Defeating the Dark Side of Church Metrics #UMC

Measuring transformation or accumulation?

It is absolutely no secret that this blogger is suspicious of and articulates the dark side of Church Metrics, which is the use of quantitative data to evaluate the quality of a church’s ministry or clergy leadership.

However, while we’ve taken great care to be champions of “better ways” rather than just critics, so far we have not offered a substantial alternative to the church metrics.

Until now.

A Chart to help with Outreach Evaluation

At a district meeting in my new ministry context, we were given the following chart to gauge our outreach efforts and to help with planning. I’ve spruced it up and made it more clear, but it’s from The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church for the Community by Swanson & Rusaw. You can view the original chart here in Google Books but here’s my version:

(click to enlarge)

Basically the idea is that you place a dot or something in each square to indicate where your church has a program or person or offering regarding outreach and its frequency. Then you evaluate. Are there a ton of programs that happen yearly and raise money (or donate materials ie. “things”)? Are there more programs that happen weekly and have lots of volunteers? You can see how this splits our outreach into categories to see where the needs are.

The authors of the chart outline that there are two movements that make a church more vital over time:

  1. Movement vertically (from money to projects to people): our hearts grow stronger for outreach the closer we get to people in need, so movement from giving money during a church service to committing to a project to working face-to-face with people “grows” the heart and allows God to work more clearly in it.
  2. Movement horizontally (from yearly to quarterly to monthly to weekly): for our members advanced in age or decreased in ability, their only viable option may be to open their wallets more deeply as they contribute to the church financially more often. Likewise, some members may not have the money to give, but can volunteer more often as their schedules allow. Both are indicative of growth in affection towards outreach.

Thus a church that is growing in a heart for missions would have a good balance across the chart, though if it were weighted, more dots in weekly personal outreach is the strongest.

So this is a great chart. But it’s not only great in a utilitarian way for your congregation (feel free to borrow it!), but also to illuminate the dark side of church metrics in the United Methodist Church as it stands.

A Tale of Two Churches (Or only “One” to the UMC)

I have an example chart here. What I did is I filled it in with TWO different churches that have filled in the same reporting number (dollars, people, people served) with very different actions. So you would compare the two oranges. Or compare the two reds. Check out the chart and we’ll outline it below.

(click to enlarge)

You can see how the activities are different but both involve outreach. But here’s the confounding piece:

BOTH churches would report the exact same number to the church metrics website.

For example, One church could (following the blue boxes) have one individual spending 52 hours once a year on a VIM trip. The other church could mentor one child one hour a week and spend 52 hours in outreach. They would be quantitatively the same (52 hours reported at the end of the year) but qualitatively different (one served one family’s house, the other served 50 children on a regular basis).

Is one better than the other? Not really. But when you start to add up the two comparisons together, look at what you get.

(click to enlarge)

For example, Detroit churches (I picked them solely because theirs was high-up on a google search!) have this page outlining what would and what would not be counted in the vital signs dashboards. I went through and categorized the above based on that page’s outlines. YES, donations to Lifewatch and donations to UMW would be counted in the same category (not kidding!). And look at the two very different churches that would report the same “metrics.”

  1. Church #1 does a yearly event for homeless, provides space for AA groups, volunteers for Beth Moore’s ministries, goes on a yearly mission trip, has once-a-year giving families and external donations go quarterly to a non-United Methodist groups. They support non-UMC events and see their mission as an exchange interface. They are on the way towards congregationalism.
  2. Church #2 does weekly job training with the homeless, involves itself with quarterly worship services for dependency groups, volunteers at an after-school ministry, and mentors children weekly. Their donations go to United Methodist groups and their families give less but more frequently. They support UMC events and see their mission as an interaction interface on a regular basis in this strongly connectional church.

Quantitatively, they would report identical reports to the United Methodist powers-that-be. But I would dare you to find anyone who would say that church #1 is more vital than church #2. The same numbers generated do not replace the picture of a church more involved on a deeper level and with a budget more spread-out than dependent on a few kingmakers in the congregation.

Why? Because what we are counting in church metrics is not even part of our mission.

The Mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It seems that the things we should be counting are about transformation, not accumulation.

