Submitted by the Rev. C. Dennis Shaw
Rocky Mountain Conference Statistician
Numbers versus Narrative,
Data versus Information,
Counting versus Measuring
I have long believed that numbers do not tell the whole story. In fact, I have long believed that without some narrative, numbers rarely tell very much, if any of the story
Numbers do not in of themselves generally speak for themselves. Numbers are often simply data. We often require narrative to move numbers from a state of being data to a state of being helpful. It isn’t big data we require, we too often have that. What we need is big information.
Numbers generally, not always, but generally, need someone to provide an interpretation to what they mean within the larger narrative. In our particular case, this larger narrative is that of the church. What do the numbers mean against the backdrop of the transformative mission of the United Methodist Church?
It is my desire to provide information which adds value that is not found elsewhere. I believe that numbers by themselves are not generally helpful or even preferred.
Further, it is never my purpose to introduce anxiety into our system. I once heard it said that excessive candor can be like sand thrown into a machine that doesn’t work well in the first place. It is not my objective to introduce capricious anxiety. Rather, my objective is to use information drawn from numbers to help form part of the narrative towards the construction of suggestions to where we might look to better understand, and address, our decline.
Gil Rendle makes the point in Doing the Math of Mission that if we are not careful; we focus on counting, and not on measuring.
Rendle posits that counting doesn’t actually tell us very much. It is when we start to compare numbers, often in relationship, that we start to gain understanding. Comparing ourselves over time, against other churches, against other conferences, are ways to bring wisdom to what starts off as a count.
A person, who simply counts, can only tell you that $537,891 (for example) was spent by a church or a church organization last year. Yes, that’s a number, but there’s not much value in it, no insight. The statement doesn’t pass the “so what and who cares?” test.
A person who measures things wants to know a lot more: What was it in the past? What is it today? Where do you want it to be in the future? What’s the value of the difference? What is the “so that” answer that is driven by the tracking of a particular number? These are questions that help measure metrics and give organizations answers.
Over the last several years I have written in words that are in our Annual Conference Journal or Annual Conference Booklet:
“Time provides an excellent starting point to compare Rocky Mountain Conference (RMC) membership and attendance. Our attendance decline for the ten years is proportionally greater than our membership loss.”
“Numbers have souls. Numbers tell a story. The souls and stories are best understood when compared.”
“Our connectional story takes on increased soul when we look at data across this element of the connection using a standard metric.”
“As with a similar chart from last year’s Annual Conference report, I believe Chart 1 points to a story needing serious reflection by our RMC and local church leadership: deaths are exceeding confirmations. The nature of the ratios on this chart has been true for many years, and this is not an isolated one year outlier.”
Is that counting, or is that measuring? I believe it is measuring, and it is in measuring that we migrate from a conversation only about numbers for the sake of numbers and start to attempt to understand a larger narrative.
Gil Rendle makes another point in Doing the Math of Mission that our outputs are often unclear so we measure inputs. Rendle posits that our traditional measurement of professions of faith (new Christians), baptisms, confirmations and worship attendance are not outputs but are rather inputs that allow us to be about our transformative work. Until that is shown to be incorrect, I am going to hew to the course that this traditional measurement is still valid but as indicators of our ability to provide the component forces to transform the world. I offered during the 2014 Annual Conference that it will be difficult to transform the world without disciples. I still hold that view. I will concede there are most assuredly non-traditional means by how it is we measure the growth in our discipleship. Thoughts on those are most welcome.
This electronic corner of the Rocky Mountain Conference Website will be a location where over time, I pray that we start to demonstrate capability in the art and nuance of measurement, and from that, we gain informative insight into the narrative of the Conference.
Report One - Dated June 9, 2015
This is a very short, high-level of analysis. I invite a review of the notes in the report. I am gratified by the increases in Christian Formation and the number of people involved in mission activities. That is good if validated. I think the decline in budgetary giving which corresponds roughly with the decline in attendance (by percentage) warrants more analysis.
Over time, we will add more reports.
This version of the statistician’s report is dated June 9, 2015