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Why Numbers Matter in the UMC – Learning (2 of 3)

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Vitality seems to be the talk of The United Methodist Church. From the invitation to be a Vital Congregation to tracking metrics through Vital Signs, there has been a wide variety of response to the movement to increasing the level of reporting of involvement across several areas of local churches.

Let me be clear about where I stand – tracking numbers matters for The United Methodist Church.

If there is a church in my district whose professions of faith or persons involved in missions is far above average – I want to know about it. I want to learn from the leaders there what is working and how I might take what they are doing and adapt it in my own setting. Tracking numbers and sharing them across the conference allows this to happen.

10 replies on “Why Numbers Matter in the UMC – Learning (2 of 3)”

*yawn* let me know when you have substantial content. One-point blog posts are not very persuasive. Particularly when they do not address the core complaint of the metrics movement: they do not pair qualitative and quantitative content and when they do, they do not value them equally.

Please don’t misrepresent the anti-metrics movement. It’s not that we don’t want numbers kept or compared, it’s that we don’t want numbers to be the #1 factor in our churches.

UMJeremy – I appreciate your clarification of the issue that you have with tracking numbers – qualitative content is either not included or devalued when in response to numbers. There is much in the church and in the Christian life that is difficult to measure. However, there are some clear markers that can be tracked by numbers. One example is someone that chooses to follow Jesus. While there is likely a great story that goes along with this change it is still a number – 1. I don’t know how it is possible to qualitatively distinguish in areas like this. When Paul says Yes to following Jesus is that story more valuable, important, or meaningful than the man who turns to Jesus on the cross after a life of crime? There are circumstances when qualitative content can be misappropriated.
What do you suggest church leaders pay attention to when trying to discern the fruitfulness and vitality of their congregation?

Your comparison of Paul or the criminal on the cross being qualitatively different is a good one. Gives me something to think about and I like that.

The phrase “there are some clear markers that can be tracked by numbers” is not always correct.

(1) By quantitative analysis, Jesus’ sermon the mount FAILED because it reduced the crowd of thousands to fifty. Any church that did that would surely be on the radar for a new pastor or closure.

(2) By quantitative analysis, my home church growing up FAILED because it lost about 40% of the church one year when that group lost a church vote to recommend removal of the pastor. The pastor stayed, and the church’s spirit was much much better even though being lower in number. While the church has grown 400% since the unhealthy group was removed, that’s a long view looking backward.

(3) By quantitative analysis my local church FAILS in its missions money. It runs a mission store and sells jeans for $1, socks for 25 cents, and use that money to buy food for those in need. We spent $65,000 to run this last year. Where do I put that in our Church Metrics on the VC website? It’s our own ministry, it’s not an outside benevolence, it’s not an apportionment. So our mission moneys given (the fifth section on the VitalSigns website) is HALF as it should be. It doesn’t fit into the box, it isn’t counted, thus to the church metrics, it isn’t fruit. Tell me how that is honest.

In short, congregations that become more vital by subtraction rather than addition have the same quantitative marker as churches that are unhealthy and losing members. The only way to tell the difference between them is to pay attention to the qualitative work and mission being done, including non-traditional ministries that don’t fit in the boxes. To pay as much attention to the stories as to the numbers. While and such can do that in some form, the higher up the chain you go, the less credence is given to stories and more to numbers.

And that’s where the church metrics movement is dishonest to the ministry of the local church.

UMJeremy – Thanks for the continued conversation. I wanted to respond to your three points.
(1) When compared to Jesus, I do not know of any pastor who stacks up very well.
(2) I believe that the long view looking back is part of why metrics are important. It helps give perspective to times in the life of the church like you describe.
(3) I would put the $65,000 that you mention in the dollars given to mission. It seems evident to me that it is money given to mission.
You mentioned fail or failed in each of your points. Who is talking about failure in relationship with metrics? It seems that a focus on improvement, making and achieving goals is more helpful than labeling pastors or congregations as failures. Each year that I go through the annual review process there are areas in which I can improve. My supervisor doesn’t label me a failure in those areas and give up. Instead the focus is on coaching and looking at ways to take the next step forward. My expectation is that this would be similar around vital congregations.
I appreciate your reminder that just looking at the numbers one can’t discern from a congregation that is more vital by subtraction than an unhealthy congregation. You are right that in these cases stories are how to discern the difference. So what does that look like? How is a district superintendent or a bishop able to absorb and understand the nuances at each local church? How can stories be told in ways that they can be shared effectively across the annual conference, or the entire denomination?

Holly – Thanks for sharing the article. I agree that ministry with the poor is one of the hallmarks of the Methodist movement and one of the central parts of the gospel. Two of Manskar’s three suggestions for next steps from the article (restructure clergy compensation and redirect resources away from starting churches in affluent areas) rely on financial metrics. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they are a critical part of the picture.

I am preparing a petition for General Conference that deals with the Equitable Compensation paragraph of the Book of Discipline. I am proposing that we establish a maximum salary for pastors that will be no more than twice the minimum compensation. If a church votes to pay their pastor more than the maximum, they will be expected to give the same amount above the maximum to the Equitable Compensation Fund. Then the Equitable Compensation Committee of the annual conference, with guidance from the GCFA will be encouraged to use the funds for pastoral support either within their own annual conference or a conference with greater need (perhaps a central conference). Although this proposal is not identical with Manskar’s idea, I think it may help to give us more integrity in our ministry with the poor. We’ll see where it goes. Are YOU willing to live within this salary limit? Interesting question for our clergy, I believe.

Holly – Thanks for the clarification. Differences in standard of living would be addressed the same way that it is handled across denomination through minimum salary. A maximum of twice the minimum would certainly be a simple number to track. If this passes General Conference, I would be more than willing to live within the limit.

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