leadership

The Dawn of Vision and The Role of Pastor

Photo by  Karl Magnuson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Karl Magnuson on Unsplash

There is a story about the nature of spiritual disciplines that goes something like this:

A student asked the teacher, “What effect do the spiritual disciplines have on gaining salvation?” The teacher said, “As much effect as you have on causing the sun to rise.” To which the student asked, “Then why practice the disciplines at all?” Looking to the east the teacher said, “So that we are awake to witness the sunrise.”

Too often we church leaders think that it is our job to “come up with the vision” of the church. And some might say this is true. I offer that it is not the leader that comes up with the vision but it is God’s vision that leaders are trying to articulate. This means the leader must be engaged in spiritual disciplines so as to not miss the sunrise.

The vision for a church is like the sunrise. It is a gift an it comes slowly. It is not the leaders job to cast the vision but to help and show people how to stay awake to the breaking of God’s vision. The pastoral leader is not the one who decides what the vision is, but the one who calls people to look eastward for the coming vision of dawn. The faithful church is less interested in deciding what to do and more interested in where to face.

Goodhart's Law and the Church

On a recent episode of Planet Money entitled The Laws Of The Office, they bring to light Goodhart’s law. The hosts define Goodhart’s law in this way, “if a company decides to measure something, workers will find a way to respond with good numbers.”

https://towardsdatascience.com/unintended-consequences-and-goodharts-law-68d60a94705c

https://towardsdatascience.com/unintended-consequences-and-goodharts-law-68d60a94705c

The Wikipedia entry quotes Marilyn Strathern who summarized the law as: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

This got me thinking about the Church, specifically when the Church decides to measure things. Like other organizations, the Church measures a number of inputs in an attempt to get a full picture of the state of the Church. If Goodhart’s Law is true, once we choose a measure to measure our Churches, it is no longer a helpful measure because people will find ways to respond with good numbers.

In theology terms, this is called living under the Law. Living under the Law means that when we find ways to measure, humans, who are susceptible to Sin, will find ways to look good under the parameters of the Law. Knowing where we stand in relation to others is a key characteristic to Law living.

The Gospel smashes these hierarchies and comparisons. The Gospel proclaims that everyone is forgiven and make whole. This leveling of the playing field is met with great suspicion when we live under the Law (how can we know who is the best or at least who has “earned” the honor we give them?) Recall when Jesus’ parable of the workers who each received the same wage regardless of hours spent working? Or the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first? Jesus proclaimed a Gospel of freedom from the Law.

Even Goodhart’s Law.

Preacher-Comic-Musician-Social Activist Gospel Loop

There is a bit of an interesting cycle in the preacher world that is perhaps not unique but nonetheless real. It goes like this:

The preacher wants to be a comic because there is something the preforming comedy that allows you to speak truth to power with a joke and a nod.

The comic wants to be a musician because they get the crowds and music has a broader reach to get their message out.

The musician wants to be a social activist because social work can transform peoples lives.

The social activist wants to be able to inspire people’s hearts and not just their hands and thus gives speeches to crowds - looking a lot like a preacher.

Photo by  Eduardo Sánchez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eduardo Sánchez on Unsplash

And the cycle is complete.

As I read the four gospels, I see this cycle at play. Luke is the social activist who desires to raise our awareness of the margins. Matthew is the preacher who builds the whole gospel on five sermons of Jesus. Mark is the comic being able to speak truth to power with a little joke (“Don’t tell anyone I am the messiah” - Jesus). John is among the most poetic and even dare I say, musical gospels we have.

Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Muller's book, The Tyranny of Metrics, examines how fixating on creates a number of problems. The author states:, 

This book is not about the evils of measuring. It is about the unintended negative consequences of trying to substitute standardized measures of performance for personal judgment based on experience. The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics, but metric fixation.

The book reads as a cautionary tale for the Church. The more the Church reads reports that "our numbers are in decline" the tighter we cling to metrics. As the Church faces a legitimacy and relevancy crisis in the culture, there is a temptation to fixate on metrics as a way to show legitimacy and relevancy. 

As the author says, metrics are not evil. It is difficult to diagnose a problem if there are not some measurements we can look at over time to make adjustments. It was once said to me that the numbers we look at in the church are similar to the numbers a doctor looks at when you go in for a check up. These "check up" numbers do not tell you everything about your health, but they are a starting point. If your breathing is consistently slow it could mean you are a super healthy marathoner but it could also mean you are close to death.

It is the fixation on metrics that is creeping into the Church that is a cause for concern. 

So what does metric fixation look like? Muller describes it in this way:

  • The belief that it is possible and desirable to replace judgment, acquired by personal experience and talent, with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics)
  • The belief that making such metrics public (transparent) assures that institutions are actually carrying out their purposes (accountability)
  • The belief that the best way to motivate people within these organizations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance, rewards that are either monetary (pay-for-performance) or reputational (rankings)

Paradoxically using metrics as the means to gain a sense of clarity of a situation and using metrics as the primary measure of success creates misaligned incentives. For instance, the surgeon who wants to have more patients may talk about how many successful surgeries they have preformed. However, what she/he fails to communicate is that the they only take cases that have a high probably of success to begin with. Thus the "successful' surgeon may not who you want for your complicated surgery. This example might be called, "creaming" the numbers. That is the surgeon counts only the "cream of the crop." The patient and the surgeon have misaligned incentives. 

Muller points out a series of reoccurring flaws in using metrics:

  1. Measuring the things that are easy to measure (such as people in worship) 
  2. Measuring inputs (such as money) over outcomes (such as a transformed life)
  3. Creaming (counting only the best)
  4. Lowering standards (calling a gathering a worship, then add those numbers to weekly worship total)
  5. Omitting or distorting data (such as double counting a person who attends more than worship hour on Sunday)
  6. Cheating (such as when the preacher adds to the numbers because "it felt like there were more people there...")

The reality is metric fixation is killing clergy and creating cultures where churches are dominantly assessed through what is easily counted rather than through the Spirit. How we overcome metric fixation is a difficult but not impossible process. Metrics are only a small picture of reality, but because it is a number it weighted heavier. Metrics give the impression of concreteness and accessibility to situations that are ambiguous and complex. There is a desire to simplify the complexities of the world giving us a false sense of control and understanding. 

Fixating on metrics means that when a church provides their "check up" numbers, we forget that sometimes the heartbeat of the church looks good because there is a pacemaker modifying the heartbeat. Just because a church looks strong in the metrics might mean they are "juicing" in subtle (and even purely motivated) ways. Just because a church looks weak in the metrics does not mean that the church is dying or failing. 

And even if it is dying, the Church of Jesus Christ is not dead for too long because Sunday is coming.