Demystifying data: how to turn information into *actionable* insights






Our Panelists:

Curt Swindoll, Executive Vice President, Pursuant
Curt Swindoll, Executive Vice President, Pursuant
Derek Hazelet, Senior Vice President, RSI Stewardship
Derek Hazelet, Senior Vice President, RSI Stewardship
Ben Stroup, Senior Vice President, Fundraising Communications, Pursuant
Ben Stroup,
Senior Vice President, Fundraising Communications, Pursuant
Joel Mikell, President, RSI Stewardship
Joel Mikell,
RSI Stewardship
Lance Taylor, Executive Pastor, Long Hollow Baptist Church (Hendersonville, TN)
Lance Taylor,
Executive Pastor, Long Hollow Baptist Church (Hendersonville, TN)
Ron Edmondson, Senior Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church (Lexington, KY)
Ron Edmondson,
Senior Pastor,
Immanuel Baptist Church
(Lexington, KY)

For church leaders, analytics and modeling can sound cold. Impersonal. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

dataWhen thoughtfully collected and mobilized, they can be a hugely powerful ministry tool for any pastor.

The key, of course, is to know which metrics matter most to ministry — and what to do with that data once it’s in hand.

For that, we’ve called on an esteemed panel of ministry leaders and church giving specialists to discuss how data can help church leaders gain greater clarity and confidence to lead.

Why do you think this idea (i.e., — using data to make ministry decisions) is an increasingly important conversation for church leaders to have?

Ron Edmondson: Obviously, as churches, we’re competing with different things — time, resources and dollars. We have to be more efficient with our resources, just like the business world has had to do for years. We’re required to be good stewards of what God has given us.

Ben Stroup: I think there’s so much in ministry that’s intuitive. It can be very easy to carry over that mind-set into other aspects of church leadership.

The problem is when we’re ‘off’ — if there are myths to our intuition, or if our intuition is incorrect—we need the ability to re-center to something that we can know. That’s where analytics and modeling can help.

Joel Mikell: I also believe there’s a growing expectation of the church to look at — and analyze — data.

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Download the eBook!

I’m on the budget finance team at my church, along with a few members who are young executives. One is a CPA. As we were working through the planning process this past fall at the church, they were asking, ‘Why don’t we utilize here at the church some of the tools and practices that are used in the business world?’ ‘Why don’t we start looking at some key metrics and analytics?’ So, there’s a generation coming into leadership that’s going to expect the church to tap into analytics and modeling.

Derek Hazelet: The data the church has at its disposal is remarkable. What the church tracks in its church member management database is absolutely amazing.  What’s fascinating about business intelligence is the ability to peek into the information and get ‘actionable insights.’

So, when we sit here and wonder if we can measure discipleship, there’s a good chance that there are some indications in our data that can offer clarity about what’s happening.

Why are some church leaders still hesitant about using objective information to make ministry decisions?

Ben Stroup: In my experience, there’s nothing in church leaders’ training or backgrounds that would suggest that they have a vocabulary or a sense of intuition to reach for this kind of data. They’ve certainly gone to college, and in a lot of cases have spent 90 credit hours in a graduate degree program. But, they haven’t been exposed to these ideas in even one of those classes. So, in a lot of ways, church leaders don’t know that they don’t know.

Curt Swindoll: I also think there’s a perception that it’s cold; that it’s not spiritual.

Ron Edmondson: Along with that, as a business-minded pastor, the pushback I get is, ‘God is in charge of the numbers.’

Download the eBook!
Download the eBook!

Curt Swindoll: I’ve heard [criticisms] of [equating] business with ministry for a long time, too. Years ago, I looked up the definition of business, and it’s this: a group of people committed to a common cause. I thought that was fascinating. By this definition, our ministries are more like businesses than a lot of businesses. You could say it’s a matter of semantics, but ministries do have financial responsibilities, and many aspects of what they do look very much like a business — payroll, income, expenses, financial departments, staff and so on.

There’s an accountability that comes when measurement happens. I’ve looked at a lot of reports that didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. But, in every case, now I was accountable to that information, because I knew about it. I had a responsibility for it.

Typically, how far / deep are churches digging when it comes to evaluating their data? What areas are they most often tracking and analyzing?

Joel Mikell: Unfortunately, most churches only look at what came in over the previous weekend. They are are not looking at trending, movement up and down, lost givers or new givers. Many church leaders just want to know if their church is in the black or in the red.

