Wednesday, July 06, 2011

By The Numbers

Our Conference has pioneered the use of metrics in ministry in our Conference Dashboard. Our Dashboard shows the spiritual health of churches each week showing the most reliable indicators of spiritual vitality, not only of a church’s participation in Connectional Giving, but also professions of faith, baptism, attendance, and service to those in need. Others in the United Methodist Church are taking note and starting to follow our lead. I thought you would find the following article from The United Methodist Reporter interesting. - Will Willimon

By the numbers: United Methodists debate use of church ‘dashboards’

By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer
The United Methodist Reporter

At a meeting of the board of trustees at Emory University a few years ago, trustees pored over the college’s “dashboard”—a detailed view of 30 different numerical measures of the university’s vitality.

For Bishop William H. Willimon (North Alabama), a member of the board, it was an epiphany: Why not track vitality in the same way in the United Methodist Church?

By 2009, North Alabama had implemented an online Conference Dashboard. Every Monday, churches log in their numbers for attendance, baptisms, giving and other measures. Pastors—and anyone else—can see how their numbers stack up against other churches.

Now, Bishop Willimon logs in every Tuesday to see which churches reported the greatest increases—and which had the biggest drops. Dials and charts on the dashboard give a quick glimpse of how the numbers are trending.

Bishop Willimon’s experiment may soon become standard practice at annual conferences across the U.S. Similar “dashboards” cropped up around the same time at a handful other annual conferences—including Florida and Illinois Great Rivers—and now the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) is rolling out VitalSigns, a tool modeled after the North Alabama dashboard—and encouraging every annual conference to adopt it.

Detractors say that dashboards are a mistake—a worldly tool that will turn pastors’ focus from ministry to “making the numbers.”

But advocates assert that dashboards offer a desperately-needed tool, in the face of steep declines in the denomination’s membership, to create accountability for pastors, mobilize laity and boost congregational vitality.

“We’re hoping to begin to change the culture that says ‘Numbers aren’t important,’” said Bishop John Schol (Baltimore-Washington), who’s working on the VitalSigns rollout. “Numbers are about souls.”

Always counting

Take a look at the North Alabama Conference Dashboard, and you’ll see that it names names and publishes the numbers—good, bad and ugly—for all to see. For the week of May 22, for example, Canterbury UMC in Birmingham reported two baptisms, topping the list for year-to-date baptisms at 39, while First UMC in Huntsville topped the list of “churches with biggest loss in worship” with 228 in attendance.

Keeping track of these numbers is nothing new for Methodists. John Wesley tracked membership numbers assiduously and cited numerical growth as an indicator of spiritual vitality. Many church members will recall the old wooden register boards that were once posted at the front of church sanctuaries, with movable numbers that tallied attendance and giving from week to week.

And most of the data posted on the dashboards has been tracked in the past—but generally ended up buried, and largely unheeded, in conference journals.

Before the dashboard, “We had three full-time people who did nothing but compile the numbers in the conference,” Bishop Willimon said. “But by the time we got them, they were 1-2 years out of date. It was very hard to make decisions based on those dated numbers.”

What’s changed, with the implementation of dashboards, is that now the numbers are published widely and in “real time.”

“One of my beefs with the general church is that we’ve had this fairly disturbing data for years, but you’d be hard pressed to think of any major change we’ve made in response to the numbers,” Bishop Willimon said. “Now I can honestly say that these numbers have become part of how we work.”

Bishop Willimon says he mostly focuses on the positive numbers—writing or calling pastors of churches with significant upticks, some of whom he might not otherwise know about. But he also moved a pastor, after just one year, in an appointment where attendance dropped 20 percent in the pastor’s first seven months.


Not surprisingly, the dashboards are generating pushback from pastors and seminarians.

The idea of dashboards “is both exhilarating and terrifying,” said Jason Byassee, a research fellow at Duke Divinity School who’s beginning a pastoral appointment in the Western North Carolina Conference. “It’s creating anxiety, a worry that the dashboards are designed to shame people they think are lazy pastors.”

As the Detroit Conference begins implementing GCFA’s VitalSigns dashboard, the Rev. Jerry DeVine, director of Connectional Ministries, said that some pastors have complained about the addition of yet another administrative task.

