(Diary of a Delegate) Vital Signs and Flat Lines

This week is the deadline by which my Annual Conference wants me my church to submit goals into the dashboard of the “Vital Congregations” website. Coming out of the UMC’s “Call to Action” report, we are supposed to be working on creating and supporting vital local congregations (which I think is a good idea), by making each church set goals for their worship attendance, membership, and financial giving (which I think is a bad idea– the making of goals in these specific areas, not the financial giving).

I’m not feeling very excited about this.

In part this is because our congregation is in the beginning stages of the Natural Church Development program, which is another discernment tool for helping a congregation assess its strengths and weaknesses and create goals and ideas for addressing the area in greatest need of growth. It seems counterproductive for me to enlist church members in setting alternate goals, and I don’t want to arbitrarily set them myself.

But my objection goes much deeper. As I (only somewhat jokingly) tweeted, I object to making these goals on religious grounds.

My concerns are legion:

  • Practical concern – I have no idea what these goals will mean. We are asked to make goals in five areas: Average weekly attendance, people who join the church by profession of faith, number of small groups, number of members in mission, and dollars given to mission. The only one I think makes sense is members in mission, by which the chart means members who have “gone on” a mission trip. Okay, to meet a goal in this category, we should offer more opportunities for people to go on mission trips. Not a bad goal, although it is rather limited to those who have the bodies, the work schedule flexibility, and the checkbooks to do so. I wonder if there are other ways to measure people *engaged in* mission activity, other than just going on mission trips, which are wonderful, but not the be all and end all of missional involvement.
    As for the other areas, I’m more confused. If I had a goal to increase the number of small groups (note– not the people in them!?!), I could understand that as a program goal. Easy to measure and achieve, especially if I (apparently) don’t care how many people attend them. However, how is that measuring discipleship? What are we trying to accomplish by adding programs that may or may not be used? I don’t even understand which lines are added together to get the “dollars given to mission” on the charts, based on the numbers compared to my statistical data, but assuming this has been entered correctly (*huge* assumption, see below),  much of the money given to mission is a function of events, special offerings, and disaster relief giving that has occurred in a given year. While the trend is academically interesting for me to know (I do love data!), it’s not based on measurable things within the congregation’s control, unless I misunderstand. So how do we set goals? Everyone would love to see an upward trend in average attendance, but how is that at all related to setting a goal of a higher number? What are we going to do about it? If all we care about are warm bodies in pews, what are we counting anyway? And professions of faith– apart from confirmation classes, which I do have planned– there is literally no way on God’s green earth to try to *make* professions of faith happen. They are movements of the Spirit in the purest sense, fruits of the faithful ministry of the congregation. As such, again, the data is significant. But that does not mean we can set or work toward a goal. I’m waxing theological on these last points, but sue me.
  • Practical concern – The statistics are inaccurate and either too small or too large a set to be helpful when compared to each other. The chart online shows five years of data, with the most recent year missing. I’ve been at this church for 3.5 years (2.5 of them shown). Prior to that, there was a, shall we say, unintentional interim appointment, and the statistics reflect a sharp downtick or no report filed. Prior to *that*, we have two years out of the eight of my predecessor, who is a pastor I love and respect, but who will be the first to admit that administration is not his strong suit. The stats entered here (and where I looked at them on the GCFA site for a longer history) are so consistent as to suggest guestimation. And, sorry, but I don’t trust that the guestimates were not a little padded particularly in the attendance department. Show me the past 20 years, and the stats will reflect the slow but steady decline of a mainline protestant church. Show me the three and a half years of my tenure and they will reflect the slow(er) but steady increase of a congregation healing from a bad match and coming back into its own. But this swatch of five years shows an inconsistent jumble of high, bottomout, and incremental increase.
    *Based on this,* the Vital Congregations website predicts a gradual decrease in my congregation’s attendance over the next five years, losing one attendee a year. My time here has actually shown a decrease of one, increase of one, increase of four, and the current year is too soon to count. I’d predict (not goal-set, just predict) a gradual increase on that data, but it’s such a small set that it’s hard. Of course, this is related to two larger problems:

    • The data is only as accurate as the people who enter it. I’m accurately and faithfully reporting my numbers to the best of my ability, but I fear they make me look less effective for doing so, because they are lower than earlier guesstimates.
    • The data doesn’t account for the whole story. It can’t account for purging of membership books, for the intermittent struggles of the congregation, or for the very persistent, uniquely Methodist, frequency of pastoral change. Not to mention that I bet most congregations show significant ups and downs relative to appointment match. Most of our inconsistency comes from that, but we seem unwilling to examine appointment length and strength in this conversation. Again, I digress.
  • Replies to my tweet objecting to making goals.

