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Dashboards, Discernment, and Responsible Leadership

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Yes, that’s a big collection of topics, but I think they’re connected. John Meunier links to an excellent post by Dan Dick, which you should read before you read this one. The topic here is the conference dashboards in United Methodist annual conferences, such as this one for the North Alabama Conference.

I do have substantial problems with the church dashboard, including a great deal of the way in which the statistics are presented. I also am concerned about numerical measures of success in the church. It’s quite possible to build up numbers and be missing the mission and ministry of the church, and the proclamation of the gospel message. Some people will leave a church that is aiming for full commitment and discipleship. At the same time, as Dan Dick pointed out, some people’s professed disdain for such numbers is the result of laziness. But all of this has been thoroughly discussed amongst the Methodist blogs.

It seems to me, however, that the use of these numbers on conference dashboards is just a symptom of a certain retreat from personal responsibility. I don’t mean by this that our United Methodist bishops are off trying to avoid hard decisions. Rather, we are systematically trying to codify and quantify so much of human behavior and organizational policy that not only can avoid taking personal responsibility; they must.

For example, in my district, the district superintendent has 53 churches for which he is responsible, and the conference as a whole has more that 600 pastors, for which our bishop is responsible. Each year, pastoral appointments are made by the bishop, with the advice of the cabinet and many people in the churches, for those 600 churches. I think the temptation is going to be very strong to put some kind of simplified set of numbers on performance. The more details you have to consider, the harder it is to make a choice.

What I wonder is how often a bishop could get by with ignoring the numbers because, let’s say, one pastor is making better disciples, even if his numbers (for some reason) didn’t look as good. Could the popular pastor with the watered-down message be overlooked in favor of the pastor with the harder message of sacrifice and service? I recognize here that the pastor with the good numbers may be an effective disciple maker. I know some pastors in that category. The pastor with the bad numbers may be either lazy, or much more likely simply too beat up by parishioners, the system, and the unrealistic expectations we have for pastors that he is, in fact, performing badly.

But can the leadership determine this with accuracy in all (or nearly all) cases? Would they be willing to send the less popular pastor to a larger church?

It seems to me that collecting statistics is valuable, though I think someone well qualified in analyzing data should rework the conference display. I sense a few cases of deceptive use of numbers. Most importantly, the numbers are not related to the nature of the existing church body and the community in which it is located. All of that requires personal knowledge such as cannot be collected remotely.

But what if such information was collected and available? Would our leadership be willing to act against popular pressure? I see this as a common problem in leadership, at least in the United States today. We have a problem making a decision and standing up for it. Of course, in employment situations, the decisive leader may well have to present statistics as evidence in court in order to justify a decision.

That’s one reason for “zero tolerance” policies in so many cases. “Zero tolerance” means that people in leadership don’t have to make responsible, nuanced decisions. But “zero tolerance” is just the extreme case of avoiding responsibility. Putting it all on a set of numbers is another one. It’s a trend I don’t like, even though I recognize it as a response to the other extreme–a complete lack of accountability. (I have tremendous respect for Bishop Willimon, for example, whose dashboard I linked as an example. Yet I’m still not happy with it.)

I ramble because I don’t know a solution, other than to say we need leaders to take responsibility, and we need to make sure we know who is responsible for what, so they can be accountable. I also think we need to bring leadership closer to the local church so that each person in leadership is responsible for a reasonable number of people and churches. That would allow individuals to seek out all those nuances that back up the numbers.

I don’t know the solution, and since I am neither a pastor nor a church administrator, and have avoided most church committees, I am probably the wrong person to propose one. What I do believe is that, though structural changes can help, the answer doesn’t lie in precisely how the church is organized. There are congregational style churches that are just as dysfunctional as any Methodist church whose bishop sent the “wrong” pastor.

What we do need is a change of our personal culture, from that of an organization that must maintain itself to one of gospel driven discipleship.

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