because they were just rote actions, and stayed in ministry with people who could never pay it back.
Seek life in the face of death. You can watch that video of the declining UMC and listen to the heartbeat machine on the Vital Congregations website (ick!). Or you can preach relevant hope to the difficult situation. Yes, we should downsize and prioritize and we have to face reality. But even if we are close to closing our doors, we can still be significant to people in our community. If numerical success does not come, the church doors can be closed in celebration of significant ministry rather than lament of a fallen church.
Seek significance rather than success.
I write this in protest of the church metrics movement that I don’t believe gives a mission or hope to congregations who WILL most likely close. Stop beating them down and give them something to live for even in their twilight years.
I write this from a place of privilege, as I’m in a successful church and have had a great year in terms of giving, professions of faith, and new disciples in our youth group.
But know that when I’m filling out my end of year reports, my charge conference numbers…I will talk about the significance of our ministry rather than the success.
But the church metrics movement…when we get right down to its emphasis and what the websites report…will really only care about one.
Which one will you?
Discuss.(Photo credit: “Overflow” by Brave Heart on Flickr, shared via Creative Commons)