Are We Measuring the Right Things?

I received the following paper from a friend and mission leader with many years of experience. As I read I was challenged, not over whether to measure, but what we measure, and why.

As the leader of Harvest, a global mission supported by prayer and financial partners, I have made priorities of transparency and accountability. I think we have been relatively good at both. But I realize that we are too influenced by the “mission industry” of our generation. Not everything about accountability in mission agencies today is healthy. I’m troubled by the risk and temptation of using numbers to make things look better than they are. Mission groups often report how many people made “decisions to follow Jesus,” suggesting that the ministry is doing much to extend Christ’s Kingdom. In fact, these numbers could be a reason to grieve.Too often such numbers hide the tragic truth that many of those counted were in fact not discipled and as such actually represent spiritual abandonment. This is grievous disobedience to Christ’s direct marching orders, and a huge cause of a discredit to the church.

I was also challenged to question what we measure. Do our metrics try to impress readers about our impact? Instead it seems to me that we need to report faithfulness to our calling, obedience to what God has asked us to do. Jesus is more concerned about obedience than impact. As my friend Paul McKaughan reminds us, the impact is up to God, not us. Our responsibility is loving obedience, doing the right thing for the right reason.

Father, help us to constantly examine and re-examine what we report, and to measure and report obedience rather than results.

- Bob Moffitt, President of the Harvest Foundation

“What you measure you become

Jim is a technological, creative and networking genius. His track record of effective innovation is stellar. He is way out in front of most mission types I know. From Jim, this affirmation, delivered with great vehemence, blew me away.

That statement has an ominous, inevitability to it. It sure got me thinking about how we use metrics and the impact they have on us. Is that statement even true, do we become what we measure? Throughout my whole missionary career I have been an advocate for metrics in missions. Faith Goals have been a big discipline and huge motivator in my life. Have I somehow missed the downside of measurement ?

Our actions and not our affirmations demonstrate who we really are. This seems to be a Biblical principle. The Bible says our actions show whether we are sons of God or sons of the devil. It says that by our fruit we will be known. It is our actions and their outcomes that define us. Our actions also shape us far more than do our affirmations. Metrics focus those actions. “What gets measured gets done.” We have first hand experienced this truth in our own lives and in the ministries we lead.

As I thought of Jim’s startling affirmation, I began to think about the reasons why we are sensing so much pressure as ministries to come up with meaningful metrics. Not all of them reflect a quest to be Biblical or Godly, some are rather self-centered. This is especially true when we pursue metrics as a method of self affirmation, or seek the approval of those in society who only respect numbers rather than the Creator. Some of these folk are like W. Edwards Deming who once said, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”. There is an unspoken societal assumption that if you can’t put a number to it, it isn’t real.

The statement at the head of the page doesn’t say that measurement is bad. It rather says that the things we measure will have an impact on what we become as people.  Metrics often determine our priorities, what we consider important on God’s mission. Author Nicholas Eberstadt nailed the contemporary society we see all around us when he says, “Though he may not always recognize his bondage, modern man lives under a tyranny of numbers.” In insisting on numerical evaluation are we being shaped by our societies “bondage” to numbers? This tyranny is derived from the belief that numbers are concrete and exact rather than relative representations of movement or scale. Another wise man affirmed. “What you measure becomes important, but it may not be significant.”

Pressure for metrics sometimes come from a donor community that justifiably wants demonstrable results for the dollars they invest in our ministries. They desire to be good stewards of their resources. The donor world also tends to think we missionary types are a bit sloppy because we don’t submit ourselves to the discipline of numerical standards. We would all do well to remember the words of the brilliant physicist, Albert Einstein. “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” It is far too easy to oversimplify and become reductionist as we assign numerical values to complex processes.

The desire for differentiation and competitive advantage is strong, even with missions. Numbers somehow appear more substantive than mere stories and thus the ministry, more worthy of support. The bigger the numbers the more significant we look. We think that if we can show we are effective by the numbers, this will give us an edge. It makes us look like significant and serious players in a very competitive field of ministry. Corporate positioning through the use of numbers becomes important to us. We begin to sense we are in competition with other ministries for resources. This can shape our personal and corporate image. It impacts who we are becoming.  The fact that all the earth’s resources belong to the Creator and are under His control becomes merely a distant truism. Pride in our numbers can also be spiritually deadening.

Some time ago I came on a quote about metrics that convicted me. It sadly rings true in my personal experience. “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”- H. James Harrington

The desire for control over a very complex set of realities resides deep in the heart of most leaders. We want to manage well the resources God has placed in our care. In our most honest moments we are uneasy with how little we really do control as leaders. Metrics promise to give us leverage with the people we are supposed to be managing. The desire to establish corporate accountability and organizational discipline can pander to that deep-seated felt need to be in control. Using metrics to meet our fleshly need to feel in control can make us oppressors rather than enablers, overlords rather than servants. The unforeseen consequences of measurement can shape who we are becoming as people.

We realize and accept the Biblical truth that we can plant and water (activities,) but only God can produce fruit (outcomes) I Cor 3:6. This often leads us to try to measure our “faithfulness” by measuring our activity and not the outcomes which are out of our control.  We all recognize the reality of the “activity trap.” Measuring mere activities can lead to an oppressive performance regime that values doing and ignores what is supposed to get done. John Lingle said,  “You get what you measure. Measure the wrong thing and you get the wrong behaviors.” The drive to do more and more is rarely the expression of a grace- filled life. Many of us are just naturally driven people. We are drawn to a high- activity lifestyle, whether it produces anything or not. Many, if not most of our metrics, are activity related and feed that high-activity addiction.

I believe in metrics. There are, throughout Scriptures, many indications that return on investment, be it the investment of our talent, money or our very lives, is important to God and should also be important to us. Scripture also teaches us that success, “return on investment” or profit can come in this life or in the life to come.  We don’t control when that distribution takes place. There is an eternal aspect of temporal metrics we can never capture. In the final analysis, profit and loss will be determined before God’s throne.

I passionately believe in the responsibility of a steward to manage well all the resources God has placed in his or her care. I desire constant feedback from the Holy Spirit, God’s Word and healthy metrics to make sure that I am doing everything I can to be a faithful servant on God’s mission. Metrics help me do this. However, I also want to be aware of their limitations. I must constantly examine how the things I measure are impacting my walk with the Lord and my relationships with others in His body because I am becoming, for good or ill, what I am measuring.

© 2011, Paul McKaughan  |  TheMissionExchange.org

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