By Eddie Pipkin

I made the mistake last week of stepping on the bathroom scale.  I am a big believer in not cramping the festive spirit of the Christmas season with such foolishness as scientific evidence that I’m celebrating a little more than is strictly advisable.  But good data has a way of holding us accountable.  It counteracts our excuses and shrugs its shoulders at our lame justifications.  That’s why metrics matter.  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.  So, as we addressed a couple of weeks ago, 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.

The first question is whether we are measuring anything at all, and if we are measuring, if we are following through with a system that is carried out with consistency and integrity – in order to be useful, data has to be collected honestly and with accuracy – no padding those numbers!  The next question revolves around how we are reporting and using that data.  Data should be used to drive our strategic thinking, and it can be used in two different ways: 1) We implemented a strategy: is it doing what we thought it would do?  2)  We see how people interact with what we offer: should we adjust our strategy accordingly?  Since we are all measuring something – well or poorly – the follow-up and forward-looking question becomes, “Are we measuring things that matter?  What should we be measuring that we’re not?”

Brad Brisco does a nice job of setting this up as he defines it as a question of “quantity” versus “quality,” or to even more succinctly state the case, “counting” versus “measuring” – hint, we are historically good at the counting part but struggle with the measuring:

Counting is giving attention to numbers. When counting, the question to be answered is “How many?” It is quantitative. Conversations about “How many?” are most frequently conversations about resources, but can also be about activities. Conversations about resources, in a time of limited resources, are commonly conversations about sufficiency: “Do we have enough?” or “How can we get more?” Examples could include finances or people. We ask questions like “Do we have enough money for that mission?” or “Do we have enough volunteers for that ministry?” A quantitative question about activities might be “How many Bible studies were conducted?”

Measuring is giving attention to change. When measuring, the question is not about “How many?” but rather “How far?” Conversations about “How far?” are frequently about the change that can be measured over a particular time, as in “How far have we come over the past year?” Measuring is about qualitative change. Has the quality of something changed over time? In other words, has something gotten better, or worse, since the last time we measured?

These are measurements that align with the vision of ministry that Jesus cast for his followers, both in the changes happening in their own lives, as well as the change they would bring to the world.  From a practical standpoint, any individual church only has to maintain enough support to fund the budget and keep the doors open, and any pastor only has to maintain enough popularity to keep his or her posting.  But Jesus sets a template for progress toward greater goals:

In the context of the church, measuring is about determining transformational change (discipleship) in both people and in the neighborhoods where we live. Ask yourself, “What changes would you like to see in the lives of the people, but also in the life of your community?” That is an outcome. But then ask the follow-up question, “What will it take to get to that place?” Then begin to ask measurement questions toward that change. “How will we know if we are making progress in the right direction?” “What will we measure to determine transformational change?”

Therefore, we 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.  They are both useful for decision making, but measuring is a deeper dive into the health of a given congregation.   Measuring discipleship becomes critical as we discussed at length three weeks ago.  It’s important to find a tool to gauge discipleship development  with precision (and, as noted two weeks ago, Excellence in Ministry Coaching’s “Real Discipleship Survey” is a fantastic tool for just that – giving a congregation as a whole and its individual members a detailed picture of where they stand and how to move forward).  However, you measure the transformational aspects of discipleship, the criteria should be observable behaviors, not just what people say about their progress.  And whether you use our awesome tool or have crafted one of your own, everybody in ministry should be able to answer this crucial question: HOW ARE YOU MEASURING DISCIPLESHIP GROWTH?

That’s the grandpappy of all metrics questions.  But beyond that, what other things can your leadership team measure?  Contextual metrics are critical.  Know your own context and history and develop measurements based on your unique congregational characteristics.  Measuring is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

If you’ve been a church that has is experiencing a season of struggle — if you have groups that are struggling – particularly if they are groups that were historically strong but have withered – if you are interested in reviving those groups, it’s very important to have metrics to measure your specific progress.

Even for data we routinely gather and report on, are we focusing on the numbers in ways that move us forward?

For instance, we might be very skilled at recording first-time visitors, but how about second-time or third-time visitors.  We can point to that visitor number, but really it is only measuring the effectiveness of our marketing.  And we should certainly measure the effectiveness of our marketing . . . BUT many of those first-time folks are just “shopping.”  A person who returns for a second or third visit is much more likely to hang around.  We should know who they are and have a strategy to engage them at that point (because by their return presence they have indicated they are primed for such connection), and being able to look at the data that records these kinds of visits means we’ve not only developed a good marketing presence, but we’re doing something right to engage people once they come through the front door.  In measuring this, think about your attendance pad or connect card: often they have options for “first-time visitor” or “regular visitor” or “member.”  A second or third-time visitor isn’t really in any of those categories.  They need something more like “returning visitor.”  Or maybe a whole new category of options: “curious,” “checking things out,” “dedicated attender”?  Then, once a person has given us an indication that they are in a category ripe for connection, how do we accurately measure whether we have faithfully given them that opportunity for engagement?

The team at the Unstuck Church podcast spend a lot of time talking with real churches about the metrics they are using, and they note emphatically:

“There’s no one metric that tells the overall story of the health of a church.”

But there are definitely clues that can be gleaned from, for instance, measuring engagement rather than just measuring sign-ups.  Are people completing classes and applying newfound wisdom?  Are they checking out small groups and then sticking around to grow and serve through them?  Leadership should be doing quarterly check-ups on such questions.

And thinking about the the critical value of small groups in the health of churches, we measure the number of groups themselves and the people who show up for those groups, but do we measure the number of future small group leaders in training?  Do we measure the ways people in small groups serve and give, as opposed to those who aren’t in small groups?

And, of course, there is the whole new field of measuring the remote engagement of people via our web presence and social media.  This engagement is very easy to measure — the platforms we use give us lots of options for crunching data.  And, again, engagement being the key, are people checking out our stories and worshiping remotely engaging in other real-world ways?

So many questions to ask.  So many great ways to ask them:

  • Do attendees at your contemporary service get involved more than attendees of your traditional service?
  • Do people who live closer to your church campus get more involved?
  • Do people who respond on social media get more involved?
  • Can you offer interactive quizzes and contests to get people more revved up about service and giving opportunities?
  • Do people who open your weekly e-news get more involved and give more?
  • Do you have a good way to measure the ways that people from your church are volunteering in the wider community?
  • What is the level of inter-generational engagement in your activities and events?
  • Are people watching your Facebook live feed as it happens or checking it out later?
  • Are you regularly posting interactive surveys to solicit feedback? Are you regularly distributing that feedback to leadership?
  • What is the breakdown of small group participation on Sundays (Sunday school, etc.) versus other times of the week?
  • Is there an historic correlation between the strength of your student ministries or children’s ministries and engagement across all other ministry areas?
  • Do you have ways to measure staff interactions with congregation members and future congregation members?
  • Do you have stated goals for such interactions?  (Conversations, visits, shared meals, emails exchanged?)
  • Do you have stated goals and ways to measure spiritual growth “check-ins” with people in your church?

What new thing are you and your congregation measuring that you never measured before?  What are the difficulties in trying to identify useful measurements and bring them to reality?  What is one thing you wish you could measure about congregational engagement that you are stumped about how to measure?  Share your stories and your questions right here!