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Background Data for Mission

The Background Data for Mission newsletter helps United Methodist leaders sort through the new and integrate it with the old. It explores the latest in technology, demographic trends, and contemporary approaches to worship, church education, and evangelism.


July 2011, Volume 23, No. 7

Metrics, Matrix, and What Is Really Needed to Make Disciples

(This month's issue is a reprint of an article written by Rev. Michael Roberts, the Director of Connected in Christ, the church revitalization ministry of the Arkansas Annual Conference.)

Metrics. This was definitely among the most popular word at Bishops Week this year. At one point I started counting how many times this word was used. (I hope you catch the irony in this). Its use grew each day until it seemed that everyone was trying to find a way to include the word in a sentence.

As I was counting, I did have to make one adjustment. Often people would say "matrix" instead of "metrics." At one point, I heard a person correct another, informing the other of the right word and saying "matrix was a movie." Others laughed. The person on the receiving end of this reproof was embarrassed, but did a pretty good job of covering it. There have been times when I have built myself up by putting others down in this way. Seeing it happen, however, gave me some resolve to not let it happen again. Learnings like this are a good thing to count.

In reflecting on this encounter, I began to wonder if "matrix" wasn't the better word after all. Metrics are measurements to track performance or trends. A matrix is a collection of several factors that combine to form a larger and more complex form. The word is akin to the word "matrimony." It suggests an arena or covenant which yields life. It was also once used in the art of weaving, suggesting a weaving together of many threads to make something beautiful and purposeful. In this light, metrics can be part of a larger matrix which tells a more complete story. I think that would be nice--and maybe more Christian than an over-focus on measuring productivity based on raw numbers.

By its very nature, a matrix involves relationship and connection between component parts. The ministry we call Connected In Christ, for example, is a matrix of some key connections:

  • connecting clergy together in covenant relationship
  • connecting clergy and laity together into leadership teams to discern God's calling
  • connecting these teams to a coach who provides resources, encouragement, equipping, accountability, and perspective
  • connecting the congregation to God's vision and God's love for the community.

These connections, when put together, have proven to help clergy and congregations move into a more faithful and fruitful future.

Through CIC we have been able to use metrics to measure the effects of this kind of matrix. For a couple of examples, we know that CIC pastors and congregations are twice as likely to show worship attendance growth, as compared to all congregations. We know that 95 percent of CIC congregations show growth in professions of faith, compared to a national average of under 40 percent. Not only do we have correlative metrics to show this, we can back these up with multiple testimonies and evaluations. We have learned that these connections form a life-giving matrix that gives participants like us the courage to act in ways that workshops alone, or systems of top-down accountability, can never do.

At Bishops week, much of the discussion focused on the development of a metrics system in the form of a "dashboard"-type website where metrics would be entered on a weekly basis. There is merit to this approach. Having metrics "in real time" could be a resource for discerning vitality, motivating change, and helping congregations move in a new direction. Such metrics could lead to fruitful conversations about effectiveness--if that is the true purpose.

In my mind, however, there are also important moral considerations that need to be explored before we dive too deeply into this system. One major issue revolves around making this information public. It could be argued that a public dashboard too easily lends itself to the temptation to compare and rank a person's "worthiness" based on a few numerical factors. Potentially, it could give rise to collegial divisiveness and harm morale, which might provide a "freakonomic" effect and produce the opposite of that intended. A public dashboard might be too easily interpreted as a way to embarrass those who are under-performing based on these factors, which comes too close to breaking Wesley's first rule of doing no harm. Such a system might put us at risk of "losing our soul" as we seek to gain the world, or at least a measure of worldly success.

In short, it is possible that metrics could destroy the matrix. Perhaps, building a matrix of collegial community where we discern and grow in a mutual calling is much more motivating than any website-based system of accountability could ever be. Perhaps we need to put most of our energy into cultivating relational environments where pastors and congregations want to make disciples. In my mind, that is the most important thing if we are truly to move into a future of fruitfulness.

Based on discussions during the week, it is clear that some assume that anyone who might be against the public recording of metrics would be against it because they were ineffective and thus embarrassed. Therefore, I need to qualify my questioning. When I was a pastor of congregations, these congregations showed growth every year. Growth was (and is) important to me. I am not against counting. I just want us to think carefully and theologically about why we are counting and how we will use the metrics. There are deeper reasons to raise questions than personal embarrassment.

As I ponder all of this, I am reminded that in the church we also know that there are two Greek words for life, bios and zoe. One is about biology, where knowing things like blood pressure and cholesterol levels and the like is very important for making good decisions. Zoe, on the other hand, is about the abundant, grace-filled, eternal life that God wants for us. This form of life is at the core of our mission and ministry.

Even in the medical community there are studies to show that fear of bad numbers (metrics) do not lead people to change lifestyles. That happens only when people are able to form a vision of a life worth living. While I don't know of any study that actually uses the word, such transformations are inspired by a hope for zoe, not just bios. Put another way, it is a relational "matrix," more than metrics, that gives us to courage to change. Yes, we need both. I do not believe, however, that we will be able to fulfill our mission if we lead with metrics instead of matrix, with bios instead of zoe. To do so is radically to confuse the means with the end.

© 2011
Published by:
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John H. Southwick, Editor

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