Curt Swindoll: I agree; a lot of data analysis in churches is surface-level.

Can you define what we mean when we say “analytics and modeling”? How is this different than the way church leaders currently analyze data?

Ben Stroup: Many church leaders assume that a report writer is the same thing as analytics. However, a report writer aggregates and simply tells you what has happened — helpful, but not necessarily insightful when you’re trying to decide what to do next.

Analytics and modeling allow you to identify the direction your church is headed based on those historical trends. Then, beyond that, it gives you the ability to identify what key moves need to be made to ensure the church will arrive at the outcomes it wants to create.

Knowing what has happened isn’t enough to focus your efforts on the long-term impact of current ministry decisions.

Derek Hazelet: That’s true. Not maximizing data with true analytics and modeling can hurt you, because you’ll spend your time in reaction mode. As a church leader, if I’m simply analyzing data based on lagging indicators, then I’m going to be like a pinball every Monday when we pull the report.

Oh, we’re down in children’s ministry? We’ve got to do something! Then, we wait for the next report to see if we’ve made progress. I’ve found that simply using descriptive data from report writing tools is like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror.

Curt Swindoll: It is. Knowledge is understanding; wisdom is knowing what to do with that understanding.

Data is the same way as it relates to information; in effect, it’s meaningless points of content. Analytics is the process of turning that data into information in a form that [benefits ministry]. Modeling is a further extension, which gives us some kind of indication about what might happen in the future based on what’s happened in the past, or based on characteristics about people.

Lance Taylor: Some analytics we can do in-house. With regards to attendance, for example, we often measure whether or not a person was here. But, if we took attendance by how well people came, that would take our metrics to a whole new level.

Similarly, when we look at generosity, it’s not just a question of whether or not a person gave — how well did they give?

That additional factor alone pushes the analysis into a category we can’t do on our own. That’s why we’ve had to go to [RSI Stewardship] for help.

Are traditional report-writing tools enough to provide the actionable insights churches need from objective information?

Curt Swindoll: I don’t believe so. As Derek said, aggregating and reporting on information about what has already happened keeps you in ‘pinball mode,’ constantly reacting instead of strategically making decisions that are driving the church forward.

Derek Hazelet: Right. You’re moving the numbers; the numbers aren’t moving you.

Ron Edmondson: As church leaders, we have a lot more information than we use. Our software will do things we don’t even know it will do. So, if you really want to help churches, creating better tools is important.

However, you also have to help churches understand how to use the data at their fingertips — how to convert it to simple, transferable items.

Lance Taylor: It’s true that our software can do more than we use it for, but a lot of churches are limited by the people, in-house, who know how to maximize that tool. Even if we did have a bunch of those individuals on staff, we’d also need people who know what to do with the information that’s been generated.

In this area, working with RSI, Derek [Hazelet] is our guy; he tells us each step of the way, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ Then, he works with us — developing the plan, pulling information — and then walks with us through the whole thing.

You know, our team is made up of pastors. We’re not always thinking in these kinds of ways. This partnership has taken us to a whole new level.
We didn’t know we didn’t know these things. We didn’t know we could even find that information, much less that there was something we could do with it.

What are some leading indicatorsthat church leaders might want to pay attention to?

Derek Hazelet: Actually, all indicators can be leading or laggard, depending on how you leverage the information. Giving tends to be a lagging indicator if you only look at it when it’s gone or when it’s there. It becomes a leading indicator when you’re catching it earlier in the process — when you’re intentional about what’s happening along the lifecycle. If you are, you can make better decisions and communicate differently. You can change outcomes instead of responding to what’s already happened.

Curt Swindoll: We need to think about the steps in relationship-building as a process. Activities, for example, are a common leading indicator. What’s the attendance in small groups? For volunteer participation? Are those numbers going up or down? How many weddings are we hosting? How about involvement in missions trips?

Ron Edmondson: As church leaders, we need real information, immediately. If somebody stops attending two or three weeks in a row — or stops giving for two or three months in a row — there’s a problem, somewhere. It’s an indication. At that point, it becomes a discipleship issue for me.

Ben Stroup: Right. Let’s say, for example, the metric you’re looking at is active attendance. That’s something you can measure. A leading indicator is something that’s happening earlier on in the process.

