Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Chasing the Numbers

Written by: on May 24, 2018

What you are doing really has nothing to do with us. You’ll go home anyhow, sooner or later.’ This kind of conversation took place many times; it was an indictment of those evangelists who flew into Hong Kong, sang sweet songs about Jesus on stage and on Hong Kong television, and then jumped back into their planes and flew away again.”[1]

When writing these words, Jackie Pullinger was reflecting on her early days as a missionary in Hong Kong in 1960s, but half a century later, I’m afraid these same observations could be made about missionaries all over the world, but no one is listening because they are being made by the people that missionaries go to serve and not the missionaries themselves. In fact, as I dive into the reality of missionary effectiveness and sustainability, I have discovered a major gap in the research—no one is asking nationals to evaluate foreign missionaries. My experience tells me; however, that many French people today would make a similar statement about missionaries serving in France. What you are doing really has nothing to do with us.

Before hopping on a boat, the young Pullinger sought out the counsel of her minister, Richard Thomas. She remembers, “He never suggested that I had to achieve anything at all; I had simply to follow wherever God led.”[2]

Yes and no.

Of course missionaries are called to simply follow wherever God leads, and as Pullinger’s testimony proves, doing just that can bear great fruit for the kingdom. But what of those missionaries who bear no fruit? Is faithfulness alone sufficient? After all we’ve all heard the stories of missionaries who labor on the field for thirty years before seeing a single conversion. Certainly such perseverance is laudable! But I’m not sure it should be understood as the norm.

After all, the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25 seem to indicate that outcomes matter. This thinking, supported by many who fund missionary efforts, has lead mission agencies to develop metrics aimed at measuring missionary effectiveness. However, those metrics typically count numbers of converts or baptisms. Such a reductionist approach is also problematic.

In an article entitled “Outputs vs. Outcomes and Why it Matters,” Sheri Chaney Jones explains how many non-profit organizations miss the mark when trying to determine their own effectiveness using the following illustration:

McDonald’s sells approximately 33 million hamburgers a day.  Five Guys sells approximately 350,000 burgers daily.  Based on this information, I ask participants to decide who makes a better burger. Would you conclude that McDonald’s makes a better hamburger based on this data alone?  Of course not! … Unfortunately, many nonprofit and social service organizations are merely counting “hamburgers” and trying to use these data as proof of their effectiveness or impact. They are spending all their efforts trying to increase the numbers they serve without knowing how their services are changing their participant’s lives or circumstances.[3]

Some researchers are pushing for a more balanced approach. Dr. Paul Penley, the Director of Research for the organization Excellence in Giving, insists that Christian ministries should gather both qualitative and quantitative metrics. Penley asserts, “Tracking both faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings and numerical impact is a ‘biblical’ pattern for measuring Kingdom Outcomes.”[4]

The strength of Pullinger’s approach was what Hunter calls “faithful presence.” She was not “defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but…faithfully present within it.”[5] She writes, “My mission was to help the Walled City people to understand who Christ was. If they could not understand the words about Jesus, then we Christians were to show them what He was like by the way we lived.”[6]

But how can we measure “faithful presence” as a means of evaluating missionary effectiveness?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “What to Measure if You’re Mission Driven,” Zachary First explains how All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California has developed metrics that are helping them to better evaluate their ministries. In the article he quotes All Saints Rector Ed Bacon: “Sure, we love to see big numbers,” Bacon told me. “But what really makes our hearts beat fast is transformed people transforming the world. Membership isn’t our business. Turning the human race into the human family is.”[7]

Would the approach of All Saints work for missionary organizations as well? Perhaps.

Here’s what they’ve done. Generally, churches measure their effectiveness based on membership. Isn’t that the first question asked when pastors meet each other? “How many people do you have in your congregation?” But Bacon realized that, “Not everyone who is on a dynamic spiritual journey—and wants All Saints to be integral to it—is going to pass through the gate of membership. There is, however, one element they do share, and that is engagement.”[8] All Saints developed a “Spiritual Health Meter” to measure engagement. To illustrate how it works, First explains:

“Spiritual Health Meter” suggests to pastoral staff to whom they could be reaching out more. Jeremy Langill, All Saints’ Director of Youth Ministry, offered the example of an All Saints kid who was consistently engaged in one youth program, but uninvolved in all others. Made aware of this by the data, Langill took note when the girl’s love of board games came up in a casual conversation with her parents. He made a point to tell her about game night, and that served as a pivot point. She went on to participate in a whole range of activities, and grew far more engaged.

Measuring ministry and missions is hard and takes effort and intentionality. But as stewards of the Gospel and servants of the most high God, I believe that Christian ministers need to improve their metrics. We want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”[9]

[1] Jackie Pullinger and Andrew Quicke, Chasing the Dragon. (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2001). 59.

