If your life is anything like mine, you may find yourself at the beginning of the year focusing on numbers from the past year. In both professional and personal spheres, these numbers become more important, whether they relate to personal finance, denominational data, institutional capacity, or charitable giving.
In the absence of clear thinking, we simply remain busy in our cycle of activity, confusing program with mission and exertion with fruitfulness.
There is currently a lively conversation underway in the mainline church about numbers and metrics. This conversation is often dominated by two extreme and less-than-helpful perspectives. One seeks to quantify everything. In its most pronounced expression, this is the ascendency of the M.B.A. into every other professional guild, including ministry. The second perspective is an overreaction to the first. It insists that metrics should be ignored in favor of higher values — persons, or communities, or contexts.
So how do we proceed, in work that necessarily involves mission, ministry, and transformation on the one hand, and compensation, pension, and facilities on the other? Clear thinking is rarer in our present moment than we might imagine. We are so enmeshed in our roles that we often do not see reality. Or we are so trained in a particular language that we are suspicious of those who sound different from us. Sometimes we naively hope for a future that will be different than the past. Or we privilege piety (how we feel) or action (what we do) over what we think. In the absence of clear thinking, we simply remain busy in our cycle of activity, confusing program with mission and exertion with fruitfulness.
Gil Rendle, of the Alban Institute and more recently the Texas Methodist Foundation, is one of the more helpful conversation partners in clarifying the assumptions that both help and hinder us. In his new book, Doing the Math of Mission (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), Rendle reflects on the facets of congregational and denominational life that are in a fragile state, describing them by employing the biblical image of the wilderness. He acknowledges the anxiety and energy at the heart of our attention to mission and metrics. And he provides a number of helpful insights on how we measure the impact of our ministry.
Three Significant Distinctions
The difference between counting and measuring. Counting focuses on resources and activities in the present. Measuring attends to the difference between where we are and where we seek to be.
The distinction between processes and outcomes. Process is about what we do — the services we offer and the number of people we serve. Outcomes are concerned with the results we hope to achieve and the changes we imagine as a result of our efforts. Processes focus more on counting, while outcomes are linked to measuring.
The value of missional instead of maintenance or preferential conversations. Maintenance conversations are about where we have been in light of agreed-upon rules. Conversations about people’s preferences value those persons already in our communities. Missional conversations, in contrast, focus on purpose, the future, and where God is calling us.
Three Essential Tasks
So where does the conversation about metrics and mission lead us? It seems that there are three essential tasks:
Integrating action and discernment. In our congregations, we cannot deny demographic trends or measures of participation. At the same time, these metrics are held in tension with thick narrative descriptions, all in service of our fundamental calling: to be missionary communities that bear witness to the Reign of God. Congregations do not have the luxury of detached analysis or extended evaluation. Rendle notes that our appropriate strategic intervention, given the fragility of the church and the complexity of our culture, is “Ready-Fire-Aim.” The challenge and adventure of congregational life and leadership are in the necessary integration of action and discernment.
Focusing on the health and vitality of local congregations. Everything begins with the health and vitality of local congregations. Congregations, whether in Montgomery or Montclair or Monrovia, are the primary context where lives are transformed. Denominational structures and initiatives are secondary and should support congregations. Denominations can and should pay closer attention to the fruitfulness of congregations, lamenting the loss of influence in some settings, praising God for vitality in others, and remembering that the purpose of any local gathering is to bear witness to God’s dream for the world.
Remembering our purpose. Leaders are called to return, again and again, to the question of purpose. On a changed mission field, the external rewards once given by a church culture are decreasing. The intrinsic meaning of the work — to glorify God, to lead others into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, to see maturity and flourishing among members of the body of Christ, and to seek the common good — motivates us, even when we are making our way through a dry and barren wilderness.
The work of discernment, incorporating the kind of rigorous reflection offered by Gil Rendle, ultimately is about reading the signs of the times and listening for the still, small voice of a God to whom we are accountable.