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

Responsible Reporting

Written by: on February 8, 2024

Back in the days before I received the smackdown call from God to prepare for vocational ministry, I was a sales manager in the sporting goods industry. The sales reps were pretty competitive and there was a lot of strutting around by the ones with the biggest territories. In a straight commission game, the biggest territory meant making the most money. My responsibilities included sales tracking and reporting. I made reports for sales by product, by category, and by sales rep. It is one thing to reduce a person’s job performance to a number, but another entirely to share it publicly.  When we gathered for sales meetings, I shared the reports from the front of the room on a big screen, with everyone gathered together. Over time I became sharply aware that by presenting in this way the reports could be used as tools to motivate or weapons to harm. [1] How could I report the truth and support the team? Context and a wider view had to be considered.

Actual Sales
Northeast  $  225,789
Southeast  $  398,789
Northwest  $  144,223
Southwest  $  237,301
Total  $  1,006,102

Without context it looks like ‘Southeast’ did the best. But when the sporting goods in question is SCUBA equipment it makes sense that geographically favorable territories post higher gross sales. But big numbers do not always tell the story.

Goal Actual Increase/Decrease
Northeast  $  200,000  $  225,789 112.9%
Southeast  $  500,000  $  398,789 79.8%
Northwest  $  100,000  $  144,223 144.2%
Southwest  $  200,000  $  237,301 118.7%
Total  $ 1,000,000  $  1,006,102 100.6%

Did it take you a minute to see it? When compared against goal, the Southeast rep grossly underperformed and the smallest territory actually grew the most.

What about now? Adding the colors means the mind does not need to sift and sort the numbers but can go straight to the bottom line. The rep for Southeast missed goal by over 20% in spite of every other territory increasing in sales. Younger me made the mistake of putting up a chart similar to this without considering the immediate emotional impact. That year, 2005, included headlines like “Katrina’s Fury” meaning the geographic region was devastated by a natural disaster that impacted both commerce and recreational activities.

This example is only about making sense of some re-imagined sales numbers, but represents the kinds of nuanced thinking needed to make sense of statistical data. When presented with statistical evidence, especially in an emotion inducing chart or graph, I have work to do. It starts with noticing the feelings produced by the image. Did the way the information was presented, in this case using color, increase the emotional reaction? Are my previously held beliefs being reinforced? “I knew that rep for the Southeast was lazy!” Because I thought the guy was lazy and the chart of my own making gave me a gut punch, I let it go up in bright lights in front of the others as a bird’s eye view of how each territory was contributing to the bottom line. The worm’s eye view, the personal experience of not only the sales rep, but millions affected by a storm, was necessary to accurately convey reality.[2] Today I know that two things can be true at the same time.

Presenting a room full of men (they were always men) with a measurement of their performance required creativity and sensitivity to help them remain open and positively engaged in our work. Sometimes I missed the mark.  I am now seeing how useful that experience can be in helping pastors navigate news headlines about the state of the church.  Folks out here love to say that “Oregon is the least churched state” but I have not seen that proven in any study. I even know a pastor who turns that questionable ‘fact’ into a more memorable one-liner by referring to Oregon as the “carcass of Christianity.” I doubt the efficacy of pastors in sharing the Good News and spreading hope if they reinforce a mindset of defeat.

Author Rick Richardson claims the American church has succumbed to what he calls “Chicken Little Syndrome” and is harming itself with a “sky is falling” mentality. In the children’s story, Chicken Little ran around repeating the false belief that the sky was falling. [3] You Found Me sets about debunking commonly repeated myths about the church and replacing them with hope-filled statistics. Armed with my life experience, Richardson’s statistics, and the tools from Tim Harford I can point towards hope rather than join the chorus of negativity.



[1] Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers (London: The Bridge Street Press, 2021), 262.

[2] Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers (London: The Bridge Street Press, 2021), 66.

[3] Rick Richardson, You Found Me: New research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2019), 33.

About the Author

Julie O'Hara

17 responses to “Responsible Reporting”

  1. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hi Julie! Oh boy, this article gave me a smile (and some PTSD). I have been in sales and sales management all my life and have experienced some of what you discussed.
    I loved how you brought in your numbers and what perceptions happen without full knowledge.
    Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve by integrating your experiences in sales management with your ministry?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Chris, Does your question force me to make syntopical connections? *smiling* Right now I am using skills from managing multiple deadlines (like seasonal product launches) to create momentum for the project I’m leading. Through this project I hope to deliver a quantifiable impact on the churches that participate. We are in the process of setting up metrics for that purpose. Good results will drive greater participation and contribute to sustainability.

  2. Jeff Styer says:

    Nice reflection on how you used numbers in your previous job. I found myself presenting numbers this week during a class. I was doing a “canned” training on suicide prevention and there was a slide representing how each state ranked in suicides. Ohio ranked 32 with a rate of 14.1. But I found myself in front of the group asking what does 14.1 mean. 14.1 suicides per ? There was nothing attached to the slide that answered that question. Context is so important like in the example you provided. I’m so glad we can learn from our past experiences and incorporate those with new knowledge to become more effective leaders.

  3. Nancy Blackman says:

    You bring up an interesting aspect other than presenting research and data — color coding! Artists learn how to draw the human eye to a particular place—even if it’s negative space.

