The Measure of Successful Ministry

6a00e552e3404e883301543322c1f7970cModern American life is built upon the twin pillars of productivity and consumption. We are all consumers and producers. In our role as consumers, we make decisions all day long about what we want to consume, and how much, and in what color or size or quantity. In our role as producers, we try our best to produce things that others will want to consume. This applies not only to economics and the workplace, but to every aspect of our lives. We have become consumers of education and therefore we evaluate our teachers based on the kinds of grades and test results that the children are producing. We are consumers of news, and thus the news industry has emerged in which journalists are evaluated not only on journalistic grounds but on the salability of the news they report. Absolutely everything we do in our society is evaluated on the basis of how broadly and consistently it is consumed.

The Church Growth Carnival

It should be no surprise then that American Christians look at ministry the same way. The church growth movement exemplifies this at its most grotesque, wherein absolutely everything about a congregation’s life is weighed against the number of people being served and the number of dollars in the bank. The absurdity of this is well documented: Churches that sell lattes in the lobby, extremely popular self-help preachers who barely ever mention Jesus and never mention the cross, worship services that are built to look like popular entertainment, and a revolving door where people exit these churches almost as fast as they join them. It takes only a passing knowledge of the Scriptures to see why this purpose driven, Gospel starved sideshow is inconsistent with the Church’s calling to worship God and set sinners free through the proclamation of His grace.

The Almighty ASA

But even if we reject the Church Growth movement model, parishes and pastors still yearn for some way of evaluating the success of their ministries. Study after study has shown that the Church is in decline across the board. In the Episcopal Church, that decline is more of a free fall. So priests and lay leaders who are out in the trenches, focused on their individual parishes and pushing hard for them not only to survive but to thrive, are hungry for some measuring stick for determining success, some way of knowing if their parishes are on track to survive into the next generation or if all they are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rectors in particular are sensitive to this. As a full time rector myself, I can attest to that fact. Pastoring is incredibly hard work. A whole lot of energy goes in, and yet it is often very hard to tell whether what you are doing is making any difference at all.

At one time, the number of members a church had was an instructive figure for measuring success, but in the Episcopal Church today, many rectors have turned to the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) as the mark of greatest interest. ASA, it is argued, measures not only how many people are officially a part of your church, but how many are engaging with your church on a regular basis, receiving what it has to offer. In other words, ASA is a measure of consumption. Every Sunday, we rectors work with the other worship leaders in our parish to produce something called the Holy Eucharist. ASA tells us how many people, on a regular basis, are consuming what we produce. If ASA is up, we must be doing a good job as rectors since people are responding. If ASA is down, we must not be doing much of anything, or perhaps we are doing the wrong things and need to change course.

Many priests who follow this particular bouncing ball would argue that it is nothing like the excesses of the Church Growth movement. They are not trying to tailor make a church to fit people’s whims, but merely trying to ascertain what state the parish is in. It is true that ASA tells a story, which is why it is something worthwhile to track, but the problem is that the story is not immediately apparent in the raw numbers. A parish with a spike upward or downward in ASA has had some sort of change, but there is no evidence in the raw numbers that the change has anything to do with the rector. It could be that the demographics have changed in the neighborhood, or that there have been a large number of deaths or births, or that an affair has been discovered or covered up, or that a new church has opened up across the street, or that the local little league has changed its game schedule, or a hundred thousand other things. The ASA only points to the existence of a story. It doesn’t tell it.

Selling Salvation

But the bigger, deeper problem is that when we become obsessed with ASA, we commodify and thereby drain the lifeblood out of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Living and dying by the ASA is simply another form of the unending hamster wheel of production and consumption that has become a substitute for the Gospel in the modern American story. Priests who fall into this trap start to think of themselves as producers of religious goods rather than as heralds of the Kingdom. Sooner or later, this translates into thinking of our mission as one of keeping the consumers happy so that they will continue to consume, rather than as one of proclaiming the truth to a world mortally wounded by its love of lies. If we are not careful, we begin to think not only that ASA determines our success, but that we actually deserve the credit for what God is doing in our parishes. If the ASA is up, we rejoice because we are so very good at what we do. If the ASA is down, we lament and try to find other factors to blame for our obvious failure. What we never seem willing to do is to allow God to be the one in charge of whether our parishes grow or shrink. Good or bad, up or down, it has to be us, not Him.

