Church Metrics = Young Clergy Brain Drain #UMCYCI

How metrics affect church outreach, campus ministry, and young clergy

The UMC’s Young Clergy Initiative is this week and their participants and observers are tweeting with the hashtag #UMCYCI. Click to follow along. I think it’s powerful to get the group together and allow them space to chat and fishbowl about their experiences. And they are often speaking of the roadblocks to identify, guide, and encourage Young Adults through the process to become Young Clergy.

Given that I’m not there, I’d still like to wear my opinionated-Cheetos-eating-blogger hat and chime in…In my opinion, one of the very real roadblocks to young clergy isn’t mentors, education, serpentine ordination processes, or ageism.

It’s church metrics.

The use of objective (also meaning non-situational) data to show whether a church is growing or shrinking. It’s one of the only aspects of the Call To Action that Bishops have initiated without any votes of approval from any bodies. Its usage is spreading conference-by-conference.

And I believe church metrics can become a hazard to identification, support, and retention of young clergy.

Let’s see why.

Dave Kinnaman in his recent book You’ve Lost Me quotes the following as a response to the “epidemic” of churches losing young people:

 Some faith leaders simply say they will wait until young people get old enough to get married and have their own kids. Then they will be ready to return to church.

Kinnaman isn’t the only one saying it. Here’s two experiences I’ve had firsthand where they rationalize their ministry focus:

  • A very senior pastor told a group of young clergy that he “doesn’t worry about it when 20yos leave church.” He was a 20 year old once and he wasn’t interested in anything but himself. “But when they have families and want them to have a church experience, they will come back.” So the church focuses on those families and gets a better return for their efforts.
  • A middle-aged pastor of a growing church is located right next to a college but tells the staff not to do campus-focused worship services or offerings. Why? “They don’t tithe.” In other words, there’s no way to sustain a ministry by “wasting” money on a group that doesn’t tithe.

From the above, one of the reigning understandings of ministry is that it’s okay if they fall off the church wagon for a few years…they will be back with children, income, and attendance at family events at the church.

Hmm. Children. Money. Attendance. Where have I seen those before? Oh yes…dashboards.

Church metrics often use “dashboards” to compare ministries to other ministries. Look at these dashboards and you’ll see the primary beans being counted are (1) worship attendance (2) new members (3) baptisms, and (4) money in the offering plates [includes apportionments].

In a church metrics system, then the families-with-children demographic should be a gold mine: They will attend worship so that their young children can “get the faith.” They “join” as new members as they have often settled away from their home church towns. They will bring their new children to be baptized. They have matured somewhat in their careers and thus have the income to tithe faithfully.

Thus the metrics system gives rationalization to a church growth strategy towards young families and away from college and mid-20s people (who are leaving church anyway, don’t have much money or attend church regularly…so why waste the resources?). In this economy, church metrics encourage getting “the most bang for the buck” and for churches tightening their belt and this return-focused mentality getting more and more ears…then one can understand why money would be shifted from college-age ministries to family-age ministries.

Here’s the problem: By removing the focus on young adults under 30, we are suffering a brain drain of young clergy and young people in professional ministry opportunities.

David Kinnaman concludes his commentary on the phenomenon of not really caring that young people are leaving:

But is that really a reasonable approach, especially when the ages of marriage and childbearing are getting pushed further back? Is that what we want for young people—to have years of religious education, experiences, and relationships, only to turn away once they can decide for themselves?…[E]ven though the childhood and early adolescent years are the time during which spiritual and moral compasses are calibrated, the experimental and experiential decade from high school to the late twenties is the time when a young person’s spiritual trajectory is confirmed and clarified

So we have the following objections to the church-metrics-friendly strategy of avoiding ministry with young people:

