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When Numbers Become Our Identity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Becca Messman

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

This phrase, attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker, captivated the heart of the business world just as torrents of new data became available. The frenzy to make sense of the entrails of their own corporate data gave rise to an army of analysts and consultants, modern-day sooth-sayers, who help leaders make decisions based on metrics.

The metrics for churches have long been the ABCs: attendance, building, and cash. Pastor Jones will tell Pastor Smith, “We are a church of 500, and we worship about 250 on a Sunday.” And Pastor Smith responds, “Oh, we have 1,200 in membership, and we worship about 700.” In that common exchange, we learn three things: First, most churches have a large gap between the number of people on their rolls and the number who show up on a Sunday. Second, most churches use these numbers to negotiate power, effectiveness, and even worth, in comparison to one other, and to some degree, in comparison to the past. Finally, in the way we structure that sentence, we might just worship some of our numbers.

When we worship a set of numbers, they become our identity. We are rewarded or punished by what we believe these numbers say about us. We are a big church, a mid-sized church, or a small church. We are a wealthy church or a struggling church. We are growing, stagnating, or dying. But that’s misleading. A wealthy church can be flabby and stuck, just as a tiny church can be lean and powerful, and churches change over the years, even over a few months, just like people do.

Numbers are important. Some churches have become so discouraged with the numbers that they ignore them altogether and say, “Who cares if only 6 people came, it was faithful. Who cares if the place was mostly empty, the people who came were happy.”

We can’t disregard the numbers. Imagine if I pulled into the church parking lot after a great youth mission trip, and 20 exhausted, happy youth returned to their parents. Some parents begin to yell and scream at me: “Why only 20? Why not 25?” I grow frustrated and say to them, as pleasantly as I can, “Well, churches in our day in age are experiencing decline, culture is against us, and we shouldn’t focus on the numbers so much. The 20 who are here had a fantastic experience!” Then they’d say, “Yes, but you left here last Sunday with 25 kids! Where are our children?” Yes, that would be a different story.

Some numbers are heavier or louder than others. When we lose someone who attended for many years, it may feel heavier than when we gain someone whom we don’t know very well, at least for awhile. When we lose youth who grew up in our church, there is often grief attached to our numbers, more so than we bid farewell to the beloved family who was transferred to Iowa because of work. These numbers ask us to seek phone numbers, to make contact, to hear the longer story, to stay in touch, to follow up. They challenge us to think of the shepherd in Jesus’ parable who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one.

Focusing only on some numbers can blind us to others. According to our Presbyterian annual statistical report, our church has lost about (well, exactly) 123 members over the last 10 years, from 850 to 727. Worship attendance has slipped from 290 to 215. That hurts. People feel that, and we miss the great saints who have moved, passed away, or gone somewhere else. And, by the way we cleaned our rolls in 2007, it looks like most of them stormed out at once.

Nowhere in our official numbers, however, are the 60 men and women who worship in Spanish on Wednesdays, nor the 50 Presbyterians who worship in Urdu on Sunday afternoons, nor the 80+ Ghanaian Presbyterians who worship downstairs on Sunday, with a jubilant drum beat that usually kicks in right after I have invited people upstairs to a moment of silent meditation. Our metrics say we have lost 123 members. Our building says we have gained 190 people per week. Who is right?

Even though these other worshippers have been historically “counted” differently, since they don’t pledge or are titled an “immigrant fellowship,” we have begun to pay attention to them. And slowly, we are becoming more of a “we,” rather than “us” and “them.” We started worshipping together on Easter, World Communion Sunday, and Rally Day. There was Fufu and RedRed from Ghana in the Fellowship Hall right next to deviled eggs and breakfast casserole. We have begun to share childcare and Sunday School. And with a new sense of who “we” are, there is a new spirit about us, and, as it says in Acts, “the Lord is adding to our number.”

Some people are with us but won’t join. Some people who join are rarely with us. Nowhere in our official statistics are the visitors who have attended for years, who have won the chili cook-off, who make food for funeral receptions, but have not joined. Nowhere in our membership are the former Catholics or Mormons who have been part of our church their entire adult lives, but fear “breaking their mom’s heart” if they join our church officially.

