How to measure success

Some of the traditional markers don’t work anymore. But every institution needs to define what short-term and long-term success looks like.

What does success in ministry look like? More people worshiping on Sunday mornings? More money in the offering plate? More volunteers in service?

Years ago the president of a boutique liberal denomination asked me for a proposal to facilitate a strategic planning process. This elected official expressed concern about the viability of the denomination. Its founding executive director was approaching retirement, and the membership of the supporting congregations was aging. They needed to do something.

“Let’s pretend that we came up with a wonderful plan to grow the denomination in membership and finances over the next 10 years,” I said “What would the debate at the annual meeting look like? How would the vote go?”

Silence on the other end of the line.

In my experience, many of that denomination’s leaders were suspicious of the traditional markers of success. I asked the question because, off the top of my head, I could not come up with a single measurable outcome from a planning process that would be acceptable to the group. Neither could the president.

Many of this denomination’s leaders were critics of popular culture. Their prophetic work stood with the marginalized. They worried when the budget got bigger that somehow they were being unfaithful. They were a network of support for each other. They worked together on projects, but their deeply held suspicion of giving anyone authority and achieving success meant that they were poorly positioned to build an institution of size and scope. Their convictions kept them small.

Today many congregations and Christian institutions across all theological lines wonder about the measures of success.

Denominations bemoan falling revenue. Congregations recognize that the definition of “active” is shifting; members consider themselves involved if they attend once a month. Leaders will be gone weeks at a time for business or family concerns. Average attendance, once the single most helpful statistic indicating congregational culture dynamics, no longer tells the story of involvement. Members don’t need to show up to feel connected through Facebook, streaming services and texting with a pastor.

In order to build anything that employs people, owns property, accepts donations and works at scale, some sort of measurement is required. One of the beauties of measuring average attendance is that it is fairly easy to make the connections between that number and the staffing and budget requirements of a church.

In building new markers of success, we may need to think in both the longer and shorter term. What is the “end” of your work? What is a picture of the community or the life that you are working to establish? For Christians, such a community is a foretaste of God’s reign. What pictures of faith, hope and love would you identify as signs of God’s reign? Such pictures are a long-term vision that points the way.

For the shorter term, success should be defined by measurable signs of progress towards the vision. These signs are only glimpses.

For example, a congregation might have a vision of community that incorporates the weak and marginalized. The sign of success might be a relationship with a senior care facility that includes member involvement in caregiving, advocacy around issues, support systems for families. Doubling down on that relationship could produce many signs of success.

The story of Mission Arlington is a 27-year saga of moving from a vision of a congregation “falling in love with its community before we got afraid of it” to a host of activities with measurable impact. Along the way they invited many partners to share in deepening and extending the impact.

Measures are important to hold leaders accountable, to serve as an early warning system for problems that need to be addressed and to indicate what is working to share the success with others. However, establishing those measures is increasingly difficult. Across an institution and its stakeholders one cannot assume agreement.

What do you measure? Why? Towards what purpose?