Statistics and Success

I plopped down into my office chair a sweaty, exhausted mess. I turned on the computer and fiddled with some cables. When the right screen came up, I clicked “Upload” and then took the time to unzip my running jacket and untie my running shoes. When the upload was completed, my eager eyes scanned the numbers and graphs presented on the screen in front of me.

It was a pretty good run: 4.22 miles in 33 minutes and 2 seconds, for an average pace of 7:50 minutes per mile. Total elevation gain was 192 feet, and the weather registered a pleasant 43 degrees Fahrenheit — with a 12 MPH wind out of the South — just as the sun had started to rise over Kent. I was especially eager to analyze all the charts and statistics on the computer because this had been another of my more recent attempts at building some “speed work” into my training regimen. And indeed, it was fun to track all the rises and falls of the pace chart. It looked like a Utah landscape, with flat arid stretches punctuated by towering rock formations. Pretty. And satisfying to have it all behind me at the start of my day.

With a few minutes remaining before I had to get my kids out of bed and prepared for school, I clicked over to the website that’s been helping me to track my calorie intake over the past couple of months. I was happy to subtract the 555 calories that had been burned on my run, and I started plotting out some of my caloric intake for the day: 10 calories for one slice of a Cripps Pink apple (the rest had been packed away in the kids’ lunches)… 104 calories for one large grapefruit… 82 calories of 1% lowfat milk from Giant Eagle… and 228 calories for 56 grams of Chocolate Chex Mix Cereal (Gluten Free)… It was strangely amusing to play with the numbers and work out different scenarios — almost like an elaborate, strategic board game.

The time came for me to get my kids out of bed and started on breakfast.

I got them set up in the dining room and did some cleaning in the kitchen. Since I still wasn’t cooled down from the run enough to hit the shower, however, I eventually drifted back to the office computer and clicked over to my e-mail: several messages of junk mail… some correspondence about a meeting that would be taking place later in the morning… and an e-mail asking for H2O’s 2014 Critical Success Indicators.

I had known this e-mail would be coming, but still I resented its arrival. The network of churches with which H2O Kent is associated regularly requests these reports detailing the numbers of people attending our worship gatherings, our small groups, our leadership initiatives, and so on. It was just 22 questions: really no big deal. I understood the general rationale behind collecting these numbers, and we actually had good numbers to report from Kent. Furthermore, in the case of providing the specific numbers for this particular report, follow-up had already been designated to someone else on our team (so all I had to do was file away the e-mail in its appropriate folder and move on with the rest of my day)! Still, something about the idea of reporting these Critical Success Indicators felt unpleasant: too analytical, too arbitrary. It felt like a misappropriation of business principles to a spiritual context. It felt decidedly unbecoming of a pastor, or a network of churches,┬áto treat human souls as “units” of “production.” I wondered about the efficacy — or even the ethics — of discussing “Success” in these terms.

I went to take my shower, while the kids transitioned into brushing their teeth and changing into their clothes. As the hot water poured down my back I considered the irony of my aversion to the Critical Success Indicators. I was a total “Stat Geek” when it came to tracking my physical fitness — miles, minutes, calories, pounds — but in my actual vocation of Christian ministry, I resented the statistics. What’s up with that?!?

Intuitively, I still sense a distinction between statistically tracking physical fitness and statistically tracking spiritual development. To an extent, I feel it’s appropriate that these phenomena should be monitored differently — and there may be legitimate complaints regarding the idea of reporting “Critical Success Indicators.” At the same time, I also came to the realization that I may have some control issues that play into these incongruent attitudes towards statistics. The fact is that I maintain a great deal of control when it comes to my body’s input and output. My willpower and natural abilities can go a long way towards meeting the goals I set out for myself.