What about the 145 people who listen to the sermon every week from somewhere else? Who are they? I know one is my mom, but the rest? Are they truly “with us in Spirit?” Are they our extended campus? Are they our “online community?”

We need some new numbers. Jesus asks repeatedly if people had “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” We need new ways of seeing and hearing, and assessing what “counts” in our churches and what does not.

Consider the Biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000. The number did not include women and children, though it mentions specifically that they were there. With eyes to see what was really going on there, the miracle itself is even greater than it sounds by the numbers.

What if we paid more attention to:

  • Small group membership, including small groups like choirs and committees. Christian education enrollment numbers used to reflect our strongest connections, but it is no longer the only vessel for deeper affiliation.
  • Community action participation, hospital and jail visitation, mission projects, and mission giving. We understand ourselves as Christians as a “sent” people, sent to serve God in the world, rather than a people gathered in a building.
  • Non-member giving, loose offering, and attendance vs membership percentages. This would tell us more about how well we are connecting with people in our building than placing ever-upward pressure on giving units and membership rolls.

Paying attention to new numbers is hard. It gives clerks of session heart palpitations. The funding of much of our denominational structures is tied to membership numbers. But it is liberating and illuminating to see the bigger picture, and perhaps, we will behold a greater miracle in what we thought before were dry, stale, or even sad numbers.

“Information without action is overhead,” as Ron Griffin, the former Chief Information Officer of Home Depot used to say. The numbers should not just make us feel good, become a project in and of themselves, or sit on a shelf. They should make us better stewards of our time and efforts. They should hold us accountable and equip us to serve.

Take heart. Peter Drucker also knew that not everything could be held to the “if you can measure it, you can manage it” standard. “Your first role…is the personal one,” Drucker told Bob Buford, a consulting client then running a cable TV business, in 1990. “It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do.” Drucker went on: “It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

May it be so with us, dear church.


Becca Messman is co-pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.

Field Guide Preview: Cultivated Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re excited to share the first sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the guide’s introduction, which debuts the concept of “cultivated ministry” and defines its four movements: theology, accountability, learning, and storytelling.


Cultivated Ministry

Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to describe God’s kingdom and our calling to participate in its growth. As anyone who has tried to maintain a garden knows, growing desirable plants requires intentionality and hard work. Growing nothing is easy. Growing weeds is easy. Growing delicious fruits and vegetables and beautiful flowers is much more difficult.

According to the Book of Genesis, from the beginning of human history God has called us to be caretakers and cultivators of our local contexts. The first commandment given to human beings was to be fruitful. This ancient calling provides the guiding metaphor for this field guide.

Cultivated ministry is a third way between toeing the line of traditional metrics and abdicating accountability altogether. Haphazard gardening is irresponsible and ineffective. Fruitful gardening involves mindfulness and discipline. A cultivated garden requires planning, ongoing assessment, learning when confronted with new challenges, and periodic pruning. Likewise, cultivated ministry insists that we undertake our work with a clear and purposeful understanding of how our activities contribute to God’s mission in the world. As practical theologians have long recognized, ministry requires seasons of reflection, evaluation, and evolution. From time to time we must slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.[i] Without this discipline, our practices and methods become stale or out of touch with our rapidly changing cultural contexts. It is far too easy to rest on our laurels and allow existing ministries to outlive their original purposes or effectiveness. Unless we adopt open postures of listening, learning, and intentional discernment, we are prone to miss opportunities for the development of new ministries to meet the needs of new situations.

Cultivated ministry is more than a new set of metrics or a collection of plug-and-play tools. Rather, it is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world. This is not a recipe to adhere to nor a linear process to follow—these four movements happen simultaneously, informing and supporting each other as an organic and coherent whole.

Cultivated ministry begins and ends with theology, with our belief that God is intimately engaged in the world and has called us to bear fruit that will last. In this work to which we are called, we practice mutual accountability to God and to each other. Along the way, we commit ourselves to constant learning and reformation. At every step, we listen for good news of God’s redemptive work through transformative storytelling.

