Tom Berlin, a pastor and clergy delegate from my conference for whom I have a lot of respect, just posted a blog piece called “Facts are our friends,” which seeks to address the elephant in the room at General Conference that’s behind young clergy anxiety: how will a more strictly quantifiable method of evaluation impact our career as pastors over the next 30 years when we will face a diminishing “musical chairs” game of appointments unprecedented in the history of our denomination? Tom related the experience of using attendance data at his church diagnostically to make some adjustments that worked. Using data to make improvements makes sense; the question is how it will be used. Will it be diagnostic or evaluative? For improving or making a career decision? I’m not sure if this question is dealt with by any of the GC proposals being considered, but if the United Methodist Church ends up using data in lieu of a more subjective, pastoral evaluative process, then we will create the same kind of Spirit-killing CYA (cover your ***) culture that has ravaged the public school world I used to inhabit in the wake of “No Child Left Behind.”
When I was a public high school teacher, the principal told us that facts were our friends too. We got pep talks every fall about how we were going to climb those percentage points in the standardized testing in order to meet our adequate yearly progress (AYP) and get our $500 bonuses. I get the need for accountability. It’s absolutely appropriate. But “No Child Left Behind” has destroyed public education by creating a system that prioritizes the needs of the evaluation process over the actual quality of the teaching that’s supposedly being evaluated. As a teacher, my lesson plans were designed to prove to my evaluators that I was doing everything possible to make my classroom percentages go up, because if my kids bombed the test, I needed to have something to show the principal so I wouldn’t lose my job. I lasted two years, which is about how many years most public school teachers last. At the high school where I taught, 7 years later, 80% of the staff has turned over.
Maybe student test scores and congregational worship attendance are apples and oranges. But I worry that if the facts are not just our friends but our executioners, then pastors in downward-spiraling congregations will adopt a CYA approach to their ministry. Instead of following the Holy Spirit’s call, the perennial question will be how to prove that I’m setting goals that respond to the data I’m looking at and that somebody or something else to blame for the fact that my dying congregation will not resuscitate. I don’t think that setting goals and tracking data inevitably results in CYA culture, but it is a legitimate danger to be named.
Perhaps I’m just a Pollyanna, but I want to believe that congregational vitality is a product of our members seeing and responding to the outbreak of the kingdom of God in our midst. I think my basic task as a pastor is to name what the kingdom is doing and pray the prayer of Elisha that my people would have their eyes opened to see the chariots of fire covering the hillsides (2 Kings 6:17). I’m skeptical about the utility of strategies and formulas. Obviously we need to be good stewards and use some of what works in the world around us. Augustine referred to this as “plundering the Egyptians.” But I’m hopelessly in love with a vision of God in which He confounds the wisdom of the world and all the best-laid plans of mice and men. I don’t want the reason for our success to be that we came up with the perfectly worded mission statement and had chic-looking logos to correspond to each key word within it on state-of-the-art websites. I want to believe that we will not be delivered by God until we despair of our self-reliance, and that our present predicament can be healed only by a turn away from worldly consultant-based strategies back to the kingdom foolishness that the Wesley brothers instigated 250 years ago.
Perhaps this is the babbling of a naive young idealist. Still the question remains. How can we use the facts without building an altar to them? How can we create a connection filled with compassionate mentorship and resource-sharing instead of a paperwork-processing system? Maybe this is what you have in mind and I just don’t have all the facts. Praise God if that’s true! I am ready to give you 36 more years of passionate ministry if you can figure out how to keep the data from replacing nurture.