I have thus far studiously avoided commenting on The United Methodist Church’s Call to Action on this blog. After some conversations with my friend Justin, though, I think I’m ready to hazard a go at that risky endeavor. I’d like to suggest an alternate approach to church metrics based on some Wesleyan theological insights.
For those of you not familiar, the Call to Action is a document/plan prepared for/by the UMC to counteract trends of declining membership in the United States. The Call to Action involves several aspects, but among them are a focus on “vital congregations” and assessing the vitality of churches based on seven metrics that measure membership, attendance, baptisms, and giving. Measuring and monitoring such numbers (referred to occasionally as “dashboard indicators”) and holding pastors and churches accountable for them has been one of the most controversial aspects of a report with a number of controversial aspects.
I would like to suggest three things about metrics and church accountability: The current metrics are not theologically sound. Another set of metrics might be. This other set also has the potential to better unleash ministry and assist the church in mission.
First, it is important to point out that we are in many ways not ultimately responsible for the fruit our ministry bears. We do not make converts to Christ; the Holy Spirit does through the administration of God’s prevenient grace. We may be the means, but the Holy Spirit is the main actor. The work of the church is ultimately God’s work, which God invites us to participate in, but whose success is ultimately dependent upon God, not us. Therefore, I think it is a bad idea to measure membership and baptisms. Sure, we should be a church that is reaching out to others, but it’s judging us on something that is ultimately the work of the Spirit.
That does not mean, however, that there should be no accountability in the church. As a Wesleyan, I believe that we are responsible for responding to God’s grace through faithfulness and service. Furthermore, I believe that we have a responsibility for encouraging and equipping each other in our faithful obedience to God’s call to service. Finally, I believe that some metrics can assist in that process of mutual accountability.
Such metrics would measure not raw numbers of members and money but instead try to assess the ways in which the ministry of the church has contributed to the transformation of the world. In the language of non-profits, they measure outcomes (how things are qualitatively different because of your work) and not outputs (how much of something you’ve produced).
Such metrics would ask all church members questions like the following: Have you (and how have you) grown in the knowledge and love of God in the last year? Have you (and how have you) sought to more faithfully live out your Christian calling in the last year? Do you feel like you have more or less of the knowledge and skills necessary for effective ministry than you did a year ago? It would ask pastors similar questions, but also questions like this: Have you developed in your understanding of your vocation? Church leaders, pastors, and district superintendents would be asked: How is the world different because of the ministry of this church? Where has the Kingdom of God come into being because of the work of this church?
Such questions would have the advantage of holding all church members (and not just pastors and bishops) accountable for faithfully engaging in ministry. One of the problems of the current Call to Action plan of assessment is that it makes elites responsible for the success of the church. But effective ministry is the responsibility of all Christians, an insight which Wesleyans should recognize as much as any others. By encouraging us all to reflect on whether we are being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, such assessments would drive home our mutual responsibility to respond to the grace of God. We may not be ultimately responsible for the results of our ministry, but we are, all of us, responsible for engaging in ministry as best we can. Proper evaluation, like all efforts at equipping the saints for ministry, should reinforce that point.