As we welcome the beginning of a new year, United Methodists commence the annual task of finalizing their statistical reports for the previous one. Typically, these reports provide an opportunity to look back and assess trends, identify successes and challenge points, and make important decisions about the future. Collated, these data points become a part of similar processes within annual conferences and by the general church.
Let me strongly suggest that these 2020 statistical reports demand and deserve a huge, bold asterisk. It is looking more likely that 2021 will require the same. Much of this information is still important, perhaps even essential in helping us to understand the adaptive challenge, but it is also primed to do significant harm without personal and shared interpretative filters.
Let’s consider one metric often obsessed over as a measure of church vitality – worship attendance.* Over the past few months, I’ve fielded several questions about counting worship attendance in virtual spaces. I’ve read guidance on counting – some good, some well-intentioned but poorly informed about how social media works. The truth of the matter is, it’s complicated. Nothing is as easy as counting physical bodies in a specific space at a set time, and we all know how creative some leaders are at doing even that. Virtual countings present a host of new variables:
- What range of participation/viewing constitutes attendance? Do you only count those who attend live (if the church even offers that)? Do you only count viewing during a particular hour, day, range of days, the whole week?
- How do you calculate social media video views when the platform provides limited and misleading information on viewership and engagement?
- What is the best way to count families who may share a single screen?
- How do you estimate a correct adjustment to account for those you know aren’t using it reliably for the churches using a digital sign-in sheet?
These are just a few of the variables local churches must wrestle with to consider this one question amongst many in those statistical reports. Answering other items raise different issues, some with their own unique pandemic complications.
Even as some of this information may be necessary, I hope we won’t measure our ministry or our colleagues’ ministry solely by these statistics. In isolation, metrics like worship attendance are not reliable markers of congregational health in a normal year. In this environment, too much focus upon them can do real harm.
In a field like ministry, where so many evaluation measures are subjective, it is unsurprising that we might lean on numbers for personal and collegial evaluation; perhaps, more than we would like to admit. Even as I pray that our leaders find ways to arrive at accurate answers, I hope they are grading themselves (and each other) this year on a curve.
This is probably as good a year as any to embrace more holistic evaluations of ministry. Even pre-Covid, plenty of United Methodists found a more meaningful connection to their local church through small groups and studies, service opportunities, and social engagements than they did on Sunday morning. Strange that these metrics rarely garner the same levels of interest. Thankfully, our statistical reports do ask us to provide many of these things.
The past year has provided more than its share of stressors and public health numbers that rightfully concern so many. But agonizing over a drop in some local church statistical measures that weren’t designed well for this moment is a waste of time. Much better spending that same energy adapting to the challenges before us, how best to provide meaningful points of connection to the Church and helpful practices to nourish and grow the spiritual lives of those in our care.
* It is worth noting that none of the conferences that comprise the Greater Northwest Area use worship attendance to allocate apportionments.