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.

"The old church scorecard keeps us from participating in the missional renaissance."

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 a certain number of bicycles and to do so within its budget. This doesn't mean the plant manager ignores the usage of steel. Monitoring steel consumption (or labor hours or any other input) is important, but merely as a tool to achieve the ultimate output goal.

To put this in church terms, attendees are inputs, disciples are outputs. But for churches, measuring this output isn't simple. The bicycle plant can clearly describe and accurately measure its desired outputs. Heat and machinery consistently form steel into a bicycle frame, but the processes for "forming" disciples are much less predictable.

Because the desired results (transformed lives, healthy congregations, exercising faith, hope, and love) are extremely difficult to measure, some churches just measure inputs—giving, attendance, spending. They assume that these inputs will indicate progress toward the goal. Of course, every experienced leader knows that things are not that simple.

Putting more money into the youth ministry doesn't automatically lead to teens with a deeper commitment to Christ. Holding an event with a celebrity speaker may generate a large audience, but it is not guaranteed to raise the spiritual vitality of the congregation. Loaning money to a seamstress in a developing country may not build a successful business that lifts her family out of poverty.

Reggie McNeal of Leadership Network states that the typical metrics in the church can lead to wrong behavior. "The old church scorecard of how many, how often, how much—measures of church activity—is counterproductive to participating in the missional renaissance. The old scorecard keeps us church-absorbed. As long as we use it, we will continue to be inward focused, program-driven, and church-based in our thinking."

Barriers to the right metrics

Clearly defining the results to be measured is a major issue, but it is not the only challenge. Here are four other barriers to creating useful metrics.

Measurement seems unspiritual. When you think of the secular applications for measurement, it is easy to conclude that they have no place in the church. In education, pressure around state-mandated exams pushes some teachers to "teach to the test," training their students in techniques to make a passing grade rather than focusing on broader educational objectives. If you bring that mind-set into the church, it seems cold and unspiritual. As a result, some leaders contend that all measurement efforts are inappropriate and should be discarded. In essence, they say that you can't measure what matters. That frustrates a leader like World Vision's Rich Stearns, who says, "I think a lot of churches are very poorly managed because they don't feel that excellence and accountability fit well in a Christian environment."

It is true that numbers don't tell the whole story. Greg Holder of The Crossing, a multi-site church in Missouri, points out that broad congregational measures do not adequately show how individual people are growing in their faith. He says, "Our metrics aren't the only way that we define whether God is doing something effective here. You have to celebrate the smaller stories. Otherwise this stuff blurs into meaningless numbers."

Leaders at The Crossing pay attention to the numbers, but they also listen for stories of life change and celebrate them in corporate gatherings. Measurement can be unspiritual, but the best leadership is informed by facts, not practiced in a vacuum.

Measures can be misleading. Sometimes metrics don't tell the whole story, and sometimes the story they tell is inaccurate. Greg Surratt of Seacoast Church in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, says, "If you stay around long enough, you'll have several seasons you go through as a church. You'll go through growing seasons, and that's what everyone wants to stay in. You'll go through harvesting seasons; you'll go through pruning seasons. We do look at metrics. But you also have to put that up against 'What season are we in right now?' You don't worry about harvest numbers when you're in a pruning season."

Wise leaders pay attention to the metrics and discern whether a downward trend indicates a problem to be addressed or a "pruning" that will ultimately strengthen the congregation. They know that even if the numbers don't meet their expectations, God can still be at work in powerful ways.

Indeed, a pattern of growth is not always satisfactory. Todd Mullins describes the decision of Christ Fellowship, a multi-site church in South Florida, to revamp its discipleship process: "The numbers were strong. We had a lot of people in life groups and taking classes, but we didn't seem to have the life we needed." Despite "positive numbers," Christ Fellowship's leaders knew that the old model was producing participation but not the spiritual growth God desired.

Not everyone wants accountability. Sometimes the critics of measurement are looking for an excuse to not address poor performance. David Weekley notes that measurement often isn't a priority because ministry is relational and "some people might get their feelings hurt." Without the concrete evidence that comes from measurement, a leader can let an underperforming staff member or volunteer slide and not risk a broken relationship.

Sometimes it is the leader himself who wants to avoid accountability. Andy Doyle, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, said: "In the church, we rest on Augustine's total depravity so much that we let ourselves off the hook of accountability to our Lord." Rich Stearns observes that a segment within the Christian culture seems to say, "We're good people doing good things, and that ought to be good enough." In other words, as long as our intentions are good and the work that we're doing is worthy, we should not be held accountable for actual results.

Even though accountability causes discomfort, these same leaders emphasize the need for measurement. Stearns bluntly states the "good enough" mind-set "is really an excuse for mediocrity." Doyle comments, "I believe that individuals, though they have a tendency toward depravity, are ultimately responsible for the mission they've been given. We can't let ourselves off the hook for our lack of engagement in the world."

Dave Peterson of Houston's Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church said: "The church is in a difficult time. But the church doesn't understand it's in a difficult time because it doesn't know the truth about itself." So if you find yourself trying to avoid measurement altogether, take a step back and ask, "Are we afraid of discovering something we don't want to know?"