  • Are we Okay With 15 Years of No Church? To the pastors I quoted above, they grew up in a generation where you still got married and had babies before you were 25. So by not focusing on singles and couples, they were really only avoiding about seven years of a person’s life (because you have to have a YOUTH group so the FAMILIES will come). Today, couples are getting married later and having babies later. My spouse and I got married at 26 and are having our first baby at 32. That would mean we could not have been focused on by a church for 15 years of our life. Are we really okay with a church growth strategy that ignores a decade and a half of people’s lives?
  • Campus Ministries matter! I was meeting with a group of young adults at my current appointment. MANY of them met during a campus ministry in college and have remained faithful Methodists since. When I look at the young clergy I shared a commissioning class with, they were predominantly nurtured in a campus ministry. Mark Shaefer at American University agrees in this blog post: “The campus ministries are dynamic centers of the church.  Methodism was started on a college campus and Methodism will be renewed on our college campuses—if we commit to campus ministry.”
  • The Leaders We Get Feel Isolated. We have exceptional young adult clergy and laity now that are active in Methodist leadership. They are the exception rather than the rule. But from the tweets coming out of #UMCYCI, we see that isolation and feeling unsupported through the processes is the norm. Little wonder: no one has dedicated resources towards them before…why would they now? So we reap the isolation of the leaders we DO get from our sowing our resources in “more fruitful but older” fields.
  • The Leaders We Don’t Get Jump Ship. Adam Hamilton asked the following question to the #UMCYCI people: “how do we recruit people who could go to law or medical school but see church as the best place to make positive differences?” I would add that our exclusive polity against LGBT people openly serving as clergy means that gifted young LGBT people shift to other denominations where their paths are more clear…and my friends that have jumped ship are often amazingly gifted people.

Thankfully there are actions we can do NOW even in the face of this retention problem.

  1. Listen to Young Adults NOW. Read the tweets from the #UMCYCI this week. And also every other week you can participate in the #DreamUMC chats which are predominantly young adults. The next one is next Monday the 27th at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific.
  2. Support campus ministries. More and more of them are on the chopping block. Change hearts and minds that these are the mission fields, and the benefits are just as good as missions overseas. Find balance and support instead of outsourcing campus ministries to local churches that, as metrics dictates, won’t spend the time necessary.
  3. Rethink young people’s ministries as “investments” rather than “cash crops.”  To farmers, cash crops are ones that are in demand and are easily sold. To pastors like I quoted above, young families seem like cash crops as once you retain them you get many “ticks” on the church metrics scale. Instead, churches need to see ministries to young people and college-age folks as investments for the future. Like John 4:38 says, others will reap what we have sowed. And you may be the beneficiary of other people’s sowing. Every church I’ve served has been a beneficiary of the Wesley Foundation at Oklahoma City University…and most of those churches never gave a dime to that campus ministry. But some did. And now I hope to give back.

Young adults don’t want to save the church. They want to save the world. If we can show them that they can save the world through the church, and pour in resources and efforts to all ages from babies to geezers, we can show that the church can be a vehicle through whom the world can be saved.

To get there, we’ll need to adapt our understanding of church metrics, and encourage our ecclesial leadership to extend special consideration to young people’s ministries, and reflect that in the ministries and missions that are supported at the Annual Conference level.

Otherwise, we will continue to say not only that “we’ve lost young people” but also “we’ve lost talented young clergy to other denominations” and while we can celebrate their achievements through Christ who gives them strength, we will also weep in our hearts in loss of what could have been. And it will be our fault.


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  1. says

    Not to mention the fact that some young adults that leave *never* return, & that fraction is growin larger. Why are we okay sacrificing those (now young) adults? What does that say about our mission and catholicity?

  2. says

    When I was on staff at a Lutheran Church, I had a conversation with the Sr. Pastor regargind the 20-30-somethings in the church. I see a lot of what he said in what you wrote. I also heard a lot of similar thought from the congregation.

    The Associate Pastor and I are no longer at the church and there is a huge generational gap. (We were the only two 30-something families in the congregation.) To make matters worse, they can’t keep the families with young kids.

  3. says

    Im not seeing the connection between the dashboard and the exodus. Adam Hamilton is one of the leaders touting metrics and accountability. His church has produced more pastors than some conferences. And Resurrection continues to lead the denomination in reaching young people.

