A dashboard for your congregation?

No, I’m not talking about dashboard Jesus. In fact, we’re talking about virtual dashboards. It seems that the Methodists have been experimenting with the idea of “dashboards” to provide up-to-date indicators on congregational health. It started in Alabama, but it’s spreading to other places.

By 2009, North Alabama had implemented an online Conference Dashboard. Every Monday, churches log in their numbers for attendance, baptisms, giving and other measures. Pastors—and anyone else—can see how their numbers stack up against other churches. Now, Bishop Willimon logs in every Tuesday to see which churches reported the greatest increases—and which had the biggest drops. Dials and charts on the dashboard give a quick glimpse of how the numbers are trending.

There have been protests, as you might expect. People object to any attempt to quantify the value of church. They worry that the wrong things will be measured. But I think these dashboards might be a good idea, though there are some pitfalls and limitations.

The Episcopal Church is facing a crisis. Our crisis is not about ACNA or Gene Robinson or the inevitable guitar vs. organ fights. Our crisis is that, nationally, our Sunday attendance has been declining at about 3% per year for the last few years. Do the math of what that starts to look like in 10 years. We’re just getting close to the precipice, by the way. At some point, things could really start to plummet.

So how do we reverse that? First, we need to understand why we are shrinking. We need to find places that are reversing the trend. We need to see what works and what doesn’t work. Without data, we are left with anecdotal impressions and lucky guesses. With data, we can make informed decisions — as individuals, as congregations, as dioceses, and as the Episcopal Church.

At the moment, you can go have a look at a certain web page and get some key indicators for each congregation and diocese in the Episcopal Church. You can see financial giving, membership, and average Sunday attendance. This is good, but the data are a couple of years old. And what’s there is limited. What if we could also see how many active ministries there are? How about participation in Christian formation programs? Number of people directly served through outreach ministries? The list could go on.

There would be a modest burden in collecting the data, but once collected, a diocesan leader would be able to spot troubled congregations. They’ll stick out like a sore thumb with their numbers. Within a congregation, lay leaders would be able to check progress against goals or to compare their congregation with another. Clergy would know more about where to focus their efforts. By using good technology, the data could be harvested and displayed quickly.

Outside the church, no one would rely on two-year-old data in making strategic plans. Why should we be making decisions in our congregations with old data or — worse yet — no data at all? Now some people will object that we’re ignoring some gospel mandate or that you can’t measure spiritual growth or that these dashboards will kill puppies. Nonsense. How would we know if we’re going into all the world and making disciples if we don’t look at a map? Have a look at the New Testament, and you’ll see that Jesus and his followers counted disciples, loaves, fishes, sins, listeners, and all sorts of things.

If we were to focus only on a few metrics, that would indeed be a problem. But this objection is a red herring. There is not much of a danger of congregations becoming data-driven soulless machines. There is a great danger, however, if we do not start making some smarter decisions so that we can grow more healthy congregations. Surely we need to pray and to listen for God’s guidance. But God gave us brains for a reason.

I’d love to see us collecting some more data from our congregations and dioceses. I’d love to see more data from 815 too. Once we’re collecting the data, it would be fantastic to display it in graphically clear ways, showing fresh data and trends. That, my friends, is a dashboard. It would not be hard to enable this. So what are we waiting for?

What say you? Are there dangers in using dashboards? Benefits? What should we measure?

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7 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    There’s a great deal of benefit in actually collecting data. Still, one also requires the courage to accept the truth it represents and the will to act on it; given what data I’ve observed in re: our willingness to act on data about ourselves (which, given the state of data in the church, is necessarily anecdotal,) I don’t see that presenting data can be enough. So long as the majority of the ECUSA has no interest in imagining the kingdom of Heaven, it will decline on earth, no matter how much worldly truth it is shown.

  2. There’s an old story about a priest who decided to preach the gospel instead of what he knew his parishioners wanted to hear. He preached that church down to 3 congregants before long, but then people who really needed to hear the real gospel started showing up. He ended up with lots more sheep than he started with.

    My opinion is that America’s love affair with victory & violence has marginalized the gospel in some nasty ways, even while the Bible gets wrapped in a flag and toted out for use in promoting the next war or cut in help for the poor.

    The ECUSA has taken a prophetic stance on many issues. Prophets are never popular people. Preaching real gospel in this deluded country right now is a great way to get marginalized and dismissed. But let’s not fall for the idea that the number of congregants or the amount they’re giving are what we need to measure to know if we’re still on the Way.

