How to Measure Ministry

hand with tape measure wrapped around it
Jennifer Burk via Unsplash

Service is notoriously hard to measure. This is true for every type of service: checkout clerks at Walmart, geeks at Best Buy, and nurse-midwives. And it’s doubly true when the desired result is fuzzy, controversial, or unstated, as it often is for clergy, educators, organizers, or musicians working in a church or synagogue.

When the job is helping other people, measurement is difficult. That’s why you’re so often asked to fill out an evaluation after you get service online or by phone. Employers—who tried for years to measure service work with the same stopwatch-and-clipboard methods factory managers used a hundred years ago—have realized it doesn’t matter how much time it takes to serve a customer if the result is that the customer posts negative reviews all over Yelp.

The most effective question on those surveys is one congregations rarely ask: “Would you recommend [this product/service/program/congregation] to a friend?” And so the first and most important principle for measuring ministry is this:

1. Ask whether people recommend you.

This is a great question! It bypasses many of the judgments, preconceptions, and opinions that only cloud the issue: The organist seems competent. The music seems religious. The preacher fits (or contradicts) my childhood notion of a preacher. Who cares?

But the question “Would you recommend us?” cuts to every congregation’s secret hope, which is to go viral. In communities of faith, the bottom line is not found on the treasurer’s report. It’s not even about theological correctness. Congregations improve people’s lives despite all sorts of deficits and errors, but only if those people show up. And the main reason newcomers show up—and return—is that somebody suggested it.

That’s reason enough to ask, but there’s more: every time you ask “Would you recommend us?” you plant a seed. To answer, people have to think, “Who would I recommend this to?” Having thought that, they are halfway there!

2. Set goals first—worry about measuring later.

When you set goals, most of your effort should go into saying whose lives should change and in what way. When you think of an ambitious goal, someone almost always will object, “That sounds good, but how will we know when we’ve achieved it? Good goals should be measurable!”

In setting goals for a youth ministry, for instance, some congregations aim for deep biblical literacy. Others hope to build the strength to navigate temptation, or the desire to live a life of service. Or a generous heart. These things are all devilishly hard to measure! No wonder most youth programs bypass them in favor of attendance goals or programmatic benchmarks like a mission trip or confirmation class. Real goals are difficult to measure—in this case, partly because the qualities youth ministry seeks to achieve take years to manifest.

Difficult to measure, but not impossible. If you get clear about your goals, then you can invent ways to measure them. For instance, if you hope young people will lives of service, you can ask them to come home and testify after they have been at work or college for a few years. You could even ask them about how they have responded to temptation in the meantime.

The same principle applies to worship. Here again, it’s tempting to fall back on measurables like high attendance. But if you lay aside your measurement concerns, you’re apt to choose objectives truer to your congregation’s calling—helping your new migrant neighbors to feel welcome, for example. Or challenging your congregants’ devotion to their personal comfort. Or helping bridge the music gap between your elders and the younger members. Or the language gap between those with and without a college education.

The closer your goals come to the heart of your mission, the less obvious it becomes how you will measure whether you’re succeeding. But if you state your real goals clearly, you’ll be able to invent ways—often qualitative rather than numerical—to find out how your ministry is touching people. Often—once again—it is as simple as just asking people whether they experienced what you hoped they would.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to ask if they would recommend you!

3. Don’t keep your metrics under a bushel.

Some churches print attendance figures in the bulletin each week. By doing so, they’re saying, “We believe attending worship is important!” Others print their cash collection totals. And still others give space in their bulletins for “affirmations”: statements of appreciation of those who been especially helpful, kind, or spiritually wise that week.

Leaders pay attention to the things they measure. Our true values are reflected in the measurements we share. Two small churches both decided to give away the cash placed in their offering plates. One month the money goes for fuel assistance, and the next it’s Meals on Wheels. Like most congregations that decide to do this, both saw their offering-plate cash skyrocket. Both churches felt successful. In one of the churches, that was that.

But in the other, ushers counted up the total every week in time to thank the congregation just before the benediction. They tallied the amount in their bulletin and e-newsletter. And on the last Sunday of each month, the pastor told a story about how someone was helped by those gifts. Which church raised more money, do you think?

Religious leaders—and especially professionals—often have a bias against numbers. That’s partly just a matter of professional specialization, math anxiety, or envy of those who have more to count.

We rationalize that faith is about “more than numbers.” And it’s true that numbers rarely capture the real goals that a congregation aims to reach. But once you’ve set a goal, it’s usually better to achieve more of it than less. It’s better to transform the lives of twenty teenagers than ten. It’s better to feed fifty seniors than just twenty. So in addition to doing ministry or living faithfully, it helps to measure what you’ve done and let people know that you have done it.

Wouldn’t you be apt to recommend a church that did?

1566997380 Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, which has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.