Counting the Unaccountable

It’s that glorious time of year when United Methodist Churches hunt down, compile, and report their statistics for the year. For a growing number of us, this is now part of a larger system of reporting of statistics year round, designed to help us measure our churches’ “Vital Signs” (part of the Vital Congregations program).

My concession: Numbers are good to have. I do think that we need to set goals and have ways to measure them. Although I try not to live my life by the thrill and agony of my weekly attendance numbers, I do believe they (and their near-consistent flat line) are relevant and important information in both my ministry and the ministry of the church where I serve. Although it by no means tells the full story, I do believe that the pledged giving on my church’s budget articulates a piece of the spiritual health and growth (and sometimes the lack thereof) of my congregation. Numbers of new members, and where they came from, do tell us a little about how the congregation stretches beyond itself in a time and place. These are part of how we measure and account for ministry, which on the whole is a nebulous, hard to grasp, amorphous thingy.

We thought the Doctor had it hard trying to measure spacetime. We need his thingamajig detector that goes ding when there’s stuff to measure the wibbly-wobbly, spirity-weiridy stuff we call ministry.

The problem, as every pastor I know will repeat, is that the numbers that we measure do not tell the whole story. Of course not. Ministry isn’t about numbers, nor is discipleship about statistics. There’s the wily, uncountable, unaccountable Spirit. Jesus himself seems to have preached his crowd of several thousand down to a core congregation of 12– and some of them weren’t too great at showing up consistently. Poor Thomas missed the best sermon in the series, and Judas fell in with another congregation entirely. All that costly perfume and the extra baskets of bread meant their budget never balanced, and the lay leader and chairman of the trustees (brothers of course) never could stop arguing long enough to fill out their forms in triplicate.

Numbers try to describe the number of people in Bible Study, but don’t tell how one person’s life was saved when he stumbled in by mistake and found a community of care. Numbers count the people who ate at the soup kitchen (maybe, if you fiddle with them), but don’t account for the way the meals were served and shared with mutual compassion and respect, rather than pity. Numbers tell us who came to worship, but not who left transformed– or who left hurt and angry and vowing never to enter a church again. Numbers tell us how many people gave how much money to the church, but can’t figure out which pennies were the widows’ mites. And numbers never tell us the tears shed, the hands held, the dignity upheld, the hope gained, the faith shaken or restored, how often God was revealed or pushed aside.

And this is all okay, if we treat numbers as only part of the story, if we ingrain in our system ways to tell the rest of the story: annual meetings, for example, where the congregation tells their story to one another and to their District Superintendent; structures in which the DS and the Bishop know the pastor and the church and hear their stories; organization from top to bottom that communicates that size matters less than faithfulness– something we find hard to measure but accept, because after all we serve a God who cannot be contained in our tables and figures.

But as we move more and more toward a corporate model, and give our numbers more power in the decisions about appointments of pastors and churches, we have a problem. The elevation of statistics itself is a problem, to be sure. But if we’re going to rely on all this counting, can we at least try to count more of what matters?

Just as an example, the Vital Congregations program defines marks of a faithful disciple of Jesus, saying a disciple “worships regularly, helps make new disciples, is engaged in growing in their faith, is engaged in mission, and shares by giving to mission”. I don’t disagree with that, but…

  • We count the number of people who come to church. Can we count the people who follow up on an aspect of the worship service by joining a volunteer opportunity or engaging in a reflection suggested in the sermon? How do we know people didn’t just attend but worshiped?
  • We count our new members overall, but a new member is not a new disciple. Last I checked, Jesus did not tell us to “go make of the world members of your church,” nor is the mission of the UMC to “make professions of faith for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” How do we measure our follow-through with visitors and new members to encourage them to grow in faith? Speaking of which…
  • We count the number of people who attend small groups or studies, but can we somehow measure how we “growth in faith”? How would we even begin?
  • We count the number of people who go on United Methodist mission trips, but what about other forms of mission in our communities? What about those who give of their time and talent to the background work of mission?
  • We count how much money people give to God and God’s mission, but what about the gifts of time and talent that people give?

In an effort to at least address that last one, this year I invited my congregation to report the time they gave to God in service both within and outside the church. Teams, committees, projects, meals, town boards, camp directing, and state committees are all up for the counting. Many people filled out little cards in worship to report back, but I also had to call some folks that I knew volunteered and ask them for their estimates. In a couple of cases, the numbers were larger than I expected, which gave me the chance to hear about projects and passions that my congregants give to beyond the church. In several cases, the numbers were lower than I expected, in which case I called or emailed the person and rattled off all the stuff I know they do for the glory of God, and we recalculated and celebrated.

And at the end, I was pleasantly stunned. In 2011, the people of my little 65-person average attendee congregation volunteered their time for the church and the community an estimated 7,807 hours.

