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

Numbers: Can I Trust Them?

Written by: on February 7, 2023

When I read the title of the book for this week’s blog post I cringed. I’m not very good with numbers. When I went to my bookshelf to retrieve, How to Read Numbers, by Tom Chivers and David Chivers it was not there. I hadn’t purchased the book! Maybe I was in denial and holding onto a desperate hope that a book with the word numbers in the title was not really required for this course. I fear math and avoid numbers! I prefer my information in quick, easily digestible, interesting, and truthful snippets. If the information comes with numbers or scientific proof all the better. I want to believe the hard work and critical thinking has already been done for me. As our reading revealed, that belief is unwise. Numbers stand for something. They often represent people or things that are important to people.[1] Since I love people and my NPO is about understanding the needs of ministry leaders, it is important I understand the meaning of the numbers I encounter on my research journey.

Math Fear Revisited

In graduate school I was required to take two number-related courses. Tests and Measurements followed by Program Evaluation tested my less than stellar math skills. I experimented with two computer programs designed for collecting and analyzing data. I attempted to understand variables, validity, reliability, mean, mode, and median, etc. My entire cohort was chanting, “B’s get degrees!” all year long. I became reasonably proficient at understanding statistical information, reading graphs, and recognizing good research studies. After reading much of this book I am questioning what remains of that ability. To read that the authors, their high-level math students, and most people in general, don’t consider themselves good at math, was a relief.[2] I still don’t believe I am good at math. I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the impressively mathematical picture below. Possibly nothing of significance!

The Truth about Numbers

Can numbers lie? If the way numbers are presented and interpreted can be a lie, then I say the answer is, yes. Vaclav Smil, author of, Numbers Don’t lie, agrees with the premise of our book, numbers can be misleading.[3] I like this simple summation best, “To get an accurate view of the world, we must place numbers in the proper context and understand how they were calculated.”[4] I want to know what’s true. Even when the truth is unpleasant or unexpected. Noticing what information might be misleading or missing raises my curiosity. Yet, I still worry about my gullibility and biases toward the topic I am researching. Refreshing my skills and checking the numbers helps me discern what information needs a closer look as I seek to understand the context of my NPO. I can’t number check everything! As I begin my research, I keep these wise words of Albert Einstein in mind.

Anecdotal Evidence and Small Sample Size

I like to give others the benefit of the doubt. I don’t discount a personal story. What a person experiences, is true for them. It may be true in some way for others, or not at all for many more. I can sit with a person’s truth without arguing against it or becoming uncertain of my own. I enjoy gathering this kind of information as it creates connection to the person and their story. It helps me understand their needs. However, a single person’s experience does not support a scientific claim.[5] I take in this information differently. I receive it for what it is. It reminds me to sit with the ambiguity and uncertainty of not knowing no matter how much of an outlier an experience may seem.

My NPO relates to the experiences of ministry leaders. My sample size is only thirty ministry leaders and their spouses. Much of the data I collected last fall was anecdotal utilizing a self-reported and anonymous survey. It is a random sample from a very specific population. I think this is an advantage. The stories I heard and the information I collected matter to my stakeholders. As ministry leaders shared their experiences, we all listened and resonated deeply. The information gathered was pertinent as the experiences were common and predictable among the group.[6] Coding self-reported surveys was a little nerve wracking, but the information gathered was clear when visualized in pie-chart graph. I am taking a broad look at a problem with a small number of people. I am pleased to discover a body of literature that corroborates my findings.

Can I trust the numbers? Yes, numbers don’t lie. However, numbers can be manipulated by those who are either misinformed, intentionally trying to deceive, or presenting information they want to believe.[7] The responsibility for sorting it all out rests with me. I must consider how well I read numbers, which numbers are important to notice and why, and how well I present them to others. Two helpful tips stand out to me moving forward: always give my sources and admit when I am wrong.[8] I will look more closely at what numbers represent and which numbers are truly important to understand. With anecdotal information, I must be aware of biases or cherry-picking tendencies on my part as I look ahead toward my project. Following the research and the needs of my stakeholders is my primary goal. I am doing this research on their behalf, not for my own benefit, or to prove a point. The numbers I collected last October in Malaysia have been shared with my stakeholders. Seeing their own numbers has already made an impact. All information is useful. Even unremarkable and boring information serves a valuable purpose in helping me discover what is true, false, unknowable, and important enough for my full attention.


