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

This Blog is 55% Better Than Previous Posts

Written by: on October 28, 2021

My first call out of seminary was pastoring a small bedroom community church.  Several attempts were made by me to start an adult Sunday school class using my newfound theological knowledge. No.One.Was.Interested.  I decided to come at it from a different angle; use entertainment to garner interest. Gospel According to the Simpsons’ was a hit! There’s great fodder for theological reflection on culture, society, and human relationships in the Simpsons’.  And who doesn’t like to be entertained?

How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Stats in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them) by Tom and David Chivers works to challenge those who devour news reports to be careful when ingesting numbers and statistics.  Their argument for caution is tethered to their statistical and science backgrounds/research; scientists and journalists often unwittingly (and intentionally for some) utilize numbers incorrectly or misleadingly.  They present a smorgasbord of ways to understand how people create and use numbers, including anecdotal evidence, biased samples, absolute and relative risk, demand for novelty, cherry picking. How to Read Numbers offers its readers knowledge in a 10-part strategy to understand statistics/percentages/ratings found in the news.  If scientists and journalists happen to learn a thing or two, and can admit they are wrong, that would just be icing on the cake for the Chivers’.

How to Read Numbers, blessedly, was an easy read (as long as I did not attempt to understand the “maths”). Admittedly, I found myself not terribly interested in all the facets of how numbers are misused that they painstakingly present. Instead, my thinking focused on the nature of humanity which creates the systemic need that scientists and journalists seem compelled to satisfy. Chivers’ consistent tie to the “publish or perish” angst, and the human hunger for excitement/novelty, certainly begs the question of what is underneath. As I thought back to A Failure of Nerve, Freidman makes the argument that out of a system’s chronic anxiety, leaders feel pushed to be experts.  The search for more information/statistics has become an addiction. The anxious need for more data creates more data, which leaves us with data junkyards being scavenged by data junkies.[1] It seems humanity is in a cyclical feeding frenzy; one must publish or perish, or at least feed the anxiety with sensationalized stories. The church is not immune from this anxiety.  Statistics aside, traditional ecclesiology is not perceived as thriving.  The need for a quick fix grounded on more data has whipped up many a pastor to read more how to books, attend more church growth conferences, and sign up for multiple leadership classes. Friedman says, “yet everywhere in our society, the social science construction of reality has confused information with expertise, know-how with wisdom, change with almost anything new, and complexity with profundity.”[2] I wonder if church leaders stepped off the data deluge treadmill, we could take a step toward lowering chronic anxiety and, in turn, help reduce the need for sensationalism.

Chivers’ talked about “cherry-picking” information to bolster the agenda of the researcher or journalist.  Immediately, I thought about the correlation to what preachers do; they preach one sermon.[3]  When done well, it is unified by the entirety of scripture, but when it is done poorly, it is by “proof-texting” (pulling a scripture out of context to prove the message of the sermon). Whether numbers or scripture, it seems the agenda shapes the interpretation.  Again, I feel compelled to ask:  how does systemic anxiety shape the agenda of the agenda makers? Chivers’ would argue that humans crave “problems with identifiable causes and solutions.”[4] Kahneman would add that our system 2’s innate laziness will initially be satisfied with causal thinking, for it seems to satisfy the anxious need for a quick fix.[5]

After finishing How to Read Numbers, I had to ask “so what?” Chivers’ unpacking of the ways journalists/researchers have handled numbers lazily, and the impact on public knowledge of numbers, pushed me to ponder how the same issues infiltrate the church. Lazy pastors have nurtured an uninformed/malformed community of faith that longs for a sensationalized Jesus. I am given the opportunity and responsibility to challenge those in my charge to engage in effortful thinking and purposeful relating with the Triune God.  I am realizing my leadership requires constant self-differentiated engagement that balances effortful thinking with thoughtful responses to the anxiety of an entertainment/sensationalism seeking culture. If I encourage the community to thoughtfully engage entertainment by pushing past the surface toward thinking critically and theologically, The Gospel According to the Simpsons’ will be 40% more likely to be integrated into spiritual growth (and I have the statistics to prove it).

