Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fruitful Questions - Hoping for Answers!

There is a contradiction at work in the church that needs to be addressed. Simply put, the passionate call for change contradicts the use of old methods of assessment.

To be sure, there has been a shift of emphasis in our assessment, from counting “members” to counting people who are active in their discipleship. We count worshipers, people in hands-on mission, and those who participate in small groups. That’s good, and it is definitely better than counting people in the nearly meaningless category of “member.”

But we are still often times just counting heads in order to determine effectiveness (or fruitfulness), and then making decisions based on those counts. We are calling for our congregations to focus outwardly, meanwhile making all of our assessments inwardly.

It is very encouraging to hear Missouri’s Bishop Schnase and members of the cabinet here in my conference talk about making decisions that are motivated by mission, not numbers. I hope that perspective continues to filter outward throughout the conference, the United Methodist denomination, and beyond. And more importantly, I hope that I can fully embrace it.

I freely admit that I am my own worst enemy when it comes to this issue. The contradiction between a fresh approach to church and a stale assessment method is nowhere more evident than in my own heart and mind. When the room is filled to capacity on a Sunday morning for worship, I always feel better than on Sundays when it is sparse, no matter what actually happens in the service itself. Lives might be changed; insights may be gained; hearts could be strangely warmed all over the place - but if attendance was 10% less this week than last, I’m not happy.

So I suppose I may be preaching this sermon to myself most of all. So here’s what I want to change about myself:

+ I want to concentrate the vast majority of my energy on the amazing patterns of Christian discipleship that are being lived all the time through so many who call this congregation home.
- In order to do this, I will need to free up a large quantity of my energy that I currently expend obsessing over numbers that have essentially plateaued over the past year.

+ I want to self-assess my ministry by determining how the people of the congregation I serve are allowing their pattern of discipleship to shape their day to day lives.
- In order to do this, I will need to be more intentional about asking and listening, providing opportunities for people of the church to provide testimony of their faith.

+ I want to figure out how to assess the fruitfulness of this congregation by determining our impact on the community of Springfield.
- I have no idea how to do this.

Those are my own goals, and what I will be sharing with my District Superintendent in a few weeks when we meet for my annual review.

And so here are the questions...

How do my goals sound to you? I’m curious to know, do other pastors also struggle with this contradiction in your own minds?

I’m also curious to know how laity assess the effectiveness/fruitfulness of the congregations they belong to. How much of a part do the numbers play in how you feel about the congregation you're a part of?

And a related question: Noting the declining commitment to attend worship and other regular church programming on a weekly basis, how does an individual Christian disciple reflect on their own fruitfulness in the stressful mix of so many competing societal influences?
- And the follow up: And how can/should the church respond to that?


kris said...

Let's stop looking at numbers in staff meeting (people AND dollars). Maybe once a month at Church Council, allow yourself the guilty pleasure of talking about them. But if you're (we're) really going to stop defining ministry by numbers, I think this is a place to start. We can take up that time with stories from the week instead.

Do we choose churches based on fruitfulness? Sadly, I feel like we define a church's fruitfulness based on what it can provide me. If this church doesn't have the programs I want to make me feel good about myself, then the one down the street will. But that's another axe to grind another day.

filmfan28 said...

You may have to take this response with a grain of salt. I have been sitting in stats classes all morning, and have a ton of stats waiting for me when I am done with this. Anyway, I don't think that its necessarily that you stop looking at the numbers and data. The fact is, everything is numbers and data, from the dollar amount in the church's bank account, to the impact that we have on our community. It may be that you just are looking at the wrong type of data. Instead of focusing on membership, maybe focus on data from a different source. How many kids has Campbell been able to help through our donations to the foster care program? Or the impact of the time that our missions teams have spent in Haiti? Granted, to a large extent those are things that have to be antidotal, but not entirely. Stop looking at the depressing data, and look at what we have done. I think you might be surprised at the amount of time and effort that our congregation puts in. Here's a challenge for you, get some data on for example, how many hours a week someone from the congregation puts in for volunteer work. Imagine, or figure out (I'd be doing the math out, but that's because I'm a math nerd) what that totals in even just minimum wage. Yeah, its not good to always be concerned about dollar amounts, but the truth is, that's what the world runs on. And the other fact is, people don't do things that they don't get some benefit from. Rational people make rational decisions about how they spend their time. My advice is this, don't worry about the amount of physical capital in the bank. Instead, maybe do bring some numbers to the Bishop, or whoever your supervisor is about the amount of work that we do in our community. You aren't going to get specific numbers about the impact of the congregation on the community, because it is a ripple effect. But we can figure out, given that we can gather the data, the impact that we have at the first level of community involvement. Fruitfulness in my view does have to do with dollar amounts, but not in how much is given to the church on any given Sunday. Remember that your congregation is out in the community, giving back, and that those man hours are just as valuable, if not more so, than any amount of money or inactive members that we might have. Anyway, your challenge is this: don't stop looking at the data, just change the data you look at. Everything is math, and everything is economics, because we have made the choice to spend our time either in the church or out in the community. Just a thought, and probably not the one you wanted to hear, but our impact is great, and if you can model that with numbers, it might make for not only an interesting conversation with your superior, but also an interesting sermon topic.

Andy B. said...

These first two comments are very intersting in juxtaposition!

I agree with you, filmfan. I know that the congregation makes a huge impact in the community. It is amazing and inspiring to witness.

I also know that we cannot simply stop defining minstry by numbers altogether. The numbers point beyond themselves to symbolize lives, and that is what gives them meaning.

Some hybrid of anecdotes and statistics seems to be what the answer is. Telling the story of what the numbers mean, maybe?

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