Measuring productivity in the church

Virginia Apgar gave nurses a way to rate the health of babies at delivery: "Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby."

This simple score, devised by an unlikely person—she had never delivered a baby, as a doctor or even as a mother—"turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of new babies—into numbers that people could collect and compare."

And doctors, being both compassionate and competitive, wanted to boost Apgar scores for their newborns. So they began giving babies oxygen or warming them. They switched from giving mothers general anesthesia to spinals or epidurals. They began using prenatal ultrasounds and fetal heart monitors. And what a change: instead of one in every thirty babies dying at birth, today it's one in every five hundred. Virginia Apgar's score is saving the lives of over 100,000 American babies every year.

We need an Apgar score for the church. As pastors, we care deeply about the health and vitality of our congregations. But how can we grasp congregational health? To use Gawande's words, it's "an intangible and impressionistic" concept. We need a measure that's simple, clear, and life-giving.

That's Kevin Miller writing in Christianity Today's LeadershipJournal.net. His is not a brief blog post. Take a look.

What to measure? Membership we know has its problems. Attendance has hung on but does it measure vitality and mission? Membership and attendance celebrate bigness -- is that what we intend? These are Miller's questions.

He has to proposed scoring methods Acts 2 and Revelation 2.

Size matters, but focusing only size makes us marketers. Doctors responded to being measured. As the church we respond to measuring ourselves by size -- but that's not all good. Whether you agree with Miller's proposed scoring system the concept is something to think about: how should we be measuring ourselves? Something tells me we could look at our baptismal covenant.

Comments (6)

Why?

The only thing ASA tells you is how many people are in church on Sunday, on average.

It does not tell you about the vitality of a church. That's harder to measure.

I agree with Lois: Why?

Counting and checklists are useful tools for evaluating ministry. I think they have the use of establishing benchmarks and shaping one's work. Granted, one can be flexible, but I think one of the problems churches and clergy have are that our expectations of ourselves and our parishioners are obscure.

ASA is not the only way to describe effectiveness, but congregations should be invited to set some criteria for what effectiveness looks like.

For example, is there a checklist for growing churches? At minimum, yes. Clean bathrooms; effective signage; a coherent answering messages; easy to read websites. Do churches have these? Not always.

Like doctors, clergy and churches could use a few checklists and measurements if only to learn what we can improve. Otherwise, we die in the muck of feel-good fuzziness, blissfully deceiving ourselves that our words are effective when they are actually ignored.

- Gawain de Leeuw

Of course, we use ASA and $$$ (bums and bucks) because they constitute the easiest data to collect and the easiest data to validate. Measuring things like "spiritual vitality" is a little dicier.

Now, there is nothing wrong with measuring bums and bucks. They are perfectly legitimate indicators. What's more, there will often (I'd even say usually) a positive correlation between bums and bucks on the one hand and the elusive "spiritual vitality" on the other. After all, vitality attracts people and encourages them to open their wallets.

The problem isn't that we measure ASA and $$$. It's that we somethimes assume that they tell us more than they actually tell us.

But rejecting ASA and $$$ data in preference to "spiritual vitality," is at least sometimes (often?) a preference to have unmeasurable standards because you can't fail if there's no test.

I recently came across the Natural Church Development process, which uses a survey iunstrument to measure aspects of congregational life. What appealed to me was that the focus of the program was on congregational health and vitality. Unlike most church growth stuff, the idea was to make the congregation healthier and more vital and then growth will happen all by itself.

We've completed the initial survey, and the data has generally confirmed what we had expected. But it also confirms that, in our case, a gradually rising ASA and $$$ actually do correlate with a congregation that is moving towards greater health and vitality.

That's Malcolm French+

Sounds reasonable. It also could be that we're trying to have some sense of control over an uncontrollable situation - an aging congregation, the lack of interest by the younger generations in church, the slow but inexorable movement to a way of being church that does not bring in money to support the externals of ministry (clergy, office, etc.) and the crushing expense of huge buildings.

By the way, the answer to these uncontrollables isn't to close the churches that can't pay their own way, although they may need to be closed. My experience is that instead of going someplace else to worship, people just stop going to church altogether. In a very real sense, church seems to be about place, building, history. Measure that, if we can.

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