  3. Dunstan says:

    I’m all for collecting data and using it to grow the church and promote the Gospel effectively, but I’m sceptical about using a simple dashboard to present it.

    If we’re really going to be serious about becoming more data-driven, collecting data is really the simpler part even though it isn’t especially easy. It is much more important to think very carefully about how we analyse the data, since data on its own is almost meaningless.

    Say your a rector or priest-in-charge of parish A who sees that today’s collection was $1k. What does a $1k mean? It means one thing if you’re in a building you rent for $100 each Sunday. It means something quite different if you’re in a 100-year old building that costs $100k a year to run. It would also be important to know whether you have an endowment and how much revenue that generated.

    Similarly, if we also knew that parish B took in $10k today, what would that mean for the first parish? Again, we have to ask about context. It means one thing if parish A is Trinity Wall St. while parish B is St. David’s in Bean Blossom, IN, (the town consists of a single intersection) and it means something else if the positions are reversed.

    And while we’re thinking about it, how much can we really learn from the week to week changes in attendance, giving, and participation in ministries? After all, those can flucuate wildly, especially if you include a major holiday like Easter. And even year on year changes may tell you more about the economy than about the faithfullness of the worshiping community.

    Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for collecting and sharing more data and working to make sure that the data we collect is worth having, but if we can’t get hold of quality data analysis (and quality data analysts generally want significant paying) we’ll still be working blind no matter how much data we have on hand.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Dunstan, of course, you are right. Looking only at a snapshot is not useful. For data to make sense, we need some context: a period of time, a comparison with another congregation, or reference to a goal. I think the point of the “dashboard” is less its instantaneous nature than its easy-to-read simplicity. For people who aren’t number geeks, graphs are easier to grok than spreadsheets. Trend lines matter.

    Peach, yes, we can’t be seduced into looking just at a few numbers. A preacher might scare away some complacent folks — as in your example — to build a base. Or a congregation might make shallow gestures that lead to short-term growth. Looking at several indicators can help with this. It’s always a danger. But the larger danger is in our wandering around without any data whatsoever. Rudderless motion will put you on the rocks sooner or later.

    Peace,
    Scott

  5. As I used to advise clients when my secular PR career was more active, numbers tell you what they tell you – and that’s all they tell you. And when you come right down to it, the things we can reliably and objectively measure (bums in pews and bucks in plates) don’t really tell us that much.

    If a church is declining in numbers and giving, it is more often than not the canary in the coal mine indicating other, frankly more important, problems. Likewise, if those numbers are rising, it usually indicates more a positive situation at those deeper levels.

    But there are enough exceptions to this (the parish that grows while proclaiming an empty gospel or the parish that declines much more slowly than the community around it) that the quick indicator of nickels and noses is not sufficiently reliable for planning purposes.

    The problem is, how do we reasonably, honestly and accurately measure the intangibles – the quality of spiritual life; the soundnessness of leadership, structures and parish culture; the effectiveness of communicating and incarnating the gospel?

    Well, there is no silver bullet – but I have found the Natrual Church Development instrument to be a useful tool in assessing the deeper health of a parish. And what attracted me to NCD was that it was a identified (by many) as a church growth program but it didn’t talk about church growth.

    FWIW.

  6. Dunstan says:

    Ease-to-read is an inherently dangerous goal, since it requires simplification. The cool image hides the analysis which had to be done to create the easy-to-get image. That’s not a problem if the hidden analysis is of good quality, but if it’s poor quality analysis you’ll end up with a plausible deception bolstered by the (truthful) claim that it’s based on solid numbers.

    That’s why we need to have at least some numbers-people involved even before we create the images, and why we need to think carefully about which comparisons are appropriate as foundations for the images in the first place. Personally, I suspect that the best comparisons generally aren’t with other congregations, except perhaps in the same town, but instead are with the local political and socio-economic situation.

  7. Adam says:

    Scott,
    The best metrics to look at church health have been developed by Natural Church Development (http://www.ncd-international.org/public/)
    They are sophisticated, derived from real cross-cultural international research (instead of the late night idea of some former parish priest now “consulting”), and actually provide information that helps churches do the work they are given to do. There are eight of them, and they are things like inspiring worship, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, loving relationships, etc.