That’s 325.3 24-hour days, or 10.8 months. If that were a 40 hour-a-week job, we would have worked 195.2 weeks. That’s 3.9 years (with 2 weeks vacation a year). If we calculated a wage based on the lowest estimate for what a volunteer’s time is worth ($17.79/hour), we would have given the equivalent of $138,886.53 (almost 85% of our entire budget) to the glory of God!

There are still many things we can’t account for: boxes of tissues and theological wrestling matches, hardships weathered and forgiveness offered. But in telling our stories, even in part, we seek to honor all we have done in God’s name, celebrate our faithfulness, confess our shortcomings, and challenge ourselves to greater service in the times to come.

What would you like to count? Better yet, what stories would you like to tell?

10 thoughts on “Counting the Unaccountable”

  1. This is a really fantastic post, Becca — what you measure is what you ultimately focus on, so making sure that you are paying attention to measurements of the things that matter most is a great way to move forward.

    I think that one reason that the “corporate” measurement of assets has taken off among faith communities is the stress among those communities on preserving those assets. Enormous, beautiful old buildings are valuable; they require great care to be preserved and even more care to be hospitable and habitable. Houses with a significant number of bedrooms and bathrooms and living spaces are valuable, and require regular maintenance and upkeep. The land on which those buildings sit is of tremendous value, and requires more maintenance. When those assets are equated in people’s minds with “the church” or “going to church”, there will follow a tendency to want to preserve them — when you ask a shopkeeper or financial analyst or banker to help preserve and maintain a building that’s important to her, she’ll use the tools at her disposal to keep it safe — the same way she would for her own home. Just a thought. 🙂

    1. Absolutely true, Lissa. It’s one of the models of church we need to confront– both the model of church-as-asset/property and that of church-as-corporation, actually. Neither one is in keeping with an itinerant preacher who never had a “place to lay his head” and who calls us to come and die. That’s what’s scary about the current trend toward corporate measurements. What we measure does reflect what we value, and what we value isn’t– at least in my mind– Christ or what he taught. Very scary.

  2. What a WONDERFUL post! Totally refreshing. I would like to add two points. One is fairly minor, the other is a major point (worthy of a post or a book in itself). The first point is that Jesus himself actually dispersed crowds when he preached. In fact, after his first sermon (Luke 4) the congregation ran him out of town! I wonder how our churches today would respond to a similar message?

    The next point relates to the term “accountability” in methodist history. John Wesley asked those who responded to his evangelical message to become involved in a methodist “society” and “class”. In these groups people learned about the Christian faith, and “watched over one another in love.” They actually confessed their sins to one another and prayed for one another.

    True reform of the United Methodist Church will depend upon the recovery of this second kind of accountability…NOT the kind of accountability the Council of Bishops is recommending.

    GREAT POST. Thank you…

    1. Oh, you’re right, Holly. That’s a whole other post at least! Accountability in the Methodist tradition is found in relationship, not in the absence thereof. Statistics that draw us away from storytelling seem to be moving us in the opposite direction.

      I’ve got to chew on that some more. That’s not just a blog post; that’s a speech I want to make on the floor of General Conference, if I have the chance.

        1. I am, although I’m on the Church and Society 2 committee, so I won’t address this in committee– only in meetings with my delegation and on the floor.

  3. Great post. It is why I make it a habit NOT to have an alter call or membership drive or anything similar…I have a standard disclaimer in the bulletin that says to join this church you must undertake commitments specifically of your time, talents, gifts, service, and witness. 4 times or more a year I speak to those discipleship characteristics. (With someone who will share how they commit their ________ ) I invite people who want to take on this mantle to discuss membership with me after each service. I have had 5 people join this year. I am most proud of the fact that all of them are still committed months after they join. (Something our metrics need to calculate better) Our numbers don’t grow quickly, but slow and steady.

    One guy who just joined 5 months ago is no in charge of hospitality at our worship service.

    Metrics must be measured in some way, but even my conference is now starting to measuring “missional hours” as much as attendance, membership, and professions of faith.

    1. That’s fantastic. Quality versus quantity of disciples/new members is essential, but hard to measure. I like your focus on meaningful membership, tied in with personal testimony/example of how one person gives of themselves. Again, stories tell us so much more than numbers.


      1. Now that is fascinating. In the churches I’ve been to, I always hear the call to membership as something akin to joining a gym; as a card to use as I please with no claim on my time or attention, but only on my wallet. Conversely, my role with the finance committee was never related to my membership role, but was treated and discussed by the pastor who asked me as a way to lend my professional expertise in a pro bono capacity.

        Granted, if I’d been asked to give a gift of my time as a form of worship I would have run screaming in the other direction tipping over pews as I fled, so maybe Brolin knew what he was doing … but then I’m hardly the kind of person that any rational pastor wants sowing dissent and rage in their community, so perhaps not. 🙂

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