Why Numbers Matter in the UMC – Naming Reality (1 of 3)

First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, LA

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Vitality seems to be the talk of The United Methodist Church. From the invitation to be a Vital Congregation to tracking metrics through Vital Signs, there has been a wide variety of response to the movement to increasing the level of reporting of involvement across several areas of local churches.

I have heard a great deal of critique about these additional requirements for local church leaders. Are numbers really important? Are we measuring success or significance? Won’t this be more harm than good?

Let me be clear about where I stand – tracking numbers matters for The United Methodist Church.

This practice, in itself, will not lead to renewal. However, I believe that it can be a helpful tool for our congregations to provide mutual accountability and support. Many people focus on the accountability of tracking and resulting impact on self esteem in the congregation. Whatever the reality of involvement is, tracking doesn’t change it. Tracking shines a light on current reality. If we aren’t honest with ourselves about reality, there is no possibility of effectively moving forward.

Knowing where we are is a prerequisite to go where we want to go – a future of hope and renewal as we seek to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

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19 thoughts on “Why Numbers Matter in the UMC – Naming Reality (1 of 3)

  1. Andrew,

    I have to say that I disagree. I think a church’s and pastor’s time can be better spent then trying to track membership and attendance numbers. If the church is doing things right, the trend for attendance will be obvious, just like if the church is doing things wrong. Trying to determine if 10 rear-ends in the pews is a trend is wasted energy. Just standing at the pulpit (or sound booth, or choir loft, or anywhere else with a decent view) should give enough idea regarding attendance to understand what the church is doing.

    Of course, your DS and Bishop don’t want to hear, “Well, it looks like there is less empty space in the pews.” But they spend a lot of time chasing ones and twos instead of getting out, serving, and attracting hundreds, also.

    • JAy. Thanks for your comment. I agree that there are things that are more important than tracking membership and attendance numbers. However, it is really not very difficult. A few minutes during a worship service followed by recording in a spreadsheet does not take a lot of time. You can certainly get an idea of how many people are in the pews just by looking. One of the challenges is that if you just take a glance each Sunday, a slow attrition in attendance may not be as noticeable until a good deal of time has gone by. At that point, there may be more of a challenge addressing necessary changes. I find it difficult to imagine a scenario where a church is growing so rapidly and is so active in the community that the leadership does not have time to pay attention to the number of people.

  2. Andrew, I completely agree. The numbers do reflect reality — even though that reality is more complex than a few numbers. It will take the pastor and appropriate committees being transparent with the DS and Bishop as to what is impeding growth. Pastors can also be creative by adding in important numbers that might not be collected otherwise (say the number of persons reached in mission and how many church members or outside volunteers helped). Clergy are responsible for reporting an accurate and complete assessment of the health of our congregations, as well as having a plan for how we will continue to grow in participation in worship and service in the future. I have found that in North Alabama, the Superintendents are very supportive of clergy with low attendance if they are showing signs of growth in other areas or if they have a clear plan for how they will lead towards growth in ministry and outreach.

    • Mike – I appreciate your reminder that reality is more complex than a few numbers. As you suggest, the interpretation of those numbers is important and perhaps the more important role in this whole process. I am glad to hear of your experience from North Alabama, which is an example of this dashboarding / tracking for the rest of the denomination. Support and encouragement from the District Superintendents seems to be a critical part of success of this venture. Encouraging, holding accountable and coaching may all be different facets of the same process.

  3. “If the church is doing things right, the trend for attendance will be obvious, just like if the church is doing things wrong.”

    Not always so. When churches speak out on important societal matters, it is not uncommon for attendance to take a hit. Also, when churches get serious about service and discipleship, it is not uncommon for casual Christians to look elsewhere. Dan Dick’s book Vital Signs covers this phenomenon in his chapter on The Regressive Church.

    • Christopher – You make an important distinction here that numbers may dip as a result of various circumstances. This is where, as Mike suggested, the interpretation of the numbers is very important. However, I believe that people want high expectations and that they may actually increase numbers. What do you think?

  4. The key to vitality in the UMC is the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst. As a retired pastor who is able to listen to many preachers, I am concerned that I hear very little preaching that is Christocentric these days. I am afraid that with the recent efforts to make our preaching relevant to our modern culture, we have neglected preaching Christ. HE is missing from many of our sermons and churches. If we don’t lift up Christ, I think we SHOULD go ahead and lock our doors,sell our buildings to the highest bidder, and give the money to the poor.

    • Holly – I absolutely agree with you. Offering Christ, crucified and risen, is key to vitality in any church. I believe that numbers may be a sign of how effectively that task is being accomplished.

    • Sadly I have visited churches where I literally never heard the name of Christ within the sermon. One I am remembering not only never said Jesus, or Christ or Lord, but the preacher only said “God” three times in 25 minutes. And this was a seasoned (former DS) who pastored a big church. So it is not just a trend among contemporary preachers, but also from those who have been in the pulpit for while. Preaching turns into just a “nice speech.”

      There is no aspect of life that is not measurable and quantifiable. If you are not willing to be held accountable by both man and God for being fruit bearing, then I know Someone who promised your part of the vine would be pruned and thrown into the fire!

  5. I too agree. Numbers matter for the purpose of evaluation of trends. If we are going to have honest evaluation, then it is necessary that we have honest numbers. Evaluation will fail if we provide false and inflated numbers.

  6. I’ve never been in a church that didn’t count attendance. Pastors pay enormous attention to how many are there each Sunday. When pastor’s gather, the subject of attendance regularly comes up. We post attendance on our walls and in our bulletins each week and report them every year. The idea that paying close attention to something produces improvement is clearly, in the case of the UMC, erroneous….if not laughable.

    I’ll count whatever they want and I think it gives the denominational leadership (such that it is) better real time data.

    I do believe that in ten years the UMC is going to be turning the corner and showing signs of fresh vitality. I don’t think it will have much to do with the Call to Action report, but rather the enormous number of misguided leaders who will have retired by then. That said, the Call to Action report, as sad as it is, is one of the very best things to come from our senior leadership. It at least tackles the issue of dismantling structures that have become more hindrance than help. And it will catch our 1950’s-model churches up to the 1990’s.

    • Don – You are right that counting worship attendance is something that has been done for a long time and has not, in itself, yielded positive outcomes for the denomination. I believe that part of the power of numbers is paying attention to trends week to week over a period of months. If the weekly attendance numbers are just posted and not tracked over a period of months they really don’t do much good. Likewise, yearly numbers – whether up or down don’t tell much of a story. In either of these cases the missing link is seeking causes for the numbers – either up or down.
      I don’t agree that a turn around in the denomination will be based on the retirement of any number of people. Fresh vitality in the life of the church comes when leaders who may be 4 or 40 years from retirement seek to be both faithful and fruitful in ministry.

  7. Speaking of Counting.

    “Well, we started with four people and a dream, and today on an average Sunday, during the school year, we’ll have about eight thousand people in worship; another thousand or so children in Sunday School that are not counted in the worship numbers. Christmas Eve and Easter are big days for us. Christmas Eve we had 22,000 people in worship. And we have 240 staff, a 15.7 million dollar budget, 276,000 square feet of space and 76 acres of land. And this year, we’ve had, since January 1st, over a thousand people join the church. And it’s just been an amazing adventure. ….. What I’d like to try to do today, is share with you some of the things that have worked.”

    From Adam Hamilton at the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference a couple years ago I think.

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