[1] A Failure of Nerve. Friedman pages 103-107

[2] Ibid, pg 104

[3] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/eugene-peterson-preached-one-sermon/

[4] How to Read Numbers. Pg.4

[5] Thinking, Fast and Slow, pg 114-115

About the Author


Nicole Richardson

PC(USA) pastor serving a church in Kansas City. In my spare time I teach yoga and scuba diving

17 responses to “This Blog is 55% Better Than Previous Posts”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Nicole, you came up with the title I wish I had written! Very insightful post. You reference the push for leaders to be experts and rightly so. It made me think how in our “tribe” of churches, believers push for that dynamic in their own spiritual journey. I’ve encountered many folks who always want to learn something new or hear something they’ve never heard before. The longer I’m in ministry I wonder how much of what we already know is actually being practiced or held as a belief or value. I’m 62% sure there’s a disconnect!

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      LOLOL Roy!
      I think there has been such a push for the self-help culture. So people are continually searching for that book or conference that will help them figure it all out. I think this mindset is what many people have in relation to the church and Jesus. Speaking the Gospel into that is a challenge.
      I want to believe that there is so much God has placed in us to be effective leaders…and the experiences God offers us helps to sharpen us. Discerning where we put our time and energy into intentional education is the harder work I think

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Hilarious! Oh my, your wit is astounding, from the title to your engagement with the text. Wow, and your challenge to the complacent church (and leadership). Thank goodness I am not a pastor! In all seriousness, well stated and summarized, and of course, applied. I imagine the Lord will use you to do great things!

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Thank you Eric for your words of encouragement! You may be the only person who considers me witty 🙂
      There are times I would say I envy you not being a pastor. But realistically to those given much, much is expected/required. Holding the power that comes from the mere position any of us have, requires integrity…integrity in how we use scripture….and numbers.

  3. Nicole that post was easily 23% better than mine… I’m drawn to the overlap between Chivers(es) and Kahneman, specifically the anxiety inducing expectation on leaders to be experts. I feel it deeply. Marching to a different theological beat causes a lot of imposter syndrome and fear I’ll be entirely misunderstood by conservative Christians, but yet not get it all right with those who believe similarly. How do you navigate the sort of anxiety you experience as a leader?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Michael can you really prove your claim of 23%? 🙂

      Marching to a different theological beat….dude I resonate with that anxiety! Before I was fired I was ignorantly oblivious to anxiety. It was more important for me to keep the integrity of my relationship to God than bend to the pressures of those around me who were uncomfortable with that particular theological beat. Out of their great anxiety of where I was leading (even though I was just the associate pastor) they took me down in a very destructive and unfaithful way. I lost my nerve afterwards. Friedmans book has been a God send to me. It is helping me find my leadership voice again…encouraging me to find my nerve. So currently my approach to the anxious system is my practice of self-differentiation. It is requiring my system 2 to be intentional in effort even when it wants to be lazy…..I am sure I am doing 10% better than before reading Friedmans book.

  4. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Nicole, what an interesting connection between the cherry-picking of data and the cherry-picking of scripture. While I do not preach or write sermons like you, I have always been more encouraged and challenged by the pastors that simply let the word speak for itself and focus deeply on one book at a time. The sermons that hop around and attempt to use different scriptures to back up their main point leaves me questioning whose voice was central as that sermon was prepared. I’m curious how you engage with congregants when they cherry-picking scripture as a means to get their agenda done (event, activity, policy, etc)?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Kayli, my approach is to encourage people to broaden the scope of scripture. What I mean is have them consider the context the scripture they cling to finds itself. But also to consider the all encompassing theological themes of scripture. I think it is important for people to understand that a verse is tethered to something…history of culture, politics, socio-economic, etc. That history is important in understanding…scripture didn’t/doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I hope that makes sense.

