Just give me orders, please

My bishop sent a letter to Indiana clergy calling for participation in the Call to Action process. Here is a direct quote from the letter:

This denominational focus on Vital Congregations means that every United Methodist congregation in the world will be setting goals around these five factors (which have been proven through the Call to Action study to be those areas which best measure the vitality of a local congregation):

  • Disciples worship – average worship attendance
  • Disciples make new disciples – professions of faith
  • Disciples grow – number of small groups for faith development
  • Disciples engage in missions – number of people engaged in mission
  • Disciples give to mission – amount of money given to mission

It all sounds good, yes?

But there are a couple of problems.

First, the Call to Action study does not prove anything. It provides some statistical evidence for some conclusions. How much evidence it gives we cannot know because the actual data and statistics that would have to be reported to make that judgement have not been shared.

Second, the five “factors” listed above come from two different places in the CTA report. Here is a brief summary of the process.

The report first collected a set of measurements that it said were “proxies” for congregational vitality. These included things such as worship attendance, giving by members, and total membership. These were not causes of vitality, but the way we measure it. The were identified in large part because they were numbers the denomination already collects.

The consultants then engaged in a statistical process known as exploratory factor analysis to group these measures of vitality into a groups or “factors.” Using these groups, they sorted UM congregations into high, medium, and low vitality based on arbitrary dividing lines.

Then, they used another statistical tool called multiple regression to figure out what data that we have about the congregations most account for some of them being high vitality and others being low or middle. From this regression, the consultants indicated four “drivers,” including things such as number of small groups and the mix of worship styles at a church.

Aside from my generic concern that the statistical tools used in this analysis do not prove anything about the causes of vitality, we also continue to act as if the tools are magic black boxes that spit out truth. What statistical tests actually do, when reported in ways that allow this, is provide evidence that can be used to engage in further thinking, research, and action. We treat the report like holy writ either because we do not understand it or want to appeal to the authority of numbers.

But here is the big thing: The conference is misreading the report even as it comes up with its five factors.

One of the factors (number of small groups) is a “key driver” of vitality according to the consultants. But not really, since the factor described in the letter is “number of small groups for faith development.” The CTA does not distinguish between different types of small groups, it just counts them.

Three of the factors (worship attendance, professions of faith, and missions giving) are not “drivers” of vitality but are used in the CTA report to determine which congregations are vital. They do not cause vitality; they measure it. And they are not “proven” to measure vitality, they are chose as the best proxies we have based on surveys and other conversations.

Finally, one factor (number of people engaged in mission) I cannot find in either measures or drivers of congregational vitality in the Towers Watson appendix to the CTA report.

So, we are using the Call to Action as the rhetorical justification for the new processes, and yet of the five factors listed in the letter, only one is even a “driver” of congregational vitality according to the Call to Action report.  This list of five looks more to me like a set of measures from the North Alabama dashboard that has gotten so much attention recently.

Here is where I come down on all this. I would rather just be told to do something than be “persuaded” into doing something with sloppy arguments. I’d rather we not misuse statistics. I’d rather we talk about the Bible and Wesleyan tradition. But absent these, just give me orders. Please, don’t ask me assent to arguments I know to be flawed and full of holes.

11 thoughts on “Just give me orders, please

  1. This should prove interesting. This country bought into the “No Child Left Behind” scenario and the idea that scores on standardized tests would show a true measure of learning.

    Schools then began using the test scores as a measure of how well they were doing.

    Now we have the story coming out of Atlanta about the cheating that took place as the scores on the exams were manipulated by any number of people. There is also a similar story coming out of Pennsylvania.

    Will we begin seeing stories of pastors under the gun to get their numbers up falsifying the data to keep the higher ups happy? Didn’t this also happen during the Viet Nam war (we must be winning because our numbers are so good)?

    I think I see a storm coming on the horizon and it is big and dark and forboding. That is a sign to take cover.

  2. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again the CTA is just another effort to re-arrange the chairs. There is no push for discipleship (unless your definition of discipleship is “butts in pews” and may God help us if it is) there is no call for discernment and there is no mention of the radical nature of the Gospel that we are all called to share. All of the hype is designed to whip us into a frenzy of activity because we’ve got to do something.

    Kool-aid anyone?

  3. i so appreciate your comments and insight…your conclusion makes much sense…but, then, when has the UMC been a denomination or people of directives? does that not go against the very grain of the bottom up movement that always seems to play a vital role in who we are and what we do? top down, or even committee outward, movements have been a part of the UMC as long as the UMC has been in existence…with the names and contents of those movements changing or being tweaked in each quadrennium…if they worked they would have taken hold and been owned by the people in the pews…they did not and I can only wonder is this approach will produce any more fruits than the ones if it following. just my hunch and intuitive at work in thought…peace justly, always, all ways, for ever….G Lake Dylan

    1. Good point, Gary. We do not have a tradition of being directive driven. But we do seem to be moving that direction, which is ironic given the stated desire to “invert” the conference so that the conference staff supports and resources the congregations.

  4. I miss the old theological language about hearts being “strangely warmed”, about saints growing in grace and “going on to perfection”, about “social holiness”, about Christ being our “all in all”,about “coming alive in Christ.” A vital church is a church that is centered on Christ. The emphasis on statistics leave me cold and scared, not inspired or “called to action.”

    1. Amen, Holly. Amen. I would have been more supportive if the Bishops had called for the church to get on its knees, pray for discernment and that the Holy Spirit would guide us, direct us, and empower us to follow wherever that might lead.

  5. I personally believe that statistics and goals can be useful tools but if you used this list as your mail measurement then you would need to say that the Mormons and the JW’s are measuring up.

    I always marvel at the things that are not included such as loyalty to the Word.

    I can’t find the quote at this moment but I recently read in Wesley’s journals that he attributed the demise of some of his groups to the abandonment of the 5:00 A.M. preaching service.

    Blessings as you work through these things.

    I see you have changed your format again. It has been awhile since I visited. This is easier for me at least.

    Grace and Peace.

    1. Thank you, for visiting again. Yes, I recall Wesley writing about that as well.

      As for blog format, I get tired of what I have every couple of months and decide it needs to change. That is probably a sign of spiritual restlessness.

    1. They do match the lower right hand box on that page, though:

      A Disciple of Jesus Christ:
      Matthew 22:36-40
      worships regularly
      helps make new disciples
      is engaged in growing in their faith
      is engaged in mission
      shares by giving in mission

    2. Actually, as I look at it, your bishop’s list seems to correspond to the five discriptors of “a disciple of Jesus Christ” instead of those of “a vital congregation” found on the site. In any case, your posts and analysis are highly appreciated. Keep fighting the good fight!

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