Metrics vs. Evidence

“When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get [measurable] results with.”-Parker Palmer (on Effectiveness vs. Faithfulness)

I worked this week with a group of 75 United Methodist leaders in Kansas. At one point our conversation turned towards goal setting, and particularly to the importance of naming outcomes and metrics. I argued that we must name what we are seeking to do or become, and we must name appropriate metrics to evaluate our progress. Otherwise, we won’t see much change or the right kind of change.

This has always been a tricky conversation to have with clergy leaders, but it is an especially hot button topic these days. So many congregations are experiencing numerical plateaus, or they are in free fall around membership, attendance and giving patterns. Denominational leaders (or congregants) are demanding measurable growth goals in response, and many congregational leaders feel powerless to meet what feel like artificial and misplaced expectations.

The response from clergy leaders is advocacy for other forms of growth that they see as more important than numerical growth. These leaders posture that we ought to be more concerned with goals around faith formation, biblical knowledge, deepening spiritual practices, fostering faith sharing and growing social justice awareness. These agendas, they argue, are not necessarily measurable and they may not result in church growth, but they are more indicative of congregational vitality.

I am rather suspicious about both sides of the debate. I agree that healthy congregations are generally growing congregations, by some measurable objective. Many who appear to resist metrics strike me as change resistant and fearful of accountability. On the other hand, I am among the first to argue that attendance and budgets are not our best indicators of congregational health and vitality. They are much too limited in scope and don’t take into account the cultural shifts we are seeing around how people participate in the life of their congregations. So, where are we to go with this debate?

This week a wise leader in our midst told us that he and his congregation have dropped the language of metrics from their vocabulary all together. Instead, they are investing themselves in naming the evidence that will indicate success in their change efforts. They are working to describe the observable behaviors that will signal success in their “softer” growth initiatives. They are not fearful of accountability, they embrace it, but they are committed to talking about and measuring evidence that matters to their mission.

This week I also ran across a video of Parker Palmer discussing the difference between effectiveness and faithfulness. It seems to be circulating the web in honor of his 75th birthday. Palmer says, “When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get results with.”

We are living in a chapter of Church history that requires bold and audacious leadership. We can’t afford to waste our energy on small and insignificant work that is constrained by a misplaced interest in measuring the wrong results.

Watch the video and then weigh in on this question: How would a shift away from measuring effectiveness, and a shift towards measuring faithfulness, change the current conversation around congregational metrics?

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