Sabermetrics and Church Stats

Sabermetrics and Church Stats
April 2, 2015 Dan Wunderlich

As a pastor who was already planning on taking next Monday off to recover from Holy Week, I cannot tell you how excited I am that it corresponds with the start of baseball season. If you join me in this unofficial holiday known as Opening Day, you will likely see lots of discussions about stats. More than any other sport, baseball is a game that is obsessed with what can be measured. Just take a look at a player’s page on Fangraphs, and you will see a dizzying array of numbers and charts. Thanks to new technology, the use of advanced statistics to study baseball (or “sabermetrics“) is only increasing.

However, not everyone is a fan. The book/movie Moneyball portrays well the conflict between people who rely on advanced statistics and the traditional scouts who rely on the “eye test.” There are daily debates on MLB Network Radio between analysts and former players who are for or against the rise of the spreadsheet.

We have seen the growth of stats in the church as well. Worship attendance and budget numbers alone are no longer sufficient. In the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, we are required to report three additional statistics for each week–participation in discipleship groups, professions of faith/new members, and service outside of the church (known collectively as Missional Vital Signs). Later this spring, our district is giving each church the Natural Church Development survey to measure eight different metrics. Add these to annual Charge Conference and Year End Statistical Reports, and each church has a wealth of data at their fingertips.

However, as with baseball, this is not without controversy. I can’t tell you the number of pastors who don’t take these things seriously because they assume no one reads them–including at their own church! I have met other pastors who use even just the five Missional Vital Signs to compare year-over-year data and identify trends. Anytime a new analytical process is introduced, there is a collective groan from the clergy who don’t see how a spreadsheet can measure the true health of a church, and there is a silent smirk from the pastors who are hungry for new metrics.

It will come as no surprise to people who follow posts on this site that I think both traditional and new methods of assessment are valuable and can enhance one another. In baseball, the eye of a good scout can see the potential in a young player who needs a couple tweaks, while advanced stats may help identify the specific areas to tweak. The qualitative report of the scout casts a vision, while the quantitative data from the spreadsheet gives direction.

When we rely on church stats without an eye on the Spirit, we may end up running a really great organization, but we lose the most important element that makes this organization a church. When we focus on “feel” without utilizing the data we have available to us, we create blindspots and neglect an avenue through which the Spirit can speak. Often times, the strengths and preferences of the senior pastor and/or church leadership dictate which way a church leans, so perhaps the first step is finding people with complementary skills and perspectives.

Does your church rely more on the qualitative or the quantitative? What statistics does your church collect, and what things do you wish you were measuring? What avenues do your church members have to give qualitative feedback, and do you encourage and empower your people to use these avenues? Once you have data, what do you do with it? What ideas do you have about how the church can use both effectively?

Image by Flickr user Intel Free Press. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited from Original.

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