New ministry ideas

How do you know? Fresh thinking on ministry effectiveness

By Ted Wlazlowski

Excessive focus on numbers can obscure other issues that relate to the future faithful ministry of the church. Do you have a working system to facilitate assimilating people into small groups or areas of service? Are your discipleship efforts producing the life change you desire to see? Is there an evident difference in your community because of your church? How do you know?

The last few years have seen growing interest in measuring ministry effectiveness. Willow Creek’s REVEAL study may not have been the first expression of pastoral angst, but it was a signal to many that guessing and navel gazing were no longer the best available approaches.

Greg Hawkins correctly states in REVEAL that the only question the church has had at its disposal historically is, “How many?” Rather than writing off numeric measurement, which is a very popular trend, churches need new ways to supplement it with other forms of evaluation.

Supplement traditional measures

Admittedly, traditional numeric measures of success, such as attendance and giving, do have limitations, and that is why they need to be supplemented with other perspectives.  Perhaps the greatest limitation is their backward-looking nature. Essentially they tell you:

  • What you did in service last week was enough to convince people to come back this week.
  • What you did in service this week was enough to convince people to give you money to do it again next week.

Clearly these are overly simplistic (and a bit tongue-in-cheek), but they tell you about results after the fact. They are lagging indicators. Churches need ways to gauge future ministry effectiveness, or leading indicators, which foreshadow readiness to continue to grow believers and expand the Kingdom.

A second limitation of focusing on only numeric measures is that it is one-dimensional. Just like big-league coaches face the pressure to win instantly, many pastors war against expectations to grow a multi-site megachurch overnight. If the church’s focus is to draw large crowds and get them to give money, it is arguably easier to turn your church into a movie theater than turn around stagnant ministries.

Undue attention paid to “how many” can short-circuit the development of a healthy congregation, and lead to crisis management being the de facto mode of operation — jumping from one catastrophic near implosion to the next all in the name of numbers.

As a counterpoint, there are too many biblical references to crowd sizes and growth to argue that understanding them is completely unnecessary. We need to have a healthy understanding of what these numbers can tell us. Attendance and giving can be interpreted to demonstrate confidence in leadership, or a particular strategic direction. Additionally, prudence demands awareness of the resources at our disposal to ensure sound stewardship.

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Many recent articles quote pastors saying things like, “We don’t focus on numbers,” or, “We measure success differently.” This begs the question, how then do you measure success?

There are several recent developments that lead to sound answers, if you connect the dots.

The first major development is simply the growing desire for better ways to understand ministry effectiveness. Issues ranging from spiritual growth to community impact are being examined with greater intentionality than ever before. This means you are not alone in the fight. The name many use for this field is ministry analytics, but church analytics and even pastoral analytics are used by some.

A second development is the increasing ability to harness tremendous amounts of useful data. Church management applications such as Fellowship One,’s Church Metrics, and ChurchTeams allow churches to collect and use information far more easily than ever before.

If used properly, this data can tell us about process issues like the average time it takes someone to become a member of your church, communication effectiveness, or training needs. One company, Strategic Dimensions, helps churches make data-driven decisions about facilities using real historical trends.

The last development is an accelerating culture shift.  Authenticity holds more authority than position. If you say certain things are important to your church, are you living them out?  Is there any real evidence that you are?  An awareness of data about the right things can help you demonstrate that your church does more than talk a good game.

This also holds true for those you are trying to reach. Demonstration of the Gospel earns the right to proclamation of the Gospel. Good ministry analytics can tell you if you are doing the right things to build bridges to the community.

So how does a church devise a system to select, launch and track the right measures of effectiveness? For several years, many businesses have used scorecards to broaden their focus from solely financial data to other factors relevant to the success of the business.  In The Balanced Scorecard by Kaplan and Norton, the authors develop a comprehensive strategy to help businesses focus not merely on past success (financial return), but include metrics predictive of future success — internal process improvement, innovation and learning, and customer satisfaction.

All of these are driven by the organization’s strategic focus (see sidebar).

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This sounds very similar to the challenge that we face as pastors. In fact, our job may be harder. A business is primarily set up to make money. This is their chief measure.  Churches are not intended to merely attract bodies. This type of scorecard thinking seems almost tailor made for the nuances of leading churches and other organizations with goals that are difficult to see.

As a small group pastor for several years I led an effort to measure our ministry effectiveness. We built a system to measure understanding of our church’s core beliefs, but also evidence of increasing life change as a result of our ministry. The results were often enlightening, sometimes discouraging. Every year, though, we were able to make adjustments to improve our efforts based on the information we gathered.

What are some other areas that might benefit from this approach? Try to think of focus areas that are important to your ministry. Determine what you can measure that gives good information without being too arduous. Ask a trusted advisor for suggestions. Some examples include:

  • The time it takes to screen and train volunteers.
  • How long does it take to interview and train new volunteers?
  • How long should it take?
  • The effectiveness of your evangelism training.
  • Can your members articulate the Gospel?
  • Can they relate it effectively in word and deed?
  • Are you creating ministry systems that encourage evangelism?
  • Awareness of ministries designed to serve the community.

I encourage you to take a fresh look at how to gauge the faithfulness and effectiveness of your church. There are tools and organizations out there that can help you bridge the gap.  Asking “how many?” is no longer your only option.

Ted Wlazlowski is part of Life Catalyst Consulting, Flower Mound, TX, where he focuses on issues of strategic planning and spiritual formation.
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