by Eddie Pipkin

Image by FlitsArt from Pixabay

Reading author and reporter Ann Helen Peterson’s Culture Study newsletter on Substack last week, my ears perked up when she got on a rant about her wearable fitness tracker.  She loves her rants, AHP, as do we all!  This one was about the ways in which our ubiquitous body-worn tech is great at ‘gamifying’ fitness goals but not-so-great at encouraging its wearers to get the proper amount of daily rest, and it’s practically useless in advising us to slow down or abort our workout when a less strenuous pace is beneficial for the greater goal of overall health.  So true, so true.  The goals we set and the metrics we use to motivate ourselves to achieve those goals are only as useful as the questions we’re solving for in the first place. The complex challenges of ministry mean we need to be crystal clear about our objectives, short-term and long-term.

In Peterson’s newsletter entry, titled “Where’s My Rest Badge? What Our Device Still Can’t Recognize,” she laments the failure of her Apple Watch to appreciate the big picture of fitness and health:

It’s a stupendously good running watch. But like every other supposedly smart device, it doesn’t quite understand rest.

This has been a common chorus around so-called “wearables” for years: whether it’s 10,000 steps, “closing your rings” on the Apple Watch, or, as my watch orients it, “reaching your average steps” for the last seven days, there’s little understanding of the way bodies actually work. They break. They’re always in some stage of broken. They need time and space to recuperate, or just to be. Exercise science understands this. Training plans understand this. But we’re also taught from a young age that blowing past limitations and “best practices” is a sign of grit, determination, Americanness. You don’t need rest; you just need to work harder. Reaching the bar just means the bar should be set higher.

This data-driven quest for performing at ever higher levels will be familiar to you all, not only because of your own fitness and health obsessions, but because ministry is rife with this mindset.

We push and push (ourselves and the people around us – or sometimes just the people around us), and we neglect to also advocate for the restorative portions of the ministry process.  The whole thing ultimately falls apart without those restorative, recharging, refreshing, recalibrating intervals – we’ve all observed this more than once: things are going along gangbusters, then it all falls apart.  That’s what exhaustion, pushing too hard for too long, and celebrating short-term measurements at the expense of long-term missions will do.

Of course, we need to meaningfully measure our commitment to restorative, regenerative practices, too!  Giving people more time off or allowing people to adopt loosey-goosey work practices doesn’t automatically lead to better, healthier outcomes.  If it’s not purposeful and intentional, it can just lead to chaos.  How do we measure the outcomes of rest and regeneration?

  • Are we reducing stress?
  • Are we reducing relationship tension?
  • Are we promoting a sense of purpose and growth?
  • Are people happier?

These are measurable outcomes.  The measurements are not automatic or obvious; they will require some thoughtful creativity on our part, but having figured out the manner of assessment, the process itself will engender growth and goodwill.

Growth and goodwill are, it turns out, not bad basic metrics for considering the impact and functionality of any ministry.  Anything can be measured.  One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and our leadership teams is to commit to making meaningful measurements and to work together to understand exactly what we’re measuring and why.

Looking back through my own blog archives, I have addressed this topic of meaningful metrics at least three times in the past few years.  It’s obviously a critical skill set:

  • “Metrics That Matter”: Are we measuring the right things? Do we have a clear understanding of why measurements matter and how they can move our work forward?

Although ministry circles are famous for hours-long rehashes of worship services and outreach events, we struggle to put all that discussion and debate to good use.  We suffer from three challenges: (1) We don’t really know what we’re measuring; (2) We are prone to measuring the wrong things; and (3) We love amorphous measurements like “the work of the Spirit.”

  • “The New Metrics”: What are specific metrics that we should be developing to register the changes in the way ministry is happening in the culture and the impact we are having in the lives of our congregations and the community?

Discipleship is – and always has been – the key word here.  Our mission has always been to raise up disciples to transform the world.  And while the traditional metrics are splendid for measuring our efforts to raise up members to build institutions, they don’t necessarily indicate discipleship growth and community transformation. We should be measuring “outputs,” but most of our focus is on measuring “inputs.”  Getting people in the door (attendance) is raw material, as are budgets and facilities.  And raw materials are essential to begin the transformation process.  But raw materials can be used well or poorly, for self-sustainment and enjoyment like any good voluntary association or for soul transformation and meeting the greater needs of the community as Christ proclaimed.

  • “More New Metrics”: Are we counting things (as a kind of point-scoring competition, or are we measuring things that matter for long-term relationship building?

If we want to grow our ministry – if we want to make it ever more excellent – it’s important to measure that growth and burgeoning excellence.  Or at least to have integrity about the fact that we are missing the mark. . . . [I]it’s important to measure the right things in a changing ministry environment.  And there are, perhaps, some new and exciting things to measure that we have never measured before. . . . [W]e can boil our metrics down to some simple tests:

  • Does this particular data set we are collecting measure transformation?
  • Does this particular data set show the impact of change in the lives of individuals and the community?

Obviously, as Brisco points out, we need to do both counting and measuring.

The great question, as my friend Chiny likes to say, is “What are you solving for?” If we are confused about what we are truly solving for, we will always have a difficult time getting to a solution.  Phil Maynard in one of his excellent training sessions on problem solving, starts with a process of everyone reaching agreement on what the problem is in the first place; often, we think we are working collaboratively even as we are independently solving for different underlying issues!

There are plenty of cultural changes putting pressure on churches to develop new practices, and constructively measuring the impact of those practices is going to be continue to be a big part of figuring out what comes next.  Some of this is obvious, such as developing a robust online presence and measuring “views” and “likes.”  But even that can be a version of ‘gamification.’  Is a like or a view true engagement – not that we shouldn’t measure it, but should we perhaps be thinking of ways to measure deeper connections, because if we don’t measure them, how can we encourage them?

Asking the right questions will a matter of experimentation and context – it will look different in different settings.  If you want to get a sample of the ways specific questions can offer insights and affect decision making, scroll down to the end of that link to “More New Metrics.”  There’s a list of ideas to get you started.

Meanwhile, Excellence in Ministry Coaching has long offered one of the best congregational health-assessment tools out there, the Real Discipleship Survey.  This interactive tool asks great questions (focusing in on relevant metrics) to measure discipleship.

And next week, I’ll introduce you to the latest EMC3 offering, our new Skill Builders Units, which deliver pinpoint, practical training for ministry leaders.  They answer the question, “What skills do our leadership teams need, and how do we teach them?”