Needed skills and tools may be lacking. If you put me at the bottom of a cliff and say, "Climb to the top," I am likely to give up quickly if I lack the skills and equipment for the task. Many Christian leaders feel the same way when they are challenged to measure what matters. They may readily agree that typical measures are inadequate and that quantitative measures must be balanced with spiritual discernment, but they have no idea what to do next. Neither their training nor their temperament has prepared them for this challenge.

On top of that, church databases and other information systems are often not designed to provide the needed information. If a leader said, "I think it would be helpful to track X," there is a very good chance that the current system cannot produce the answer.

Because of the gap in skills and tools, spiritual leaders may need to lean on others to devise measurement systems. When you look for outside wisdom on this question, you may get more than you bargained for. Many experts will tell you what "the answer" is and what needs to be measured. The problem is that the answers are all different!

The measurement challenge can seem insurmountable. Some people are motivated by challenges; others shut down when facing such a daunting task. We need to ask ourselves, "Is this challenge impossible or merely difficult?" If the former, we should give up. But I believe it is the latter—a difficult but not impossible task. That leads to one more question: Is it worth the time and effort to measure what truly matters?

Measurements Matter …

You can find plenty of people who critique the metrics that are used in a typical Christian organization, but you won't find many who say that measurement doesn't matter at all. Reggie McNeal comments, "A universal maxim of human behavior—in families, at school, at work, wherever—is that what gets rewarded gets done."

When the spotlight of measurement is pointed at an activity or an outcome, people pay attention. It is drilled into us from an early age with report cards in elementary school and scoreboards for children's sports. Accomplish the measured goal or exceed the target, and you'll receive praise. Fall short of the mark, and you'll face the disappointment of others (or worse).

Measurement may be a great tool to identify problems and opportunities or motivate people, but does it really matter to God? This is not just a question of whether God cares about how and what we measure. It is a question of whether "success," particularly measurable success, is something that concerns the Creator.

Metrics are a way to assess a church's fruitfulness and identify opportunities for growth.

Chris Hodges of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, has a response for those who resist measurement: "They need to see how much of an accountant Jesus is. Because he was counting a lot. But you measure what matters." Hodges makes a good point. A number of Jesus' parables—the mustard seed, the sower, the great banquet, the talents—have quantitative, measurable, or growth-oriented messages. This continues in the Book of Acts, where there are several references to the numerical growth of the church and where the church experiences specific geographic expansion.

In the epistles, Paul focuses more on the doctrinal and behavioral issues facing the church, but he clearly expects believers to continue to spread the gospel (Col. 1:6). His writing comes out of a conviction that if God's children are being transformed individually, the church cannot help but grow in health and in numbers.

… But Numbers aren't Enough

God cares deeply about the spiritual growth of people and about the health of his church, and healthy churches should produce tangible fruit over the long haul. Appropriate metrics are a way to assess the church's fruitfulness and to identify opportunities for growth. But if I stop there, I have not presented a complete perspective.

Even with well-designed measurements, the hard data will not tell the full story. Greg Holder expresses this well: "If God is doing something here and we are yielding to him and following him, I don't think that you'll see unhealthy numbers. But that's not the 'be all and end all.' I just don't see any annual reports in the New Testament."

Beyond that, Holder accurately notes that some assessment "is going to be squishy. Was Jeremiah faithful? I don't know how anybody looking at [Jeremiah's] 'numbers' is going to celebrate in the short-term."

A few months after my interview with Greg Holder, I happened upon the website of Elevation Church in Matthews, North Carolina. I noticed the button on the site to download the church's 2009 annual report. I clicked on the link.

The document had the look and feel of a company's annual report, complete with professional-quality pictures, vignettes of life change, and lots of statistics. The stark last page caught my attention. The page was blank except for this statement: "We are all about the numbers. Because every number, every statistic, represents a life that was changed, a life filled with hope and purpose, a story of redemption and grace. People far from God filled with life in Christ."

So how are we to think about measurement? It's a tool to give a strong indication of health or effectiveness, but not one to be used apart from godly wisdom. Todd Mullins says, "Healthy things grow. If we don't have measurement tools in place, unhealthy areas could go unnoticed for years."

Dave Peterson is an experienced pastor who has only recently discovered metrics that go beyond the standard attendance and giving data. He explains, "I'm like a kid with a new toy. I'm discovering that these metrics have great potential." One story of discovering this potential is the church's new emphasis on young adults. A fresh look at church data revealed 300 young, single adults who had been relatively invisible as a group. This awareness led to new funding for ministry. Peterson concludes that metrics "paint the real picture of who we are and motivate us to change."

So, are data and discipleship oil and water? Absolutely not. No set of metrics will paint the full picture of a congregation, but if the measurement system offers a more complete look at people and helps leaders make decisions, it will have served a powerful purpose. Moving past the barriers to effective measurement in ministries can yield important insights about how what we're doing works. And equally important, how it may not be working.

Adapted by permission from In Pursuit of Great AND Godly Leadership: Tapping the Wisdom of the World for the Kingdom of God by Mike Bonem (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series, 2012)

Mike Bonem is an organizational consultant who spent 10 years on staff at West University Baptist Church in Houston, most recently as executive pastor.