    I agree that some pastors are wrongly abandoning young people to their fates thinking that they will return when they have kids. I don’t see how this is mandated by the existence of dashboards.

    What I do see are pastors who pad their numbers by talking about membership instead of Average Worship Attendance. And I see pastors pad their AWA in a sense by not talking about the fact that their 250 member congregation is giving an average of 1.4% of their income — less than half of the national average and less than a fifth of what we should expect.

    “No accountability” results in people wandering off at age 18. Not relating. And hat was happening well before metrics were called for.

    Make the connection — or better yet, offer a solution. Otherwise, this is just a critique without a viable alternative.

    • says

      Really Joey? This is a “critique without a viable alternative?” The end of the post (if you kept reading) had three viable approaches: Involve in YA discussions, support campus ministry, transform perception of YA ministries from cash crops to investments.

      I try very hard to champion values rather than be a critic. I’ve offered approaches and solutions for the specific topic of YA approaches. If you want me to provide an alternative to Church Metrics, then you are reading more than I’m presenting in the post.

      • says

        My apologies if the post was too sharp. Looking back, I can see some things I said should have been more carefully worded. Mea culpa.

        I agree in the investment side of things. I have no problem with making those investments.

        The problem is that quite a few of those personal investments aren’t well received. General Conference provided a world stage for young adults to provide some leadership in conversations occurring around the events of GC. Instead, the conversation on Twitter and in the blogosphere tended more towards reverse ageism. More and more older pastors are finding that tone harder and harder to engage.

        Campus ministry is a definite must, but won’t solve the problem with requiring accountability at the local church. Achieving viable ministry on campus without addressing the disconnect in the local church only changes the point of egress for young adults. They’ll leave college and come home to churches that don’t have the same vitality of their campus ministry.

        In short, “refocusing on young people as investment and not cash cow” won’t fix the lack of accountability. That doesn’t stop pastors who pad numbers by failing to remove members who have withdrawn, died, or transferred. Most pastors that I know realize that when one older member dies, the church requires six new young adult families to equal the lost giving. We don’t see young adult families.

        Last but not least, I’m not sure that there’s a majority of UM leaders who write off YA ministries because “there’s no money in it.” I think the more probably reason is that most older ministers have a harder time relating to young people — especially when so many of our younger leaders have become so vocal about pointing out the failings of old white guys.

        I stand with you as a champion of Young Adult ministries. But the thrust of the post placed blame on Church Metrics (second and third paragraph). My point is simple. Do both. Be aware of the dangers of Church Metrics, but there’s a baby in that bath water.

        • says

          Joey, thanks for coming back and your comments are helpful.

          My fear is that when churches look to become “technocrats” who learn how to “work the system” (as we both know they do, by your example and I have my own too), not only will they continue to pad numbers but will change ministry focus to those with the highest return. It seems cynical but having heard that from the mouths of two respected pastors, I’m sure it is at least talked about behind closed doors.

          The twitterverse and blogosphere are not the voice of the young clergy. We speak in ways that reflect the medium, which is not often how we speak in public. Put them in a room with people and you get an actual take on their thoughts. This UMCYCI is genius as it removes the hype and just listens/engages YAs without their microphones. Of course, there are some of us who have the same voice online and in person 😉 But the point is that YAs are a culture: if we can’t take the kernel of their words and get wrapped up in the way they express themselves, then how can we be “missionaries” who can’t get past how people “speak oddly”?

          My joy is that I don’t fear metrics for my personal ministries because, so far, I’ve been in churches that have a healthy presence on any metrics. But I do fear the dark side of what effect ROI has in an increasingly cash-strapped denomination. And this is one area where I feel I can speak up.

  4. says

    I am disturbed by Adam Hamilton’s comment about recruiting young people who could go to law school to enter the ministry instead. That mentality is NOT consistent with a Biblical or Wesleyan sense of call. Rather, it is directly out of best practice business stuff. Wesley was concerned that Methodist preachers should have experienced transforming power of God’s grace, and that there are signs of fruitfulness as a result of their ministry. I hear NONE of that in Hamiltons comment.