    The Practical Waxes Spiritual – because there are no stated uses for these goals or even what would be measured and drawn from them, and because they exist in the context of also talking about closure of smaller churches and removal of ineffective clergy, there is a great deal of fear in this system. Clergy fear that if their goals are not high enough or are not met (and those are probably two different things), they will be shown to be a bad pastor to that church or ineffective overall, and moved or removed from the appointment process. Churches fear that if their goals are not high enough or not met, they will be shown to be unsustainable ministries, and will be forced by “the Conference” to drop to 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 time, etc, or merged/closed. Fear is not a great motivator for growth, nor, it must be said, for encouraging faithful reporting. And if you don’t think that fear or appointment status get thrown around in this conversation, I have a wonderful tweet I can show you.

  • Spiritual Concern for our ends – I am not at all convinced that we are measuring the right things. Do we really think that these are what will make us vital? Here we have five “goal” areas, most of which are out of the control of both the congregation and the pastor, and none of which, I would argue, measure discipleship or spirit. Granted, these are things that can’t be easily measured. That’s kind of the point. And again, the information is intellectually helpful. But in terms of goals, I think we can do better. Sitting in church does not make a person a disciple any more than standing in a barn makes you a horse. Let’s try to come up with some ways to measure our “making disciples” not our filling pews. I’ll say more on that when I suggest alternatives. Ultimately, what we are measuring is how good we are at living up to a model of doing church that I would argue is horribly outdated. Church is not about showing up and putting money in a plate, being seen once a week and understanding mission trips to be things that happen out there. It’s so much more than that, now. Do we really want to make goals to be better at a model of church that is broken?
  • Spiritual Concern for our means – The entire process of using statistics and goals entered on a website cuts connectionalism from the conversation. Once upon a time, the United Methodist Church had some pretty decent ways of making goals and sharing them between congregations, clergy, district superintendents and even bishops. At quarterly (and later annual) church/charge conferences, a congregation would reflect upon, report upon, and celebrate the ministry of the previous year, and set goals for and plan for the years to come. This was/is done in the presence of a presiding elder, in many cases the District Superintendent, and reported to the Conference/Bishop. Yes, some forms and statistics are reported. But the heart of the charge conference is the meeting– the time together in conversation and shared visioning, in storytelling. That’s our tradition as Christians and Methodists. We are people of story, connection, and relationship. If you want to know my goals and the goals of my church, come listen to our story, or invite us to share it. Our story doesn’t fit in a 4×5 chart. This is why I have decided, in place of filling in these goals, that I will write a narrative of the goals and activities my church is currently doing (which I believe address all five of those goal areas more accurately, and a few extra besides), and submit that document to the office. I’ll also attach it here, hopefully tomorrow.

Underneath all of this are two very real and inescapable truths: There are ineffective clergy and there are churches that are not sustainable. I get that, and I’ve seen both. I believe that we do need ways to evaluate the effectiveness of our clergy– but you’ll have no better measure than honest and frequent conversation with them and with the congregations where they serve. Likewise, there is no better measure of a church’s sustainability in their ministry and context than honest and frequent conversations with them and with the clergy who serve in those areas. Data and statistics should be used to back up and fact check what is discovered through story, relationship, and connection, never as the first part of the conversation. It’s a tool, but it is not who we are.

Ultimately, I believe our goals need to flow from our sense of who we are, who we are called to be, and the mission that we are called to live out. I think we can do a better job responding to those questions with story rather than statistics.

8 thoughts on “(Diary of a Delegate) Vital Signs and Flat Lines”

  1. Both attendance and financial goals are the effects and the result of focusing on something far more important that that is mission and outreach. Scrap the financial goal and screw the attendance/membership goal and set some goals that mean something. How are we going to show up for our community? WHat is our mission of service? What are we being guided to do by the spirit? ANd when are we going to get off our duffs and do something of service for our fellows around us. Always when we show up in service, giving selflessly from our being, others want to join us. it is the human condition. We all know deeply inside our souls that we were meant to be in partnership with others of our species. It is seductive, contagious, infectious, and down right fun!
    I say toss the goals and set some meaningful service goals. But hey I am just a lay person.

  2. Becca, this is very well written. And I concur that there is no way anyone can measure the quality of ministry from these cold and dry figures.

    But I can also tell you that a narrative report is what we’ve been hearing and giving for the past few years of decline. I’m referring to tired old chestnuts like, “We may be small, but we love the Lord,” or the ever popular, “What we lack in size, we make up for in enthusiasm.”