The Biblical Model for Success

Does this mean that there can be no measuring stick? No way at all to judge our success or failure? A very clear model exists, but it is not one that is likely to satisfy our consumerist impulses. The roadmap to successful ministry is laid out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. He gives Timothy and Titus clear instructions on how they are to find, ordain, and train up elders (IE, presbyters, priests). And the measure of success for these priests has precious little to do with anything that can be produced or consumed:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

This is Paul’s constant concern for pastors. When Paul says “be an evangelist,” he doesn’t mean go door to door handing out tracts. He means that if you are a priest who has been entrusted with a parish (or for that matter a bishop who has been entrusted with a diocese), your job is to share the Good News, the evangelium, with the people under your pastoral care. You are to constantly, persistently speak the truth that has been entrusted to you, regardless of the consequences:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:13-15)

If you are truly preaching God’s Word, God may choose to use your ministry to build up the Church and bring many souls to salvation in your midst. But He may also choose to use your ministry as an instrument by which to shame the wicked, force out the false prophets, and cause the institutions of the Church to collapse around your head. Either one is a holy calling if it comes from God. Your concern as a pastor is not with which outcome God chooses to bring out of your faithful preaching of the Word. Your concern is only faithfulness to what has been handed down to you. This certainly requires you to consider how your words and actions may affect the ability of the faithful to hear the truth. Paul repeatedly commends priests and bishops to cultivate godliness in themselves and to avoid controversies that have no bearing on the Gospel. But when it comes to the pastor’s mission, the mark of success is to hold firm upon “the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

Success cannot be measured in terms of outcomes. It can only be measured in terms of faithfulness. For that kind of measurement to work, priests and bishops must come together, under the Scriptures, and give honest leading to one another as to how faithful they are being. Lay people in leadership who wish to understand what is happening in their parishes ought to do the same. This requires a profound commitment to moving beyond the confines of our individual settings and embracing the unity of the whole Church. We can no longer afford to be comfortable with trying to prop up our own congregations or dioceses while ignoring what is happening to the people of God around us. Our task is faithfulness. Our evaluation of our ministries ought to be a discernment process in which we seek to learn how God might be using our faithfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. It is brutally honest and it requires a complete shedding of ego on the part of clergy, but it really is the only way forward. We need to stop pretending that a consumerist model can fix a spiritual problem. Faithfulness may not be sexy, but it is the only thing that can deliver us from our addiction to outcomes.

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14 Responses to The Measure of Successful Ministry

  1. andrewrnixon says:

    Thank you for that Piece Brother Jonathan very true to the situation in our Postmodern Age.

  2. Excellent insights. Applicable views for non-Episcopalians as well. I especially appreciate your citation of St. Paul’s apostolic admonitions.

  3. Many years ago a group came door to door (Orange County CA) and asked “What do you want in a Church”. They then proceeded to satisfy consumer needs, booked popular “Christian Entertainers” , they built a mega church that hosted a Presidential Debate a few years ago and did a lot of good works in this world.
    Our little Episcopalian Church by the Sea in San Clemente has maybe 100 people at each service. But is that really all there are? Its like that mural in your church where the Church Triumphant is present for the Administration of the Sacraments. Therefore I submit that there is a numberless host present for our ceremonies.
    Brother and sister Episcopalians. Pray for Father Jonathan and all our Clergy that they never become discouraged by counting physical numbers.