    When I appeared before the Board of Ordained ministry for the first time as a candidate for deacon’s orders and probationary membership, someone on the board asked me what else I might like to do if I didn’t go into the ministry. Even though I knew I had been called to ministry in the church. I gave him an answer. I said I thought i might like to be an editor. Later, after the board voted to defer my request for deacons orders, a friend of mine on the board told me that I should NOT have mentioned an alternative. If I truly felt called into the ministry, I should have presented that call emphatically.

    I believe that GOD continues to call people into ministry. God continues to call unlikely people–people who megachurch pastors might not want on their staff, but who might be VERY good at being in ministry with the poor, the broken, and even the uneducated.

    And I am disturbed by the idea of “recruiting” young clergy. We should certainly recruit church business adminstrators, but I don’t think we should necessarily ordain them.

    We are being taken over by a “leadership” cult, and this is killing what was once a vibrant spiritual community.

    • says

      I think the problem is we have too many managers and not enough leaders. Managers like to push paper around, and there is a need for that. Leaders cast vision, direction and lead people towards that. How many bishops or district superintendents are leaders? Vast majority are managers, which I believe is what is killing us. JW was both a great manager, and a great leader, pushing his people towards “spreading scriptural holiness across the land.”

      I too have encountered the same problem you talk about Jeremy, and now that I have lest my assoc. position at a large congregation I am serving two small congregations in small and dying communities I wonder what am I going to be held accountable for? Growth? That’s really hard to do, working on it, but it’s hard. In addition, as has been said, younger people are not returning to church when they have kids. Great story on a study showing that those born between 1965-1972, are not returning to church, they are also not becoming more conservative which gives me some hope (I was born in 72).

      Also tired of older clergy coming to me and telling me what my generation needs and wants in a church, and yet they never seem to actually ask younger people what they want, and watch out if you disagree with what they have to say. Listening is key as is investment. Kendra Creasy Dean has said that youth and children’s programs are R&D for the church. Companies that stop doing R&D are doomed to a short future, and the things we have done to our own R&D have hurt us significantly as well.

  5. Mike says

    It is the responsibility of the older generation to seek out the younger folks and engage them. It is not the other way around, and it is not an equally shared responsibility. It is the responsibility of the older generation. Young people may get on their nerves at times, but they continue to have the same responsibility. Find a way, get it done, and don’t pretend your responsibility belongs to anyone else. You can’t expect much younger people to be more mature and adult about this, can you? Obviously not- and you shouldn’t expect them to be operating at the same level. With these possibilities exhausted, that means….yes! Younger people, relatively speaking, will be less mature more self-involved less responsible and of course largely unable to see any of it in themselves. What follows is good news and bad news.

    Good news- they will grow up, just like everyone has always done, and they will learn to be irritated by the next generation that comes along. They might even do this as regular church attendees.

    Bad news- for now, older generation, you have to get over it and engage with them anyway. If you don’t, your responsibility does not go away in the slightest, but your young people will continue to do so.

    Remember, you were young once. There was a generation previous to you that wondered if you would ever grow up, be good leaders, stop being equal parts arrogant and irritating, and above all take some responsibility.

    Jury’s still out on the responsibility bit. I guess that’s another piece of bad news. Invest and engage in the next generation- this is your responsibility, elder statesmen. You are not getting it done. That’s terrible news. And perhaps the worst news of all- if you don’t turn it around, the next generation of folks taking your place are likely to do even worse than you, because no one ever taught them how. You were too busy being turned off by their bad attitudes, and you shirked some of your most important responsibilities.

    The very thing that your elders worried you would do.

  6. says

    I totally agree that relying on church metrics will take the steering wheel away from the Holy Spirit. Metrics should give us insight but not total direction. The Holy Spirit should override what any numbers are telling you.

    If you have church leaders instructing not to go after the non-tithing people because of what the metrics tell them, I don’t really think that if you take away the metrics they will think differently. The metrics only confirm the twisted thinking. That is something only God can fix.

    It’s not the metrics or technology…it all comes down to your relationship and understanding of God.


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