My fellow seminarian David Scott at Boston University School of Theology articulates this disconnect between metrics and mission here:

As a Wesleyan, I believe that we are responsible for responding to God’s grace through faithfulness and service.  Furthermore, I believe that we have a responsibility for encouraging and equipping each other in our faithful obedience to God’s call to service.  Finally, I believe that some metrics can assist in that process of mutual accountability.

Such metrics would measure not raw numbers of members and money but instead try to assess the ways in which the ministry of the church has contributed to the transformation of the world.  In the language of non-profits, they measure outcomes (how things are qualitatively different because of your work) and not outputs (how much of something you’ve produced).

Which is more important? To a church dead-set on sustaining itself, outputs are more important. To a church dead-set on transforming the world, outcomes are more important. One is easy to count, but the other is not invisible either.

David Scott continues with individual questions.

Such metrics would ask all church members questions like the following: Have you (and how have you) grown in the knowledge and love of God in the last year?  Have you (and how have you) sought to more faithfully live out your Christian calling in the last year?  Do you feel like you have more or less of the knowledge and skills necessary for effective ministry than you did a year ago?  It would ask pastors similar questions, but also questions like this: Have you developed in your understanding of your vocation?  Church leaders, pastors, and district superintendents would be asked: How is the world different because of the ministry of this church?  Where has the Kingdom of God come into being because of the work of this church?

These are individual-focused, for sure. But taken as a whole, they address the same goals as the chart above: how has the church’s heart been stretched and their commitments redoubled to the community around them? How do visitors get connected? How is the church maintaining multiple points of entry?

These also address questions of the needs of the community rather than the needs of the few in the hierarchy. Does the community need things? Does the community need projects/unifying events? Does the community need people workmanship/mentoring? Sure, one of the church’s groups may do these things. BUT is it sustainable (are new people joining)? Renewable? Able to hand off to the next generation?

Your turn

If metrics looked more like this chart, they would be harder to quantify, that is true. However, I believe they would be on the way towards a church metric that would count what I believe ought be counted.

Your turn:

  • How does the chart help measure transformation? How does it still fall short?
  • Are there ways transformation could be championed in your context rather than an accumulation of professions, money, and programs?
  • How might you convince the hierarchies that such evaluations are  measuring transformational outcomes?

Discuss. Welcome to our visitors and all comments are appreciated!

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  1. dirk says

    while I appreciate the attempts to focus on quality over quantity I’m not sure that social services (including hospitality) and personal investment/enrichment, while admirable humanist values, are in and of themselves measures of discipleship, except to the degree that they are outward signs of Grace. But the works need to flow from the Grace they will not generate It.
    Without spiritual disciplines in place and in practice churches are just aping secular values/institutions, so how are we to develop and measure/discern spiritual development?

    • says

      The purpose of the chart is specific to outreach evaluations (though I threw in a tithing comparision just for fun). I’d be interested if the chart could be adapted to discipling and spiritual development purposes.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Chuck says


    Interesting post. What you are getting at here is the difference between Qualitative and Quantitative research methods. This is a raging debate within the Academy as well. I have come down on the side of Mixed Methods. In other words, different methods help you get at the answer to different questions. If you want to ask the question is the church replicating itself in a way that can sustain the institution generally, then quantitative methods that aim at broad covering laws and highly generalizable results are appropriate. If you want to ask the question, how well is an individual pastor doing within their given context, then qualitative methods are much more helpful because they provide a thick description of what is going on at the micro level and in the situated experience of any given church. Both are helpful, but only when used properly and applied to the right types of questions. I think this is a helpful contribution because it goes beyond the simple push-back to measurement that was initially the trajectory of those complaining about accountability. What I hear you saying is that it is not accountability itself that is the issue, we all want better churches with more transformed lives and community, but what is important is the way that accountability is structured. My fear of course is that the kind of deep, careful research needed to produce this kind of reflection is increasingly difficult in an organization that is downsizing its middle management layers, leaving the evaluators (D.S’s) with more people to assess in less time.


  3. Creed Pogue says

    The chart is a useful tool for helping viable congregations become vital and vital congregations to replicate themselves.

    But, we have too many congregations that don’t pay their billings or their apportionments, don’t bring new people in the door (much less make disciples however we want to define that) and don’t have a story. But, the rest of us subsidize them while dealing with our own imperfections. On a larger level, for example, it is easy for the Western Jurisdiction to pat itself on the back because they have a high level of support for The Advance. That’s because they do SECOND Mile First. They don’t pay their apportionments.