Some worry that dashboards will make ministry “all about the numbers.”

In his experience as a former district superintendent, Dr. DeVine said, “When there were positive numbers, the clergy in my district would love telling me about them. When they were not so good, they’d say, ‘I’m not a numbers person.’”

Others wonder whether numbers can really measure what matters most.

“What will numbers tell us of holiness of heart and mind? Of the pastor's seriousness and ability?” asks Austin Rivera, a Duke Divinity School student and ordination candidate in the Kansas East Conference.

“Lately I’ve been preaching a lot about friendship with the poor,” writes the Rev. Tom Arthur, pastor of Sycamore Creek UMC in Lansing, Mich., in a recent blog post on dashboards. “How do you measure that?”

The right measures?

The first time someone showed the North Alabama dashboard to Amy Laura Hall, she burst into tears. The associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School has been a sharp critic ever since.

She calls dashboards a “union busting” tactic—targeting clergy and their guaranteed appointments, and compares them to the metrics enacted in public schools by the No Child Left Behind Act that, she says, similarly target teachers with tenure.

“Pastors won’t be able to preach what their congregations need to hear without thinking about the numbers,” she said.

Bishop Willimon isn’t buying that argument.

“That’s an old-fashioned Methodist alibi—‘We’re dying because we’re so prophetic and truthful,’” he said. “The words you’re looking for there are actually ‘boring’ and ‘old.’”

“The question is what can the numbers really tell us?” Dr. Byassee said. “It’s easy to get people in the building. Put up a sign that says ‘Free Beer’ and they will come. Attendance figures don’t tell us to what degree the church is loving Jesus.”

Dr. Byassee, who authored a book, The Gifts of the Small Church, hopes that dashboards won’t tilt emphasis toward larger churches.

“Jesus had nice things to say about wherever two or three are gathered,” he said. “He attends to his closest followers rather than the crowds. And he leaves behind the hundred to go get one.”

Despite his concerns, Dr. Byassee agrees that ignoring numbers completely is na├»ve too. No church would lose track of its bank account balance, he noted—that’s ‘baseline stewardship.’

“More data doesn’t make more wisdom,” he said. “But it is harder to get wisdom without data.”

Advocates note, too, that laypeople are less likely than clergy to dislike the dashboard concept.

“Lay members are accustomed to accountability in their work,” said Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Florida). “They’re not threatened by it. They know they perform better when there’s a system of accountability.”

Metric madness?

Dr. Hall also claims that dashboards use the same kind of metrics that businesses use to sell products, and in doing so, “routinize ministry in ways that are antithetical to Christian teaching,” she said. “Metrics distort the way we are called to see one another in Jesus Christ.”

She also accused church leaders of using dashboards as a “pathetic and mean” way to bring much-needed money and new people.

“This is public shaming of pastors who don’t bring in new members,” she said. Luke Wetzel, a Duke Divinity student and ministry candidate in the Kansas East Conference, says trust, not accountability, is the real driver behind the dashboards.

“Our clergy don’t trust each other, and our churches don’t trust the conference,” he said. “I fear that the fruits of dashboards are competition and coercion.”

The Rev. Robert “Bob” Phillips, directing pastor of First UMC in Peoria, Ill., doesn’t see it that way, even though his church showed up poorly in one metric—the highest net loss of membership in the conference—for one week in May.

Membership in his church is down, in part, because the church is working to remove outdated names from its rolls—and his bishop and DS know that, he said. And FUMC Peoria also turned up near the top of another list, as one of the highest payers of apportionment dollars in the conference.

“The key here is the level of trust that pastors have in their bishop, and the integrity of how the bishop and the cabinet interact and affirm pastors once they’re appointed,” he said. “With trust, the dashboard is a genuinely helpful metric to measure where we’re headed and where we need to go. Without trust, a dashboard could become a game of ‘gotcha.’”

Equipping clergy

Dr. DeVine says that the Detroit Conference embraced the dashboard concept as part of another program, the Vital Church Initiative, that trains pastors and lay leaders on building church vitality.

“We also felt we can’t ask pastors to raise the bar if we’re not there to equip them to do that,” he said. “If we are asking them to start measuring themselves, we are ready and willing to support and equip them through training that goes beyond what they learned in seminary.”