Had we been looking at that other information, we would have noticed that a member stopped going to her small group three months ago. And three months before that, she stopped giving.

In so many churches, the congregation grows beyond its leaders’ ability to just kind of ‘know’ everybody. That’s why, as church leaders, you’ve got to be looking at the data — a relational, discipling, responsibility kind of standpoint.

Joel Mikell: That’s important. Last week, I was looking at a church’s financial data with the pastor. He noticed that someone in the church’s top 10% of givers had fallen into the top 20%, and then into the top 50%, and then dropped out completely. It pointed out an opportunity for the pastor to touch base with that person — not about the giving, but more as a wellness check on him and his family. He found out there were some serious issues between the husband and wife, which was affecting the children. So, the data pinpointed a ministry opportunity.

Ben Stroup: That’s why we talk about the idea that data doesn’t dehumanize the ministry process; it enhances it.

How have analytics and modeling-driven solutions made a tangible difference in how church leaders approach ministry?

Ben Stroup: A few examples come to mind. In one instance, a church only had active, valid email addresses for about 30% of its congregants. Yet, the church was using email as a way to communicate with members throughout the week. So, the general assumption was that just because an email was going out, everyone was getting the message. Of course, when we pulled the raw data, the reality was rather startling for church leaders.

In another scenario, church leaders assumed the greatest majority of major gifts were coming from known financial leaders in the congregation. That’s a natural assumption. But, we discovered that the largest gifts actually originated in the general giving category; certain people started to give at smaller levels, and something drove them to give at significant levels.

The implications of this assumption are huge. We sometimes limit what we’re willing to ask of certain groups because we think there’s a limit to their giving capacity. In actuality, if we provide relevant, timely and specific messaging, we can challenge people to give beyond their current levels.

That leads us to another common assumption — that people give at their capacity, and that a pastor is likely to cause frustration if he keeps asking them to give more. This particular analysis revolves around capacity versus interest. In one church, members clearly had interest in giving because they did so, and had a history of doing so. However, analysis determined a delta existed between members’ capacity to give, based on household income, and their willingness to give at those levels.

The case for analytics and modeling is clear. But, how can church leaders begin applying these concepts in their ministry today?

Curt Swindoll: Obviously, we believe so strongly in analytics and modeling in the church. It’s not just about the ability to identify individual trends; it’s the ability to link those trends to larger relationships between members and the church.

Analytics and modeling provide so much immediate clarity in areas where we struggle. And it’s not just about giving; there can be any number of communicative elements or qualities we can employ that have nothing to do with receiving and securing a gift. But, if we don’t have clarity — at a level that’s actionable — then we’re really shooting in the dark and working purely on intuition.

I believe it’s important for church leaders to ask about some of the assumptions they could be making about their ministry:

Are we communicating often enough?
Are we asking often enough?
Are we providing opportunities for engagement early on in the relationship process?
Are we encouraging people — and thanking them for the giving they’ve done?
Are we making the need known?

These are the questions that some of the solutions we’re providing can help answer.

Attend the “Demystifying Data” Webinar!

On Thursday, June 30 at 11 a.m. ET, join all these panelists — and the Church Executive staff — for a FREE webinar.

In this 60-minute event, we’ll “deep-dive” on how to turn data into better, more effective ministry at your own church.

Register now!

Joel Mikell:
In my own church, one of the questions I posed to our budget and finance team was: “Are the activities we are currently doing producing the results we want to see? And if not, then what do we need to do to change the results we desire?

What do we need to do to grow people to the grace of giving?
What do we need to do to engage first-time givers, and then turn those first-time givers into second-time givers?

So, basically, one of the starting points is to determine what we’re currently doing that isn’t producing the results. Then, what do we need to change? Then we can start to make the changes that will deliver the results we want.

Derek Hazelet: Analytics and modeling help church leaders identify the first steps they can take. Almost every church leader I speak with is wondering, What do I really know? Do I really have the confidence that if I put together this ministry plan, or budget, the money is going to come in to fully fund this vision?

So, I think the first question is: Do you have a handle on it? Do you have a good feel for what’s likely to happen? Not what will happen (unless things are altered), but what’s likely to happen.

To this end, are you maximizing your systems? Are you leveraging those systems? Are you tracking the right things?
Those are the types of questions we’re beginning to help church leaders answer.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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