    I would be more sympathetic to trying to find a Star Wars parallel to everything if you weren’t expecting a rectangular piece of paper every two weeks. If people who are paid from the offering plate stop expecting those six inch pieces of green paper on a regular basis from the plate, then we can stop talking about metrics. Otherwise, this is just another example of people wanting to get paid but not to be held accountable.

  4. says

    Imagine my delight and surprise at finding this post! This morning I put up a post about the dark side of church hospitality and then found this on a twitter feed! I immediately sent this link to a colleague who has been blogging about church metrics for us.

    Right on!

  5. says

    Thanks for this posting. I like it because it raises questions that I believe are important ones. I’ll take a shot at the questions that you raise under “your turn” but first a word about my context and then an observation over not the specific questions but one that looks at an issue of which the posting reminded me. I’m a United Methodist pastor for 27 years. All of those years have been spent in urban congregations located in low income neighborhoods. I have served at my present location for a total of 14 1/2 years (two different appointments) and one for 11 1/2 years and my first year out of seminary for one year. The issue that this raised for me is one that makes me grateful you wrote this: I don’t think the denomination is really serious about the metrics issue (which is cool by me – i don’t think it works). If we were serious we would apply the same criteria to the change wrought by our mission efforts as we do to the numbers of worship and offering totals. We can easily chart if tutoring efforts lead to changes in graduation rates, college enrollment rates, college graduation rates, income stabilization, more food in the home, less violence, less hypertension, less infant mortality, less murder, less juvenile crime, etc…

    Now as a preface to your questions I would just say that theologically and ecclesiologically I think I come at church from a little different point of view than you do. My perspective is what might be considered a realized eschatalogy. I really do believe that there is good news among the poor right now. So we build our mission and ministry not around the needs around us but around the extraordinary giftedness and abundance in the lives of those the world counts as needy. So – we do not build our sense of mission on programs that we might provide (in fact we are cutting back more and more and more on programmatic efforts) and trying to join what God is doing in the lives of people that the world seems to think don’t have anything to offer.

    So – a long winded way (I know, sorry) to get to your questions.

    How does the chart help measure transformation? How does it still fall short? – I’m not sure it does measure transformation – but I think it is more honest about trying to get those who created the metrics to think about what they are really saying. And I think that gets anyone to think more is to be commended and I believe that more thinking will probably lead to the right answer. I think it measures activity not transformation. I think it falls short because the main ministry of our congregations is not in and through the corporate actions of our church (except for worship) it is through the lives of faith of our folks lived out in the world. For example – how does the chart account for the woman in our congregation who ran the 21st Century Scholars program for our state government? (let me be clear it is not that she ran it – it is HOW she ran it) When she took charge of this program which enrolled low income children in middle school into a program where if they met a series of benchmarks when they graduated from high school and went to college in our state the state would pay for their education at a state university – or they’d pay the state university rate at a private college. When she took over they were hiring people to run the program in every county in the state. She said “whenever a job comes open we will hire the parent of a child in our program.” (she did this because she grew up in a low income household and knew that her mother certainly could have worked in that – and she knew two other things, that if you are low income you could probably really use a job and second that no one cares more for these children than their parents. Her staff – many of whom were good church going folks said to her “why are parents important?” But over 10 years she did this recognizing the spirit of God alive in these parents who everyone else saw as poor. How does that show up in the chart? How can we encourage more people to make that world transformation through their work – and not think of it as only volunteering in corporate activities at church? Every year at Annual Conference the only ministry of laity that is celebrated is the ministry of VBS, and mission trips. What about all our teachers and good neighbors and healers and on and on…can we measure that in here somehow?
    Are there ways transformation could be championed in your context rather than an accumulation of professions, money, and programs? – We champion the ministry of the laity of our congregation in a variety of ways – by sharing their stories and having them share their stories (we have a time in worship we call “The Lesson From the Contemporary Church: because God didn’t stop speaking when the book went to press.” – one could call it testimony time – but it is specific to celebrate the ministry of the people of our parish in the world).
    How might you convince the hierarchies that such evaluations are measuring transformational outcomes? – You got me. I tried to talk with the bishop and D.S. about it and got nowhere. I think if we can do it well where we are on the ground that will eventually lead to a change in the hierarchies (I guess i’m more a believe in bubble up than trickle down – for practical reasons).


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