Mark Twain popularized the saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Manipulated and misrepresented numbers bolster a weak argument by signifying false credibility. In “How to Read Numbers,” brothers Tom and David Chivers expose common mistakes in using numbers by the media. The media’s goal of maximum engagement lends itself to the use of numbers to create titillating headlines and controversial stories. The Chivers write brief chapters, addressing one numerical fallacy at a time, each with specific examples, revealing how numbers can create an illusion rather than report reality. Each chapter also includes the correction that allows statistics to represent fact, not hype. A book about numbers portends dry and dull content, but this book contains humor and prose that makes for an easy and educational read. This book informs any cultural moment to comprehend information accurately. However, its relevance in this day of reactive, quick thinking, often fueled by fear, offers specific value to diffuse unnecessary conflict or anxiety based on misinformation.
While scanning the various chapters, one fallacy immediately related to a personal experience in my ministry past. Chapter 19, “The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy,” details two mistakes with numbers. First, multiple predictions made can result in a few fulfillments out of the many made. The Chivers state, “…when you find people who did predict something, it’s tempting to believe that they had some extraordinary foresight, and that we should have listened to them at the time.” If you make enough predictions, you will get a few right, but that does not make you clairvoyant. Second, this fallacy also exposes the tendency to define the goal after acting. The Chiver’s example reads, “…if someone shoots a machine gun randomly at a barn door, and then goes and draws a bullseye around any clusters of bullet holes they make, then they can make themselves look like a good shot.” Ministry in any context, and certainly in the church, can prove susceptible to the second fallacy. Work begins, and whatever the result, it gets painted as the target.
One of my most painful experiences illustrates the Sharpshooter Fallacy. A decade ago, a couple wanted to start a food pantry at the church to serve the working poor. In a city where multiple food pantries exist, a goal beyond merely food distribution needed inclusion. The stated goal of the ministry at that time sought to introduce people to faith after first encountering people of faith at the food pantry. The financial commitment to support the allocation of resources needed to stock the pantry began with a modest amount. The promise of meeting a specific need and facilitating a spiritual journey received all the approvals needed. A team formed, and the food pantry began. The pantry team fed an increasing amount people over the next two years. However, the goal of seeing people begin a spiritual journey did not materialize at all. The leadership of the ministry and the Board, including me, met to discuss how to proceed. The leaders of the food pantry championed the goal of feeding people only. The spiritual goal, so clear at the outset, was no longer represented by anyone involved in the ministry. In that meeting, the pantry leaders demanded more financial support, namely a church commitment of five percent of the annual budget. We denied the “request” as it created a use of the budget we would not apply in any other arena. If the budget lags, we eventually need to reduce our staff size but the pantry team wanted a guarantee of committed resources no matter the state of finances. The meeting did not end well, and soon after, animosity existed from the pantry team toward the church leadership. Eventually, the team left the church poorly by sharing their version of the story with many.
To adapt the Chiver’s analogy, “we aimed at introducing people to faith, but we feed the working poor. What a great result, right?” How can anyone be against feeding those in need? How many times in ministry does that same dynamic unfold? A ministry begins, and whatever the result becomes the bullseye. I believe we need to leave enough room for God to surprise us with results we did not anticipate in advance. At the same time, not everything that results from certain efforts helps to fulfill the mission and vision. Leaders carry the burden of determining what contributes to the fulfillment of the mission. If a leader is unwilling to eliminate efforts that do not benefit the mission and vision, resources will eventually be overextended and efforts misaligned.
My takeaway from that painful time includes greater clarity before beginning any ministry efforts with those who will lead. That clarity helps those serving and those in church leadership. Leaders can commit the same fallacy. Just as we do not want people to change the target, leaders owe it not to do the same. Leadership needs a clear sense of direction about any efforts and how much leeway there is. Church leaders can seek too much control in ministry efforts, not factoring God’s dynamic, sometimes unpredictable, work into the effort. However, I believe those serving and church leaders are more prone to serving and championing whatever the result. May we find and maintain an appropriate balance.
 Tom Chivers and David Chivers, How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust them) (London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 2021), 133.
 Ibid., 136.