This four-dimensional practice of assessment is neither focused on the past nor fearful of the future. It is time for us to regain control of our own narratives. We are much more than passive players in the unfolding drama of human history. With God’s help, we can shape our own future and tell our own stories. God has placed us in the world and has given us seeds to plant. Now, as stewards of God’s good creation, it’s up to us to step forward in faith. It’s up to us to practice cultivated ministry.

[i] Sarah B. Drummond, Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation (Alban Institute, 2009), 103-122.


Editor’s note: The full field guide is available for free download now! Check it out —

Skipping A Step: Resisting the Quick Fix and Embracing Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Charlie Lee

How can we fix it? This is a question posed in our congregations every day. Common elements of decline such as sagging attendance, diminished donations, or a general lack of excitement can create significant anxiety among church leaders and create a sense of crisis in our congregations. Well-intentioned church leaders who observe these crises are often quick to call for and implement solutions that are designed to directly address these problems.

This is what we did in my own congregation. We observed a decline in giving and attendance, the metrics that have traditionally defined a successful congregation. Therefore, we gathered leaders together to design a solution to our crisis. We started a new worship service, added a new staff member, and even made plans to remodel a portion of our building. While these steps were successful in granting us some temporary gains, in time we learned that our solutions were not lasting ones and eventually we found ourselves right back where we started.

So what went wrong? Why did our well-thought-out solutions not have a lasting effect on our problems? As we wrestled with these questions, we learned that we had skipped a step in our efforts to quickly address our congregational crises. We had moved directly from the observations of our perceived problems to interventions we thought would address them. What we failed to do was to put in place practices that might help us interpret our initial observations so that we might gain new learnings that could then be applied in the design and execution of future interventions.

My guess is that our congregation is not the only one who is skipping this important step as we struggle to adapt in these times of rapid change. However, we can no longer afford to do so if we hope to face the adaptive challenges that lay before us and remain faithful to God’s collective calling on our communities of faith. We must take on the task of developing practices of assessment and evaluation within our congregations, and if we do so they can help our congregations do three things:

  1. Discern: The metrics of attendance and financial giving have for too long defined the success or failure of a congregation. Vital ministry is about so much more than counting “butts and bucks.” It is about faithfully following the calling that God places upon us. Churches by nature are “heliotropic,” meaning that just like a plant leans towards the direction of the sunlight, a church will move towards the source of energy or focus that is present in the system. If we continue to focus on outdated metrics, then this will only continue to produce anxiety and a feeling of continual crisis in our congregations. However, if we utilize tools of assessment and evaluation, then we can better focus on continually discerning the dynamic calling of God upon our congregations, and therefore begin to define success in our ministries with an eye towards fruitfulness rather than fear.
  2. Learn: “You don’t know – that you don’t know – what you don’t know.” This was a favorite line of one of my undergrad college professors. He repeated it often to us in an effort to encourage our curiosity and inspire our learning. His point was that there are always new things to learn and opportunities to go deeper in that learning than we ever thought possible. The same is true in our congregations. Tools of assessment and evaluation are the key to opening up new realms of possibilities in our ministries. They help keep us from moving immediately to towards implementing solutions to problems and instead take a deep dive on the issues behind what we have observed. Often, in this process, we discover that the perceived problem we were so focused on in the beginning is really just a symptom of a much larger issue. It is these new learnings that make it possible for us to address not only the technical challenges of ministry, but the more adaptive and complex issues facing our congregations.
  3. Tell the Story: It has been a few years now since the congregation I serve began experimenting with different practices of assessment and evaluation. The most successful practice by far that we have adopted has been the practice of storytelling. An important part of assessment and evaluation is capturing data; however, if all the data that is captured is merely quantitative, then it will not give a complete picture of all that is occurring within a congregation. Numbers and statistics can only communicate so much. Qualitative data is required in order share those things that cannot be measured but can be observed. The assessment practices we put in place gave us the tools to begin asking our congregation to tell us their stories. As much as possible, we began sharing these stories in worship and through our publications so that all could hear the good news of how lives were being transformed through Christ and how God was at work in and through the ministries of this congregation. The practice of storytelling has changed the conversation within our congregation, enabling us to operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

I am grateful to the leadership of NEXT Church and the individuals who have worked so hard to produce resources for assessment and evaluation. I believe the utilization of these resources can help keep us from looking for the next quick fix and instead provide a consistent way for us to become more attentive to God’s calling.


