How does a pastor measure her success? How does a church leader rate his impact week by week? As ignoble as they sound, questions like these are with us all the time. In rare moments of honesty, I hear them in the confession of colleagues struggling with their adequacy. I hear them, too, hidden in the bravado of the over-confident — the ones who need to tell you all the time just how successful their churches are. For both, I suspect, the questions are the same: Am I doing any good? Am I kicking goals? Am I really up for this? And how can I know?
The ‘right’ answer is obvious. I’ve heard it before: ‘It’s not about success, Simon, it’s about faithfulness. Be faithful to God and let success take care of itself.’ Yeah, ok. But honestly, faithfulness? Isn’t there something a bit more … countable? Frankly, we crave more than a ‘chestnut’ to assess our impact, no matter how truthful. What we want are numbers!
Numbers tell us things. Numbers make success measurable. If there are ten more people this Sunday than last, that’s good, right? If the pews are more obviously full this year than they were last year, that’s a goal, right? If the offerings are on the up, that’s a clear indicator of success, right? To say no to any of this is disingenous. Whether we like it or not, numbers matter to us. Numbers are tangible and, given they’re headed in the right direction, they make a pastoral report look so much better! That said, numbers like these are also the bane of a pastor’s life. They are extraordinarily fickle things — slippery, and so very hard to hold for any length of time. Numbers can be used to stroke your ego one day and hit you over the head the next. Numbers can hurt.
Years ago, as a young pastor-in-training, I spent time in the US. I stayed with a seasoned pastor and his family, sitting at their dining room table for Sunday lunch over several months. After each Sunday service and on his way out the door, the pastor was handed a little slip of paper. On it were three numbers: the day’s participants in all-age Sunday School, the offerings for the morning, and the number of worshippers in attendance that day. The slip of paper would sit just to the right of his lunch plate as we ate, and I would watch his mood rise or fall week by week depending on the trend of those figures. The truth is, he was a far more gifted pastor than I will ever be, but as I watched the weekly impact of those numbers on his sense of worth, I remember thinking, ‘God, save me from this!’
Certainly the desire for numerical measures of success in the church, while not always nobly inspired, is human. In the midst of all the vagaries of pastoral ministry, it’s good to have something we can count. Besides, aspiring to growth through what we do is surely worthwile. Without vision, longing, aspiration, ministry can stagnate. It can even start to smell. Occasionally, as I walk through our old sanctuary at Collins Street (when no one else is around), I stop and imagine. I imagine the sanctuary full of people, the gallery overflowing with worshippers. I hear the stories of the golden days, the days when you had to have a ticket to get a seat, when neighbouring theatres had to be booked to cope with the crowds. Yes, it was a long time ago, a different age, but it’s still a great story. Who wouldn’t aspire to the visible signs of a vital and growing congregation, no matter what the context?
I suspect an important question for pastors is around just what the signs of spiritual vitality are in a church. After all, if we’re going to measure things, we need to measure the right things. What’s more, any measuring we do needs to be done with a generous dose of humility, for there’s a good chance that, held captive by numbers, we become blind to more significant truths. In my experience, there is so much to the deepening of faith in a church — things that cannot be tallied on a spreadsheet. Indeed, there’s a great deal about the church as a living, fragile organism of faith that is intangible and defies the simple trajectory of graphs and charts. While numbers can tell us things important to ministry — things to which we need to pay attention — they can also be deceptive. Numbers can hide as much as they reveal.
Frankly, I don’t know how one measures success in church leadership. What’s more, I’m rarely comfortable with those who say they do. While I suspect there’s a legitimate need for doing so — a place for KPIs, numerical targets and counting things — I am also conscious that the church I lead is not a business and that I dare not reduce our evaluation of mission to measuring market share. What I do know is that the call to follow Jesus is a call as much to loss as gain, as much to a downward journey as an upward trajectory. Because of this, a pastor’s self-evaluation demands a level of rigour and grace that numbers alone will never provide.