[1] Chivers Tom and David Chivers, How to Read Numbers. (London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), 2.

[2] Chivers, How to Read Numbers, 2.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] “Numbers Don’t Lie,Shortform 1-Page Summary, accessed February 5, 2023. https://www.shortform.com/app/book/numbers-dont-lie

[5] Chivers, 15.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 115.

[8] Ibid., 169.

About the Author

Jenny Dooley

Jenny served as a missionary in Southeast Asia for 28 years. She currently resides in Gig Harbor, Washington, where she works as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Spiritual Director in private practice with her husband, Eric. Jenny loves to listen and behold the image of God in others. She enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her family which include 5 amazing adult children, 3 awesome sons-in-law, a beautiful soon-to-be daughter-in-law, and 6 delightful grandchildren.

14 responses to “Numbers: Can I Trust Them?”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey with statistics. Despite your questioning of what remains of your ability, I can tell from your writing on the topic that your study of the topic is fresher than mine, so I know I can go to you with questions!

    “Admit when we are wrong”… Yes, in all of these conversations, that seems to be a key component! In the past, what are some strategies you have found for helping to surface “wrongness?”

    Also, I am curious about what you learned in your experience of coding responses to self-surveys? I think that may be a skill that several of us could utilize in our work.

    • Jenny Dooley says:

      Hi Jennifer,
      Here are some basic strategies for welcoming my “wrongness.” This will not be technical. I hope that is what you are asking:)

      I hold what I am learning lightly. I welcome questions, criticism, and feedback. They help me reflect on my work and help me see things from a different perspective. I don’t take it personally if someone disagrees or doesn’t like what I am saying or discovering. I stay open to all perspectives, but I can trust my gut on things when I need hold my own.

      As I’m writing a great little book comes to mind that has nothing to do with scientific research, but I think it applies to what I’m saying. The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz states these basic rules for life: 1. Be impeccable with your word; 2. Don’t take things personally; 3. Don’t make assumptions; 4. Always do your best!

      My research isn’t going to be perfect. It will raise other questions.

      I used basic pen and paper coding strategies. I had some write-in answers for a few of my questions. That’s where the coding came in. I pulled all those responses and looked for similar themes, key words, and categorized them together, figured out the percentages, and included examples of the statements in my paper. I hope it was correct:)

  2. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I liked your take on the power of anecdotal data. Indeed in your small working group/audience those personal experiences will have TREMENDOUS impact on your NPO direction.

    On a personal note: I was hesitating about my church survey and how limited it would be. I am now questioning my collection of data (thank you Chiver’s) and want to avoid my own data collection “bias.”

    Chiver(s) also talked about instrumental variables p. 60. Inserting another variable that may impact the correlation between two major variables that you may have already identified in your stakeholder meeting? (good grief did that make sense?) Are there other instrumental variables that you could insert that would impact your small target audience. Inserting something “out of the box” to see if it impacted your course curriculum development?

    The reason I ask: Inadvertently, I may have inserted a different variable (my telephone app), into the idea that churches don’t interact with refugees BECAUSE they don’t have a plan or resources. Unintentionally (perhaps sadly), I have come up with a solution that MAY impact their involvement with refugees, BUT may not! Ouch…as Pooh Bear says..”Think, Think, Think.”

    Thanks for your comments…Shalom…Russ

    • Jenny Dooley says:

      Hi Russell,
      Now you have me thinking about other variables? I’m not quite there yet. But if this makes sense, I do wonder about some people I may have missed representing in my random sample. The sample of the broader group was mostly senior pastors and ministers between 40-65 years old. I wonder what might show up if I gave my survey to our younger ministry leaders between the ages of 25-39 years of age. Is that what you mean by instrumental variables? I am still lost with some of the terminology! It seems that just thinking a bit more about statistics is opening up new ways for both of us to think about our NPO.