  5. mm Andy Hale says:


    What a fascinating reflection on the reading. Chronic anxiety, whether individually or organizationally, is crippling so many churches and pastors. At some point, the church transitioned into a business metric of success, measuring thriving by butts in the seats and surplus revenue. Therefore, with the decline of mainline denominations, the only natural reaction is chronic anxiety because we don’t know what to do.

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Andy my NPO is in some ways connected to this very conversation. And I am realizing more and more how much anxiety really is a big player in the status of the church. The fight against metrics like how many butts are in seats, how many members, how big is the budget is exhausting. It’s not just a judicatory issue. Members of the church seem to evaluate the success of the church’s identity by these same metrics. However, I also think members use these metrics as cover story to complain about changes they don’t like.
      Eric commented on your post “While some may say that the church did die in Europe, I would argue that the true church will never die. Did the format of “religion” change? For sure, but maybe that was for the best. I believe that we are undergoing some similar realities now in the the US.” The “format” is at the heart of my NPO. Looking at reframing ecclesiology is what is needed. Yes the church has anxiety over the truth that it must endeavor to rethink what it means to be the church, what it looks like to worship. As leaders we need to find a way to help the church self-differentiate itself from itself lol.

  6. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Cute! You make me laugh…I can always use a good chuckle. You mentioned that “The search for more information/statistics has become an addiction.”
    I agree with you! I have found myself more ravenous in my pursuit of documentable truth then ever before. I wonder what has caused this? Could it be that people are wondering where the truth is in the information? Have we deteriorated to the degree in our overall cultural character that truth and honesty plays a back seat to money, power, influence?
    So can you articulate some of the ways you have or desire to challenge your people to be critical thinkers?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Denise, to your wondering about why the hunger for more information….I am not sure what really drives this, but my hunch is that many humans are looking for information to prove their point…to prove they are the one who is “right”. I also think the more information that is produced, it produces more anxiety and people feel like they just need to keep up. I think Friedman’s chapter on Data Junkies is insightful. AND I am not convinced that truth and honesty has ever been more important than money in this world.
      In regard to your question about ways I encourage critical thinking…I probably haven’t done it enough. But my usual context is in sermons. I do not generally spoon feed people. I offer pivotal pieces that are not always obvious with hopes that people will do the work to connect and think. The most important thing I do is ask people questions…to put those questions into context of the Gospel and invite them to be self-reflective.

  7. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Great title, Nicole. And I never thought to think about how the lessons in this book apply to the church, especially with poorly-prepared pastors. At least 50% of the sermons I hear on Sundays could be better prepared! And on and on I could go….
    It was a great book and you pointed out its’s strengths insightfully. I’ll take the principles found in this book and apply it to my portfolio project as well.

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Thank you Troy. And I know that I definitely could be 50% more prepared in my sermons!
      What is your NPO?

      • mm Troy Rappold says:

        Nicole: I’m building a website that has short, Ted Talk type videos teaching Early Church History. My target audience are Millennials and Gen Z. The website will have a couple of other functions, but I’m trying to make this important history relevant and inspiring to the younger generation.

  8. Elmarie Parker says:

    And you thought you didn’t have anything interesting to say about this book? I think you were 100% wrong in that concern :). Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking post! I really appreciate you tying this book back to Friedman and Kahneman as you wrestle with important implications for the life of the church and for the role and posture of leadership (and your leadership even more specifically). What is helping you most to engage in effortful thinking these days?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Thank you Elmarie. These books are the main impetus for more intentional effort in thinking. I am in the midst of leading the Session through a process to discern what our next steps are following a very disheartening decision by the Presbytery. Everyone is emotional and part of that is fueled by anxiety over the future. I have found myself being intentional in honoring their anger and disappointment but also leading them to work on putting those aside so that effort can be made in the work of discernment.

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