    Both sides of this coin have drawbacks. One is missing the ability to speak to the quality of work and the other doesn’t account for the quantity of people impacted.

    Does it have to be either/or?

    Is declining attendance/giving/participation acceptable? If so, then for how long?

    Don’t the numbers represent souls? Don’t the dollars allow for a measure of fruitfulness?

    I completely agree with you on the fact that professions of faith are the result of the movement of the Spirit, but you said yourself they also rely on the faithful work of the congregation.

    Yes, there is fear. But there was fear when I sacked groceries, drove a truck, worked landscaping, and construction. If we aren’t faithfully attending our tasks, then we should expect to be reprimanded or even replaced in our work.

    My response to VitalCongregations was to ask to be held responsible for that faithfulness to the tasks. But in reality, I’m the one leading the conversation that selects the tasks. I’m also the one leading the effort to resource, manage, and evaluate our faithfulness in performing those tasks.

    Your post is inspiring me to renew the efforts to share the story and craft the narrative. But I think I will be holding on to the numbers as well. Without those numbers, I could just be running the “friendliest” church in decline in my district.

    But alone, they are cold, dry figures. And they can be tortured to say anything we want them to say.

    Thank you again for your prophetic voice and your willingness to ask and answer the hard questions!

    1. Agreed, Joey. Here’s where I see the crux of the problem: the numbers are interesting and important. They are part of how we evaluate our progress toward our goals. But they should not be the goals. Goal: greater sense of stewardship as a spiritual discipline articulated and lived by members of the congregation. Evaluation of goal: listening for language used about finances and stewardship, less anxiety in meetings having to do with finances, and *statistics that show a measured increase in pledged giving*. See? Goal: Increase in connection with people who are not part of any faith community/better hospitality and outreach. Evaluation of goal: New face (not just more faces!) in worship, new disciples being identified and shaped, *statistics that show an increase in attendance,* *statistics that show an increase in professions of faith.*

      Put another way, my husband is an educator. Public education uses tools and statistics to measure the progress of students in a district. In a perfect world, the goal is to nurture the best and brightest students possible, instilling in them a love of learning and an ability to learn and grow for a lifetime (or something like that, but however educator types say it). One way this is measured is through test scores. But the test scores too often become the goal. If improved test scores are the goal, then as an educator, I assume I teach only what will be on the test and have kids learn tricks and mnemonics and whatever. I might even (so I hear in some places) *not* teach the material on the test the first few years, so that kids under-perform, and then I can show an improvement. Wouldn’t want to appear to be an under-qualified teacher and get canned, or have my school appear to be a failing school and have its funding pulled (gosh this sounds familiar!). But if the goal is well-educated students, then I will teach them to love learning, to explore for themselves, and to think critically. The test scores should show improvement– if they are a good set of tests and the metrics are used correctly.

      Likewise, if the goal is more people in pews, as a pastor or church lay leader, I can fill seats with just about anything. Free money! Scantily clad communion services! Scaring people into thinking they’ll burn in hell if they’re not Methodist! If the goal is more professions of faith, I can wrestle up some confirmands who may not be ready, or misplace the transfer papers of people coming in form other churches. If the goal is to put in better numbers I can, if I’m not a very honest person, lie.

      But if the goal is better disciples, there’s no faking that. Then my ministry has to be about empowering and equipping the people in my congregation and beyond to be who God is calling them to be. I don’t think I have to tell you that this is hard. I bet you are trying to do it too, and with as mixed success as I am. We celebrate the successes we have and grit our teeth and try again when the seed falls on rocky soil that we were so sure was good and clean and fertilized. If the metrics are good, which I don’t think they are, but if they are good, they should show that a church is succeeding when it is making disciples. Ask me how many people go to small groups, not how many I have. Ask me how many people volunteer their time or come to church on days other than Sunday, not just how many come Sunday morning. Heck, allow me to add the 30 people who regularly listen to my sermon online as soon as it uploads into my count of people who worshipped with us this week, and those who clicked through and I presumed prayed the Joys and Concerns we posted. Ask me what the average pledge per household is, and if it is increasing over time. I have a really pretty (and amazingly awesome!– my congregants are such people of faith!) chart I made showing that.

      Ack, this is almost as long as my post. What I mean to say is, I agree. Numbers are significant– as measurement, not as goals. But that takes trust– trust in the people reporting and reading reports, trust in the pastors and churches to do ministry, trust in the process to show success where it really is, and trust in the Spirit. We lack some or all of that in the church of today.


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