      • mm Russell Chun says:

        I have to say that Chiver’s book has opened up (a can of worms) for me. The example he uses with economy/war THEN adds rain versus drought impacting both (economy/war) started me thinking on how my NPO was proposing to introduce a instrumental variable (meaning a solution). It might be presumptuous of me to expect MY solution to help the situation at all. (All though World Relief and Lutheran Family Services are interested). Sigh…I normally don’t think like this. Am I mutating?

        • Jenny Dooley says:

          It sounds like good growth to me, Russell! Thank you for clarifying the meaning of instrumental variable. I need to brush up on the vocabulary surrounding research.

  3. Kally Elliott says:

    “I can sit with a person’s truth without arguing against it or becoming uncertain of my own. I enjoy gathering this kind of information as it creates connection to the person and their story. It helps me understand their needs.” This is what is so needed in the Church today. If we could listen to one another, without needing to be right, without needing to prove ourselves, but simply to learn about the other, transformation would happen – in people on all sides of political, theological, etc sides. My question, and it is one I ask myself all the time, is when should I disagree, resist, argue? Everyone is entitled to their truth but what if that truth is harmful to someone else? It’s just something I think about.

    • Jenny Dooley says:

      Hi Kally,
      I have a few basic questions I ask myself first when deciding to engage with another person’s troublesome belief or thought:

      1. What type of relationship do I have with the person?
      2. Have I earned their trust?
      3. How dangerous is the untruth I want to confront? Is it an issue of safety? Theirs, mine, or someone else’s? Not all dilusions are dangerous.
      4. Might the person need some time to work it out for themselves?

      If I choose to bring it up:
      5. How am I going to discuss it? Can I discuss it graciously and calmly?
      6. When is the appropriate time? Where is the best place to have the discussion?

      In general, this is my approach to hard conversations.

  4. Cathy Glei says:

    I appreciated when you stated, “Even unremarkable and boring information serves a valuable purpose in helping me discover what is true, false, unknowable, and important enough for my full attention.” Boring information gives something to consider and question. I love people too and this book helped me reframe some of my angst with data. . . to frame it in a different way, considering that it represents something that is important to people.

    • Jenny Dooley says:

      Hi Cathy,
      I do find when the topic is interesting and my curiosity is piqued numbers seem more enjoyable! I often assume numbers are not about things I care about so I disregard them and don’t take a closer look. At least with statistics I get some information that is useful to me personally. After reading this book, I’m beginning to think that if the numbers don’t make sense, or come to some outrageous conclusion it might just not be due to my poor math skills.

  5. mm Tim Clark says:

    I’m with you. I tend to be a trusting person; I’d like to always be optimistic and non-cynical.

    I wonder though, without becoming overly suspicious, if a little bit of caution when it comes to numbers isn’t such a bad thing?

    when I ask myself how I can maintain caution without becoming cynical, for me the answer is to be as (or more) questioning regarding my own use of numbers as I am with others’. And, to always give people the benefit of the doubt, if not to their conclusions, at least to their motives.

    • Jenny Dooley says:

      Hi Tim, I have wanted to trust other people’s math because I couldn’t trust my own! I like your language about being cautious and curious without being cynical. I keep wondering if people are intentionally trying to deceive or we’re all just really bad mathematicians. Again, I’m thinking the best of people. But, I agree there are valid reasons to be cautious. How is working with numbers and statistics showing up in your NPO?

      • mm Tim Clark says:

        Thanks Jenny… I don’t know just yet how numbers are going to work in my NPO. I’m addressing a need for Gen Z leaders for ministry and mission in a local church, so there will be some analysis there but as a whole I think my research will be more qualitative than quantitative.

  6. mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:

    I am so grateful for you. I believe that your work will transform your stakeholders in a meaningful and lasting way.
    I love the questions that you shared with Kally. I have copied them into a separate document to use.

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