Measuring Success

In my day job I like metrics.

I’ve got a bit of a reputation for it. In a certain meeting I’ve uttered the phrase “that’s not a metric” often enough that some people look and wait for me to say it whenever a way of measuring success is suggested.

In most of the jobs I’ve done it’s been part of my role to gather, analyse and interpret data in order to evaluate things that my employer does and to make suggestions for areas of improvement. I like data. I think observation is an effective way of finding out what’s happening and how we can then respond to it. Assuming, of course, that we ask the right questions (that’s usually the bit where most people fall over).

Naturally then when it comes to pastoring and leading in church life, I have tended to want and ask for metrics. I’m the person in the room who would ask “do we know what percentage of people that affects?” or “how many people like that have there been this year?”

On the one hand this can be a good thing, a little professionalisation in our church approach can be helpful, and we often have the data but haven’t done anything with it. However, I’ve noticed three big problems: numbers obscure people, measuring makes things smaller, and we get what we measure.

Numbers obscure people

It’s helpful perhaps to know that a particular problem affects 78% of your congregation, you can aim your teaching towards it, start programmes, give time and resource in that direction. The statistic provides focus. It’s very difficult to do this without detriment though. If a problem only affects 0.5% of my congregation presumably I don’t need to spend much effort on it. If the church were a business that would probably be the best way to use your resources. If that 0.5% is one person in your 200 strong church, you as a pastor cannot ignore it because the other 199 are fine. Metrics encourage us to forget the 1 sheep in favour of the 99. That is not the way of Jesus.

While numbers and metrics can be helpful, the Christian pastor is called to shepherd in a backwards way. The kingdom of God privileges the weak and Jesus runs after the individual person who needs his help. Pastors need to do the same.

Measuring makes things smaller

To put numbers and measurements around things you must confine them to categories. You have to ‘code’ them. Numbers require people to fit into neat boxes. They rarely do. The majesty and mystery of the world isn’t easy to fit into boxes on a spreadsheet. While this doesn’t completely undermine the use of metrics, the numbers can look like they are telling me the whole story and they rarely are. Not only that but the statistical sophistication required to offer the numbers with the precision and caveats so that they cannot be misinterpreted is beyond most of us to either offer or receive.

For example, perhaps your church counts the number of people who have been ‘saved’ that year. This can be a helpful thing, especially if the aim is to highlight a big problem when the number is very low. I know a church that holds an emergency prayer meeting if they haven’t seen anyone saved that month. I suspect that’s a large part of the reason that they see many people coming to faith.

The problem is, when is someone ‘saved’? While we can dodge this by counting ‘responses to the gospel’, which is my preferred term, we still hit against the same reality. For many people it’s often a series of encounters that seem to bring them into the kingdom, or perhaps we include people who pray a prayer on a Sunday but aren’t added to the church or don’t see a discernible change of life or aren’t baptised.

What we measure is what we get

What we measure will be what we get. If your key metric is the number of people in your midweek groups, then you will push them hard. If your key metric is the number of people coming on a Sunday then there will be a real temptation to appeal to the crowd and to encourage wide and shallow discipleship where people attend without being added into the life of the church.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, I was involved in the leadership of a large church that typically tracked the number of people coming on the average Sunday and the percentage of them in midweek groups in an attempt to get a sense of growth and the kind of growth. Then we noticed, largely anecdotally, that we hadn’t baptised anyone in twelve months. Ah. Part of the answer (though not all of it, obviously), was to make Baptisms a key metric. You chase what you measure, and so you get what you measure. We saw many baptised the next year.

While baptisms didn’t line up with ‘salvations’ because we both baptised Christian students who somehow hadn’t been baptised previously, and people responded to the gospel who were then difficult to get to follow up with a baptism, it was the best measure we had. Especially as theologically I would position Baptism as the initial response of obedience to Christ that a new Christian makes, it’s a good measure of your fruit.

It’s good to have measures of your fruit, it helps us know if we’re doing OK or need to rethink things. So much of true success is intangible though, that this doesn’t always get us all that far. I can’t draw a year on year graph of repentance, but that’s the true goal.

To measure or not to measure

If I could draw that graph it might help because what you measure you get. But I would be worried that somehow I would make the glory of winning battles against the pervasive influence of sin into something small by squeezing it between the lines of my spreadsheet. And even if I could I would worry that somehow turning twenty brilliant shining souls who have turned their back on darkness for the first or the fiftieth time into the number “20” in a column is too tawdry, too general for so wonderful a thing.

So, by all means measure, but measure less, know what you’re measuring and look for the important things. The real metrics can’t be measured as they’re found in the Father’s face.

Photo by Fleur on Unsplash