{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Sabermetrics: If It’s Worth Counting in the Church, It’s Worth Counting Right

There’s a growing discussion in the church these days over whether or not we should use statistics as a tool to evaluate ministry. One side says “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting” (to paraphrase Will Willimon) while the other side argues that we should prioritize the subjective over the objective — after all, how can you measure spiritual transformation.

Honestly, I can sympathize with both sides of the debate. Statistical data does help monitor health whether it’s taking one’s blood pressure or measuring the bottom line of an organization. Numbers may not give a complete story, but they can give indicators that help tell a larger story. On the other hand, numbers fail to tell certain parts of a story. My blood pressure say nothing about my personal character. Likewise, bottom-line numbers like profit margin say very little about overall working conditions and employee morale. We have to admit that while numbers do help us evaluate, they cannot be the sole tool for evaluation.

All of this begs the question: If we are moving to a culture where numbers are used more, can we figure out a way to use the right numbers in the right ways? In other words, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth counting — and if it’s worth counting, it’s worth counting right.

How Could We Count the Right Things the Right Way?

Sabermetrics is a new phenomenon in Major League Baseball. If you’re not a baseball fan, maybe you’ve seen the movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill? That movie was the story of how the Oakland A’s used sabermetrics to field a playoff quality team full of relatively unknown players. The basic premise of sabermetrics says we can make better evaluations through the use of objective data. What makes sabermetrics unique is its use of complex formulas that offer a more complete composite report. For example, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. This is an example of how sabermetrics thrives on using more than one metric at a time to make an evaluation.

So what does this have to do with the church?

What if we could create a sabermetrics system to aid in evaluating churches and clergy? 

The complaint over the current proposed set of metrics annual conferences and denominational leaders are using is that it’s too simplistic and doesn’t give a thorough enough analysis. I would agree. New members added cannot tell the whole story of growth in a congregation. Further, membership says very little about discipleship because membership and discipleship are often two very different tasks.

But what if we could employ a formula that could track new members for 3, 5, or even 10 years as they get plugged into the life of a local congregation? What if there was a composite formula for scoring local congregations on adding people to meaningful ministries after they join in membership? 

How could we measure missional activity? Is there a way to use the numbers provided in charge conference reports in such way as to score the overall missional activity of a congregation? Could baptisms play into the missional activity of a congregation instead of just growth numbers?

Could small groups be divided based on content so bible studies and practical theology affect different areas of analysis? What about Sunday School? How would long-term studies like Disciple be scored with multiple short-term studies?

How could average worship attendance be viewed as something more than just a means to track how many butts are in seats every Sunday?

The Big Question: How would these numbers be used?

In his book, The Sabermetric Manifesto, David Grabiner writes:

Bill James defined sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Thus, sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as “which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team’s offense?” or “How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?” It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favorite player?” or “That was a great game.”

Therefore, sabermetrics cannot be expected to give subjective analysis. It is a means to put objective data up against a subjective story in the hopes of giving a more full narrative account. Obviously disciples of Jesus Christ cannot be mass-produced which is why sabermetrics could offer a more faithful way of monitoring growth and progress that is slow and very detailed in nature.

But what if sabermetrics can aid Bishops and Cabinets in appointment-making. Instead of using salary and tenure as the primary drivers for making appointments, what if complex data was available so that clergy strengths and church needs could be better matched up? How would our culture of salaries and entitlement need to change to allow this to happen?

Could sabermetrics offer a means to address missional concerns in appointment making? How would Bishops and Cabinets need to work with local churches so as to make room for longer pastoral appointments if that means missional needs are being met?

Likewise, could sabermetrics offer a more objective approach at defining ineffectiveness that takes into account a variety of concerns and does not favor unfair data like number of new members, avg. worship attendance, etc.? If sabermetrics could tell a more full story of ministry, surely it can also track ineffective ministry in a way that is less biased and more faithful to the overall health of the church.

I don’t know the answer to many of these questions — they’re above my pay grade and experience level. However I do think we should be asking tougher questions. If we’re in fact moving to a culture of more counting, then let’s count the right things the right way and use the data in a faithful way for the betterment of the Church and God’s mission.

Otherwise, we’re just creating ways to prop up a dying institution. Who wants to get excited about that?

What are your thoughts? Is there hope for using data in a healthy way that better tells the full story of ministry?