[2] Pullinger and Quicke. 35.

[3] Sheri Chaney Jones, “Outputs vs. Outcomes and Why It Matters,” Measurement Resources (blog), February 2, 2014, http://measurementresourcesco.com/2014/02/02/outputs-vs-outcomes-matters/.

[4] Paul Penley. “Why Christian Ministries Should Measure Results: A Response to the Mantra ‘Aim for Faithfulness Not Results!,’” July 9, 2014. Accessed April 19, 2018, http://analytics.excellenceingiving.com/post/3462014-why-christian-ministries-should-measure-results.

[5] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).277.

[6] Pullinger and Quicke, Chasing the Dragon. 56.

[7] Zachary First, “What to Measure If You’re Mission Driven,” Harvard Business Review, July 9, 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/07/what-to-measure-if-youre-mission-driven.

[8] First.

[9] Matthew 25:21 NET

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

12 responses to “Chasing the Numbers”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Well done bringing Hunter into it! Faithful presence…

    And an interesting thought about changing our metrics. I often wondered if there was a “fruitfulness” measurement out there, and you have opened my eyes to this one. Thank you and well done.

  2. M Webb says:

    Thanks for an insightful opening. It helped me remember and reflect on our missionary calling to Afghanistan and Africa. Wow! Did people think we were crazy or something. I know we can write and talk about it to others, but until you have “done it” so to speak, it is contextually an area of obedience and faith yet to be discovered. I think at best, onlookers find their own way to relate and connect with missionaries calling. Some relate because they know you, and some relate because they try to imagine themselves going, and some just are glad to have you go!
    For each of us, it is individual, special, and a great blessing with eternal consequence. Counting the cost, that is the part most of us are not really prepared for, but God knows and in His perfect timing we learn the cost, the blessings, and see brief glimpses of His glory.
    Excellent observation about Pullinger’s “ministry of presence.” I agree, sometimes that’s all the Holy Spirit wants, is our faithful presence and to live a life that others notice and see a difference, wonder why and where it comes from, and then ask questions.
    Thanks for your faithful sacrifice and service to live Christ in you to the people in France.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Mike, I would be really interested to know if you are developping metrics for your project. How will you measure if people are being successful at putting on the full armor of God?

  3. Great post as usual Jenn! I so appreciate your research into the real effectiveness of missionary work and find it surprising more organizations are not asking the people being “ministered” to evaluate the effectiveness instead of just counting “hamburgers”. I also believe God calls us but also expects us to use the noodle He gave us to minister effectively. Great work and we look forward to hanging out with you and your hubby soon!

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Yes, Jake, looking forward to seeing you next week. I do think we need to use our heads, and while God leads and directs, we are still responsible for how we engage in ministry and we need to be listening to our national partners.

  4. Greg says:

    Great aspect to view this particular book. It is easy to be in leadership and miss what is going on as one is evaluating the wrong things. I once again was thinking through our own org on what we measure and how we can be better to hold each other accountable without being caught up in the numbers game.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Greg, I’m not opposed to numbers, I think we should measure numbers, just not ONLY numbers. I’m curious what sort of metrics you use to measure your ministry.

  5. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I loved how you utilized your topic in this post and was looking forward to reading how you saw the comparison between Pullinger’s work and your research.

    I used to live near All Saints and always admired how they reached out to many who would not be a fit in so many other church spaces but also remained faithful to the gospel. Did you look up their church health meter and if so, do you think it might provide some insight into your work abroad?

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      I have not looked closely at their meter, but the HBS article did explain it pretty well. And yes, there are some things I think I can use. Especially the idea of creating a value-based scale for measuring levels of engagement. The tricky part will be figuring out what things demonstrate greater engagement and transformation in our context.

  6. Salut Jenn,

    This is a question I’ve been struggling with in my work: how to measure effectiveness. I’ve developed tools to measure outputs but that “faithful presence”, no…

    My approach now, after 18 years of doing this, is to request measurement of activity and outputs. But then – at the same time – also request anecdotal reporting of what God is doing in oneself and in one’s context. It comes out as stories. It is measured by intuition, not science.

    My feeling is that even if there are no conversions, no “apparent” fruitfulness, it could be a bad signal, but it may be ok … if there is faithful presence, it is enough. It takes discernment to uncover the reality of what is happening.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Totally agree! As I said to Greg, I’m no against using numbers, just against using ONLY numbers. And I like anecdotes, but I do think they leave a lot up for interpretation, so I’m still hoping to develop some measures that consider both faithfulness and fruitfulness, and both outputs and outcomes.

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