    What you did with the colored table, however, is to draw the eye to the one area that you wanted to bring attention to and telling the brain that the rest of the data doesn’t matter.

    You also point out the fact what many news readers know—what you read generally needs to be fact-checked even though the news agencies already have a paid fact-checker on staff.

    So, how much of this boils down to who is giving you that information and how much you trust them?

    Your thoughts?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Nancy, I was really struck by Harford’s graphic example on page 248. He mentioned how changing the color had a dramatic effect and that reminded me of these old sales reports. Taking it further – Harford challenged me with the idea that a different headline attached to the same data can “sell” a completely different message. It speaks clearly to the idea that the message is being shaped by whoever is doing the talking. More than ever I realize how important it is to check-in with my emotions and remain curious. It is especially important because many of those with whom we interact take neither of these steps.

  4. Adam Cheney says:

    Good example of how providing context to data can change the analysis fairly easily. Personally, I have never been one to like charts or graphs as they can be manipulated in ways but at the same time they are useful to tell a story if the story is being told honestly. You mentioned Oregon possibly being the least churched state. Do you see other stories in your line of work that do not quite seem to make up the entire truth?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Adam, This might sound harsh. Pastors are a lot like sales people in that they are always worried about their ‘numbers.’ They also share a penchant for deriding any numbers that don’t reflect favorably on them. “We often find ways to dismiss evidence that we don’t like.” (Harford, 26) When churches talk about attendance and giving those numbers represent PEOPLE and that sometimes gets dismissed. They are also lagging metrics. We also tend not to measure things that show where Holy Spirit might be leading a church, such as ministries that engage outward with community. My hunch is that a combination of overemphasizing traditional metrics and not wanting to look ‘bad’ minimizes new ways Jesus is moving out of traditional Sunday morning boxes.

      Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers (London: The Bridge Street Press, 2021.)

      • Adam Cheney says:

        Thanks for the honest answer. Truly, there is a need to know the numbers. It helps track churches and helps make sure we are moving in good directions.

      • mm Kari says:

        Julie, I enjoyed your post and I want to jump in on this discussion! Great question, Adam.

        My issue with data in the ministry is the inability to track the “quality” of the data. For example, you can have eight people “make the decision to accept Christ” but there is no continued discipleship or visible fruit. Another church may have two decisions, and both people grow, show fruit, and become replicating followers of Jesus in their personal live and that is not in the statistics. What do you think would help to bridge the “need” for data in ministry and still recognizing the limitations of that data?

        On another note, this was a profound statement, “I doubt the efficacy of pastors in sharing the Good News and spreading hope if they reinforce a mindset of defeat.” I agree. Hope and defeat come from different places.

        • Julie O'Hara says:

          Kari, I so appreciate the point you are making. A decision for Christ is really just a ‘point’ along a spiritual journey. In order to really track a ‘journey’ you would have to follow the same individuals over a long time. One way I have seen to also value discipleship and growth is to track participation in small groups as a percentage of attendance, participation in service, and specifically participation in service outside the church.

  5. Debbie Owen says:

    Julie, I love how you clearly show that “even statistics can be misleading” simply by the method in which they are presented. Harford’s final comments about being curious are so relevant, aren’t they? We need to be curious, for instance, about why some places in the country are “the least churches”, or why some people in those regions have that “sky is falling” mentality, instead of a “roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-your-knees” mentality. (Just made that up. Kinda like it! 😉 )

    One thing about church growth/decline stats that has me curious: Why are the megachurches continuing to grow while the small churches are continuing to decline? It may seem obvious, to some extent, but I think there’s a lot more to it than what’s on the surface.

    When you were/are presenting statistics like you share in this post, what sorts of things do you keep in mind, so as to consider the human beings behind the stats?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Debbie, I think I answered some of your question to Adam. I fully agree that we must be aware that our “product” is the Kingdom and we measure people who experience freedom and life in Christ, or not. In answering your post I realize why I use the word ‘hope’ so much. It is because I am frequently envisioning people who are ‘hopeless.’ Single dads working two jobs and feeling disconnected from their kids, addicts who have given up even trying to quit, moms whose kids fall into both of those categories…old people that have been forgotten…kids that live on garbage dumps…it never stops. Meeting Jesus might not change any of those circumstances, but it does mean not facing them alone. That is what is behind the numbers for me.

  6. Daren Jaime says:

    Hey Julie! You really went all in on this week’s blog! I so appreciate how you laid this out in plain sight for us. I have been in the secular work environment and have seen similar. You get major props from me on the highlighted graph as our eyes are trained to focus on the highlights. I am curious did you ever ask the missing question in these meetings? If so, what was the response?

  7. Julie O'Hara says:

    Thanks for the props. Feeling dense over here because I’m not sure what you mean by the missing question? Maybe that was contained in a paragraph I did not read?

  8. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hello from DLGP02,
    The carcass of Christianity caught my eye. What a statement!

    I periodically peer into other class writings. I “steal like an artist” a book that you will read. Primarily, I look at the class before me to see if I am missing something.

    Looking at your BRILLIANT Blogpost I love the way you used color to make a point.

    As I dig into immigration statistics, your comments are a welcome instruction on “how to, and what to avoid!”


  9. Julie O'Hara says:

    Thank you so much for the encouragement! I was a bit stymied when the color did not ‘paste’ from my first chart, but I pressed on with an alternative method – PTL for screenshots! See you in Washington!

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