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Measurement has been a troublesome thing for the church for two thousand years." That's how Jim Mellado of the Willow Creek Association responded when I asked about measuring congregational success. "It's incredibly hard to measure transformation in a heart," he continued, "and that's what we're all after."

No matter how you state the ultimate goal of your ministry, it is difficult to measure the things that truly matter.

When I began writing this, oil was still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from a drilling accident at the Macondo site. It was being described as the worst environmental disaster in history because of the widespread effect on the Gulf and its shoreline. Now the oil has stopped flowing and the most intense cleanup work is complete, but the incident is far from over.

Several storylines remain, including investigations to determine causes and assign financial liability, and debates over what restrictions to impose on future offshore drilling.

Measurement is an important subplot in this story. In the weeks after the blowout, two measures received a lot of attention: the number of days that it took to cap the well and the amount of oil that had escaped into the environment. The first was easy to quantify but of little value to anyone except the media. The second, the amount of oil, was much more difficult to measure and hotly debated. It caused me to wonder: Does it matter? Apart from sensational headlines, how does the quantity of oil from Macondo make any difference for the future? The official government estimate is that 4.9 million barrels leaked into the Gulf, but apart from the size of the fines assessed, this measure has no impact on the most important issues for the Gulf Coast.

What actually matters going forward? It matters if beaches are clean so that families can enjoy vacations on the Gulf. It matters if it is safe to eat fish and shellfish from various parts of the Gulf. It matters if there are steps we can take to protect the environment or accelerate the recovery.

The measurement challenges facing the church have many parallels to the Gulf oil spill. The things that matter the most—transformed lives, ministry effectiveness, spiritual growth—are the hardest to measure. So we settle for metrics that are easier to obtain but much less meaningful.

Inputs or outputs?

Many Christian organizations are unclear about what data is meaningful to their ministry. A chief struggle is the common confusion between inputs and outputs.

Simply defined, outputs are the results produced by a given organization or process. Inputs are what the process starts with or what it uses along the way.

For example, a bicycle manufacturing plant starts with steel for the frame and rubber for the tires as key inputs. It uses labor, machinery, electricity, and paint as further inputs. Can you imagine the plant manager boasting, "We set a record for the amount of steel we used this month"? Of course not. The accomplishment that truly matters is producing ...

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From Issue:Spiritual Warfare, Spring 2012 | Posted: April 23, 2012

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Displaying 1–5 of 10 comments

Mark Forshaw

May 16, 2012  11:09am

An excellent article that brings to a wider audience a number of people wrestling with the issue of what the secular world calls metrics, but as the article says is a using of 21st century tools to assist leaders and congregations know a bit more of the leading of the Holy Spirit, and to support Biblical thinking in the areas of accountability, transparency and stewardship. Sometimes we dont think numbers matter at church, until the Treasurer's annual report! Then we see what numbers can tell us about where we placed our money and vision

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IBEW Shop Steward

May 02, 2012  11:41am

"Quality" will always be difficult to quantify... Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" devotes nearly the entire book to this subject. Does it mean that people are "comfortable" within the unit or group? Are they actively self-analyzing their lives and their role in their communities. (I use the plural as we all live in more than one: Family, Coworker, Hobbyist, Recreational, Educational, Religious, and others.)

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Mike Stidham

April 30, 2012  12:46pm

I don't know if my first comment came through, so sorry if this is a repeat. Currently, the United Methodist Church in their quadrennial General Conference is voting on moving to a system where churches will be rated on metrics like giving, new members, attendance, etc. Pastors of churches that decline or do not grow will be rated ineffective and not appointed to a charge. I'm not sure that using quantitative analysis tells the whole story of what's happening in a group of people.

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April 30, 2012  11:30am

The meaningful metrics list only measures activities. These sorts of church metrics have been around for sometime. What is new is figuring out how to assess the impact of those activities. This requires more difficult qualitative measurements that go beyond focus groups or anecdotal evidence.

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April 27, 2012  7:57pm

In response to Paul---how do we know that Professor Nyazi is a Muslim? and if he is, does that invalidate his point that the question of measuring spiritual robustness is important to many including religious leaders and faith practitioners? I appreciate Professor Nyazi's suggestion that we can learn from social science disciplines and can incorporate both qualitative and quantitative methods; and I would add that we can do this without losing what Jesus called the fruit test.

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