Dr. DeVine compares dashboards to the pedometers that some people wear to track their daily physical activity and to motivate themselves to move more.

The dashboard “is an invitation to a wellness program,” he said. “It’s not intended to be punitive or oppressive.”

Like pedometers, he admits, dashboards won’t solve problems—only provide a tracking measure.

But they do encourage church leaders to focus on areas that need attention, says the Rev. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Center for Congregational Excellence in the Florida Conference.

While comparisons among churches and pastors are inevitable, Dr. Stiggins says, the dashboards’ main purpose is to allow congregations to focus on their own progress.

He said he’s seen “story after story” of congregations that turned their focus on ministry to people outside of the church, spurred by the metrics they report. Before the conference instituted its dashboard, no statistics were collected that related to that type of outreach, allowing churches that had become “self-absorbed” to go unchallenged.

“If you ask the right question long enough, it becomes the way people pay attention,” Dr. Stiggins said. “Otherwise, it’s like playing basketball without keeping score.”


hnb said...

Bishop, what do you do for the pastors in the churches who are not meeting dashboard goals? You send letters of encouragement to those that are, but in this article it doesn't talk about what you do for those that aren't.

Thank you.

William H. Willimon said...

We really haven't done much on those whose numbers are negative. Sad to say, that's most of our numbers. Over half of our churches have not made a new disciple in the past year, so those who have success are in a minority at this point. We decided to note those who were suceeding at the mission of the church and then try to learn what they were doing that made a difference. It has been a learning experience.

There have been a few occassions (not as many as we ought to have) when the DS and I have noted a church that had a decline in attendance and it has been taken as a warning signal, or at least as a signal that we ought to make inquiries.

The main value of the numbers at this point are the positive numbers. In a declining system, there are many people who have the attitude, "we are in decline and so is everyone else," using that as an alibi. So noticing the positive numbers is a positive first step in moving things forward.


Carolyn Frantz said...

Hi Bishop,

Thanks for your innovative idea. I got a degree in Sociology before going to seminary, and one of the most striking things that I learned is that the Methodist Church has always been a middle-class church. The middle class is shrinking in the US today, as has been for a long time, as the disparity between the rich and poor grows. It is my opinion that a shrinking church may not be the fault of a pastor or the people- it might just be a fact of life. We might increase our numbers by reaching out to the poor, even if that means inviting those who are not like us to come to our church.

Also in my sociology department, I learned how to do quantitative research and use numbers effectively. Looking at the dashboards, it seems that we might be able to show the numbers in a way that more effectively communicates without shaming people who pastor or attend individual churches. For instance, rather than show "attendance 228," we could show "percent change since last week" or "percent change since last year." That way numbers could be seen in context of the church's overall size and history.

I'm not sure, given that the UMC seems to be so prone to population shifts, that the dashboards will be effective in the way that you intend. There is not much any UMC member or pastor can do to counter such shifts. If we do use them, I think a more direct connection can be made between outreach to the poor and baptisms/ attendance. Since the poor are the largest growing demographic right now, there will be a direct connection between serving them and incorporating them into our churches. In short, home mission with the poor is probably the most accurate barometer of the UMC's health at the moment, so the dashboards ought to reflect that.


William H. Willimon said...


Like you, I'm concerned about the nation's shrinking middle class. But remember that we Wesleyans once built a movement by reaching out to the poor. Why shouldn't we start demanding that our pastors and churches reach out to the poor and welcome them to our churches?

I mus tsay that I'm not a big fan of sociological determinism. I think the gospel is stronger than any sociological trend.

Also, I wish it were true that a pastor isn't responsible for growth in a congregation and for attendance. We now have examples of numerous pastors and congregations who are filled with a new spirit of mission by daring to get out of the church and reaching out in hospitality to others. I'm not interested in shaming anyone (though if a pastor fails at the basic tasks of ministry, not sure why shame is not an appropriate feeling for the pastor to have), but I don't understand your implication that "everyone is failing to reach people and so are we." Noticing the numbers helps us to notice those who are refusing to be limited by sociological trends and are growing their congregaitons.