May 31 brings to close another statistical year for many churches. Whether your fiscal/statistical year aligns with the calendar year or not, I know many pastors dislike statistical reports, and they come up with many reasons for why traditional statistics don’t really matter.
(1) You can’t have smart goals without good numbers
An acronym I hear often is that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. In other words, if you set a goal for yourself and it is not measurable, then how will you know when you have achieved it? If your goal is to get in shape, a way to make that goal “measurable” is to determine to lose 10 pounds by next month, or to ride 100 miles this month on a bike. One month later either you will have met that goal or not, and most likely if you meet that goal, you may be on your way toward your larger goal of getting in shape.
Numbers help make vague goals specific, and in so doing, they bring focus to our work.
(2) Numbers are stubbornly honest
“Figures don’t lie, but liars sure do figure,” goes the old saying, and I’ve known people who operate that way. Look no further than Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. When the Patriots were accused of breaking NFL rules earlier this year in #deflategate, Belichick held a press conference where he claimed to be quoting scientific data to prove that his team had not cheated, but “what he said didn’t make any sense” (according to Bill Nye the Science Guy). There are certainly cases like this where data or statistics have been twisted or manipulated, but that often means ripping statistical data out of context, or deliberately misinterpreting the data (because even good statistics need accurate interpretation most of the time). I am certainly not condoning any kind of number-twisting. And if you engage in that sort of number-manipulation, you will eventually get caught because numbers are stubbornly honest.
Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once famously said, “You are what your record says you are.” He meant that, while you might want to make excuses for why your team is better than they appear to be, your win/loss record tells the true story of how good your team is.
Numbers are not opinions. They are stubborn facts. They are objective, not subjective. They are sometimes subject to interpretation, but when you overdraw your bank account, it’s no sense saying, “I don’t see myself as being broke.” If the numbers say you are broke, you are broke. Numbers are stubbornly honest that way, and they will sometimes tell us what no one else has the courage to say.
(3) Trends and perspective
Some things happen gradually and thus are almost imperceptible. We have a spot in our house where we mark how our kids are growing. Of course I know that they are growing all the time, but sometimes it’s astonishing when I see how tall they were last year compared to today.
An awareness of trends is a really key aspect of leadership. Attendance numbers may fluctuate year to year, but if your attendance numbers are dropping steadily over five years, you might want to take notice.
Numbers are meaningless without knowing where they fit into the big picture. Numbers can give a sense of perspective. If your church attendance is down, but every church in the neighborhood is down, too, then maybe there’s something bigger going on beyond your control (meaning you may need to adapt, not just make excuses).
I know of one church that has a startling trend of decline, and yet its leadership shows no concern. Instead, they consistently argue that traditional church statistics don’t measure the right things. Yet when you ask them what their goals are, all of their goals are unspecific and immeasurable (therefore, not very S.M.A.R.T.).
How do we measure up to others? How do we measure up to where we were a few years ago? What decisions do we need to make right now to be ready when we get where we are headed (or to avoid going there)?
(4) My primary care doctor loves numbers
I have a great primary care doctor. I drive 70 minutes to see him, even though there is a good doctor right in the small town where I live. I drive to see Dr. Charles because he’s thorough, we are at the same stage in life, and because I trust him.
Dr. Charles loves numbers.
Every time I visit Dr. Charles’ office he writes down all sorts of numbers. Height, weight, pulse rate, and blood pressure. He sends me down for bloodwork, and the results come back as numbers. I’m on a Vitamin D supplement because of those numbers, and he’s given me peace of mind in previous visits because my numbers look good.
But Dr. Charles doesn’t just look at the numbers.
He also looks me in the eye and asks me about my family, and my job. He talks about the journey he’s seen me go through from a newlywed in grad school to a father and husband with a full house and many responsibilities. When he looks in my eyes, I can tell he’s not just being polite: he’s being a doctor.
I want a doctor who pays attention to all of those numbers, while also paying attention to the look in my eyes. And I want a pastor who knows the value of numbers, but also the value of stories.
Assessing ministry health must always be a mixed-methods study: quantitative research (numbers and measurable data) and qualitative research (interpreting codes, analyzing comments, and identifying trends).
The Rest of the Story: Why Christians Count
As I was putting the final touches on this article, David Drury posted his article “Why Christians Count: It’s not all about the numbers, so why do Christians count?” Waves of disappointment swept over me as I was sure his article was going end up being a better version of what I tried to write here. And I was right, but in some senses I think our two articles are complementary. In any event, I highly recommend his article to you.
© Steve Dunmire 2015
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Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). For more articles visit SteveDunmire.comFollow @DrSteveDunmire