With church leadership, however, I have a lot less control — and this is rather unsettling, if I’m being perfectly honest. I like to succeed, and more often than not I can do so, at least on the personal level, when I set my mind to it. Ministry, however, involves a lot of other intangibles that I cannot (and probably should not) ever control: God’s sovereignty… other people’s personalities and desires… external circumstances… the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). I suspect there may still be some benefit from setting more tangible goals for ministry, but it’s not comfortable to put myself in a place where I might “fail” in something as significant as God’s Kingdom work. I’ve still got some thinking, praying, and processing to do…

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3 Responses to Statistics and Success

  1. Ryan Kozey says:

    As a research scientist, who happens to measure and track spiritual formation and missional behavior, I can understand the sentiment, if the questions that are being asked are not the right ones. If we’re merely referencing attendance, participation, tithing, etc., I find those numbers to be discouraging as well. But, what if we were asking a different set of questions. For instance, what if the primary basis through which we track people dealt with three particular domains:

    1) Spiritual Formation- examining how they were doing in their personal intimacy with God; how they were doing in their overall Christ-like relationships and community; how they were doing in the understanding and the utilization of their spiritual giftedness; how they were doing in their understanding and the utilization of their grace story; how they were doing in their overall stewardship of life.

    2) Missional Behavior- examining how they were doing in their overall presence with those yet to be convinced of the gospel; examining how they were doing in their overall proclamation of what they believe to be true with the relationships that are being built; examining how they were doing with understanding that the saturation of the gospel is not a one-time proclamation- rather it’s a way of life that understands bringing the kingdom in multiple iterations of presence and proclamation; examining how they were doing in their overall opportunity to have been with someone as they begin their relationship with the Lord.

    3) What if we took the aforementioned two things above (formation and behavior)- and we spend time examining in what domains we were able to mobilize the saints (Eph. 4:12) for the work of the ministry- assessing the impact of the Sunday Morning environment; assessing the impact of the Small Group environment; assessing the impact of the service infrastructure (e.g., serving in the church and serving in the community); assessing the impact of the practice of the priesthood of the believer on their own.

    In America the church is the fastest failing organization today. In Europe, statistically speaking, parents aren’t even leading their children to the Lord. I know that you have lived in both places and are perhaps keenly aware of these things. I live in America and have been blessed to examine things and Europe. In my mind, Canada is more like Europe than the US, but we are not far behind (saying that as someone who spends much time working in Canada and lives on the border).

    But God is growing his church in other places in amazing ways- Latin America, Asia (home to the largest church in the world), Africa (where there now live more Christians on that continent than the total number of people in the US). As I have seen in India in particular, they ask a different set of questions.

    I understand that statistics are sterile to some- but the American church has its head in the sand while masses of people in leadership refuse to consider something other than a rebuttal to statistics. The quote earlier is from a dear colleague of mine who is not a believer (the Church is the fastest failing organization in America). He said that to me when I decided to decline a tenure track offer from a good university to be a professor of organizational behavior and quant stats. My decision- to leave academia and try to help the church think more strategically. Candidly, it has been one of the more frustrating endeavors that I’ve ever participated in. Because I believe that the church is the vehicle (people) for joining God on his mission (missio dei). But most churches really don’t want to know how bad it really is. Especially in a western world that can still enjoy the comfort of worshiping freely (for the most part).

    My greatest level of excitement most days is being over seas and watching non-western countries believe in the truth and hope of the gospel in ways that likely are perplexing to most westerners. I keep my hand on the plow, working and hoping to see partnerships develop witch churches that want to ask different questions- I can’t give up. But the process is glacial. And Frustrating. And Mind Numbing.

    If you all would like to look at ways to assess things differently, let me know. There are no fees. There are no catches. I’m literally loaned out from my church to help other churches as they try to organizationally turn away from the downward spiral.

    I really liked this post! thanks for being faithful to write about things- you’re very good at it.

    Miss you brother…..rk

  2. Eric says:

    I really appreciate your thoughtful and informed response, Ryan. Obviously, God is working on my heart in these areas — and I’m really glad that you’re making yourself available to help the Church in these things. I may very well take you up on your offer for further conversation at some point soon…

    • Ryan Kozey says:

      good stuff. We’ve been doing this now for a bit and have surveyed over 25,000 US evangelicals throughout the country- numbers are sobering, but churches are beginning to look at things differently. Miss you man- love your writing; love that you are one of the most faithful followers that I’ve ever met- grateful for your journey in missions.

      be well…..rk

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