Charlie Lee is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He received a Doctorate of Ministry Degree in 2015 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His primary focus of study was on the implementation of formative evaluation in congregations.

Cultivated Ministry: A New Approach

by Jessica Tate

A few years ago, NEXT Church convened some creative, talented leaders to talk together about the ways in which the church is collaboratively starting and supporting new ministries. In the room were leaders from large, established congregations, leaders from small upstart ministry ventures, and everything in between. There was energy in the conversation as we heard about ministries in places and with people often overlooked in mainline protestant circles. But the conversation got heated quickly when it turned toward resources, sustainability, fundraising, and accountability.

One talented leader of an exciting and creative new ministry likened it to The Hunger Games. “You come up with a good — even proven — ministry,” she said, “and everyone is excited about it. When you ask for help in paying for it, there are three larger churches and a couple of grant programs to go to and these creative ministries end up fighting each other to our own death to get any resources.”

A little while later, the pastor of a large congregation with a multi-million dollar budget said, “What I hear you asking for is a blank check and we simply can’t give that to you. In a season where we have many resources, but are facing budget cuts of our own and laying off staff, we have to justify every dollar we spend.”

Another leader chimed in, “Our presbytery has money to fund new ventures but we expect them to be growing numerically and financially sustainable within five years.” “What if we’re working in a community that is financially incapable of being self-sustaining?” was the immediate reply.

What became clear in the conversation is that there is much creativity and leadership in the present-day margins of the church. At the same time, the resources needed to fertilize that growth often rest in the established, traditional communities of faith and in denominational structures. Many of these traditional communities of faith are interested — even eager — to invest in the emergence of new faith communities that may look and feel radically different from their own. Yet these partnerships can become stymied because there exists no agreed upon metrics for measuring faithfulness and success.

Traditional metrics — such as membership counts, financial totals, and worship attendance — have proved inadequate for measuring the effectiveness of traditional communities of faith, much less emergent ones, but other metrics have not risen in their place. Thus, we revert to what we know, perpetuating a status quo that serves neither partner in the new church development process and hinders the leadership development and experimental learning the church needs now in abundance, if we are to make the move into new, thriving models of church life.

Over the course of the last eighteen months, with support from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School and the Texas Presbyterian Foundation, we have convened a talented group of leaders to tackle this issue within the life of the church. What results is Cultivated Ministry: Bearing Fruit through Theology, Accountability, Learning, and Storytelling. Cultivated Ministry is a culture and process of ministry that does not rest on traditional metrics nor does it abdicate accountability altogether. It is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world.

This month, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall!

And a huge thanks to the talented team of people who have worked on this project:

Designers and Writers

Shawna Bowman, Pastor & Artist, Friendship Presbyterian Church
Chineta Goodjoin, Pastor, New Hope Presbyterian Church
Becca Messman, Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church
Frank Spencer, President, Board of Pensions, PC(USA)
Casey Thompson, Pastor, Wayne Presbyterian Church
John Vest, Professor of Evangelism, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Jen James, Cultivated Ministry Project Facilitator

Consultants

Andrew Foster Connors, Pastor, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church
Christopher Edmonston, Pastor, White Memorial Presbyterian Church
Billy Honor, Pastor, The Pulse Church
Charlie Lee, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church
Carla Pratt Keyes, Pastor, Ginter Park Presbyterian Church
Jessica Tate, Director, NEXT Church
Landon Whitsitt, Executive and Stated Clerk, Synod of Mid-America
Rick Young, President, Texas Presbyterian Foundation


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.

2017 National Gathering Ignite: Cultivated Ministry

Becca Messman and Chineta Goodjoin give an Ignite presentation at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering about NEXT Church’s latest project: Cultivated Ministry: Bearing Fruit through Theology, Accountability, Learning, and Storytelling.

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