Review by Rev. Jeff Seaton
For all those who feel unsettled by the question of whether the stuff of ministry can be counted in a meaningful way, I recommend Gil Rendle’s latest book Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014; this review is based on the iBooks version). The book is based on the context of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the US, which currently uses so-called ‘dashboard’ measures to count such things as weekly worship attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, etc. While it comes from the UMC context, I think this book is readily applicable in a UCC context, as many of our challenges are similar.
Rendle begins with the question, “Can, in fact, ministry be measured in mathematical proportions?”, but then quickly asserts that “current dashboard measures of ministry are both necessary and insensitive” (Introduction). They are necessary because we need to establish baselines: “One definition of leadership is the ability to draw an accurate and honest picture of the current reality.” On the other hand, they are insensitive as they can lead us to base success or failure on the basis of factors that are beyond our control in a very changed mission field. Further, dashboard counts might lead us to count the wrong kinds of things, or to count things that don’t matter.
Rendle wants to move the conversation from counting to measuring, based on this distinction: counting is giving attention to numbers; measuring is giving attention to change. While counting focusses on inputs and throughputs—our resources and activities—measuring involves focussing on outputs, or outcomes. Rendle notes that the preference for counting is a common temptation in the nonprofit sector, when we are unable to clearly describe our desired outcomes. He cites Jim Collins’ work in Good to Great and the Social Sectors and advises that where counting is difficult, we need to learn to richly describe the difference we are trying to make.
In Chapter Two, Rendle offers this working definition of an outcome: “For the church, an outcome is (1) the difference that (2) you believe God has called you to make (3) in this next chapter of your life.” The keys here are (1) that we are aiming for a measurable, describable difference, because knowing Christ should make a difference in our lives and communities; (2) the outcome is based on discernment of God’s call, not our decision about what we think is best for the future; and (3) we are feeling our way towards the next necessary steps, even if the goal is currently beyond our reach.
Rendle’s invitation is to move beyond conversations about scarcity and survival, and move to conversations about purpose. Even small congregations, with limited resources can take up the challenge he sets in Chapter Three: “A congregation must actively set itself to align with a difference that God dreams of for the corner of the kingdom in which the congregation finds itself.” He lays out a process called “Ready-Fire-Aim: moving quickly into slow discernment,” arguing that we cannot wait until we have all the information—until we can see the target clearly—before we take aim and get to work. We begin, and learn and adjust as we go, all the while measuring how far we have come towards our outcome.
There is also a very practical ‘workbook’ side to the book as well, as in Chapter Four, Rendle describes a series of tools that can be used to support discernment, and the Ready-Fire-Aim process of action, reflection, learning and recalibration as we seek to measure our movement towards the outcome we seek. These tools are all contained in a “Resources” section at the back of the book, and are available as printable PDFs for group use in congregational or educational settings.
In Chapter Five, Rendle clearly articulates the challenges of leadership in our current climate, suggesting that adaptation and learning are the order of the day; and further, that learning is highly contextual—it needs to take place congregation by congregation. “Teaching by leaders who know the right answers is replaced with conversations led by leaders who know the appropriate questions.” He cites the work of Patrick Lencioni in The Advantage, and then lays out his own series of nine “cascading questions”, aimed at helping congregations find and follow “a path toward a God-intended difference.”
The final chapter of the book provides a summary of the argument, and a series of cautions about using the new tools of measurement.
I found this book to be a powerful and persuasive response to the issues raised in the debate over the measurability of ministry. I think it’s very helpful that Rendle takes account of the real drawbacks of counting members, attendance, and givings in an era when patterns of involvement have changed dramatically. These types of counts are based on patterns of social engagement and church belonging of an earlier era.
That said, Rendle is not content to let congregations and their leaders off the hook by pointing to measures of overall decline in their denominational contexts. Even if the congregation is significantly older, or disconnected socially, economically, or ethnically from its surroundings; even if people are no longer interested in ‘joining’; even if a congregation is small and struggling—even so, as people whose lives have been transformed, and are being transformed, by an ongoing encounter with the living Christ, we cannot help but be about the business of transforming the world.
Each congregation needs to find its own way, Rendle argues, and what one congregation is called to do may seem tiny and small compared to another congregation’s call. But we are called to make a difference, and that means starting from a place of naming the difference we are called to make, and then using tools of measurement to hold ourselves accountable for our progress.
Because of the sensitivity with which Rendle handles these issues, I believe the approach of this book, and the tools it offers, could be helpfully applied in any congregational or institutional setting.
In the end, it’s not about numbers and growth, or the survival of the institutional church; it is about stewardship of our resources, and our stewardship of our most precious resource, the Gospel. The book closes with this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Many continue to knock at the door of the church at midnight, even after the church has so bitterly disappointed them, because they know the bread of life is there.” May we be faithful stewards of what has been entrusted to us.
This review was presented as a paper by Rev. Jeff Seaton in the course “Introduction to Christian Leadership,” Doctor of Ministry Program, Duke University. © 2014.