  4. Stephen Houghton says:

    A better measure of how a parish is doing than ASA is what I call MMFSEE. As in does you parish have MMFSEE every Sunday. Matins can be said, it can be said to the end of the first canticle and attached to the Eucharist, it can be full Solemn Choral Matins if you like, as long as it begins the Lord’s Day. Mass hopefully is being celebrated every Sunday already, but is the heart of Sunday worship. Fellowship can be coffee hour or a parish potluck, but it is critical if you are going to have a community. Service is a chance for the parish to work together to help one another and the wider community. Education, is Sunday school for the kiddies and bible study for teens and adults. Evensong, said or sung is the end of the parish’s day together. In other words do the rector and vestry have an expectation that the Lord’s day is set aside for worship, christian education, fellowship and service.

  5. Joshua says:

    I am no fan of the church growth movement. I would however like to see parish schools like the Catholics and Lutherans have. In these post modern times our children really need the grace of Christ in their lives everyday.

  6. John Miller says:

    It seems like I read this same article by a different blogger every month. I now have a canned response:

  7. FatherThorpusFather.thorpus says:

    I don’t agree about ASA. It isn’t always a measure of consumption. Even if it is, consumption is not always bad: consumption of the Holy Eucharist, metaphorical consumption of the super-substantial bread (sometimes rendered “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer, but which is really all that which makes our souls thrive). In fact, consumption was such an effective metaphor of certain aspects of the Christian life that our Lord often used it as a basis for parables, even for the ‘parable, of the Eucharist itself!

    ASA is always an accurate measurement – the problem is that the quantity which it is understood to measure isn’t constant. It can, in some cases, measure an unhealthy consumerism. It can measure healthy consumption of spiritual nourishment. It can measure the degree to which a church has sold out to entertainment culture, or it can measure a church’s real success at evangelism. ASA isn’t the ultimate metric of church health or faithfulness, but it can help tell the correct story. It is a useful statistic to keep, and I believe every church pastor ought to be aware of where his church is in relation to previous years.

    As I look at over fifteen years of ASA statistics that I’ve compiled in my parish, the lessons are manifold. Graphing those numbers puts our church’s history in easy view – but of course, like all statistics, it needs to be interpreted. You can see the interim periods between pastors as jagged slides downward (I hate the interim system for that reason), you can see where the church had conflict (stagnation or slight down-ticks), you can see where we had times of peace and energy. Our particular graph over these years shows one perspective on our town’s response to 9/11/2001, because attendance spikes after that. You can see where the major employer moved out of town with 3000 jobs – an event that has devastated all our churches. Mapping ASA is a great way to understand your church’s attendance patterns and history. I’ve even used it as a way to target specific demographic groups on specific days to help their overall commitment to church attendance get better – ASA can help you target your mission and outreach work.

    The ambiguity of ASA as a metric comes from the fact that it only has two output options – up or down – with which to express the results of an infinite number of input stimuli. And even those output options are only meaningful in comparison, which means the numbers to which you’re comparing them will also influence the meaning. That’s why it isn’t the ultimate objective metric for health and faithfulness.

    But that’s not to say it isn’t useful – it’s incredibly useful. It’s like the mileage on your car’s odometer. That number has no effect on the car’s actual performance: the car won’t perform better or worse based on what that readout says. But that readout, if accurate, can tell you a whole lot about the car, and to a practiced eye (like the Car Talk guys!) it can suggest or determine action strategies for using or fixing the car.

    ASA has one other thing going for it as a metric: it is essentially a measurement of gathering, and the very New Testament word for “church” is ekklesia – gathering. Gathering is also a source of several of Jesus’ parables. Harvesting. It’s one among several essential tasks of the church.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I agree with you that ASA is something worth tracking and that it can be useful. As I said in the article, “It is true that ASA tells a story, which is why it is something worthwhile to track, but the problem is that the story is not immediately apparent in the raw numbers.” This is essenially what you have reiterated. The fluctuation up and down of ASA only indicates that there is a story to be told. It doesn’t tell us what that story is. My concern with the idolatry of ASA is that it assumes a very two dimensional story which is relative to a production/consumption mindset. We exist as pastors to produce something that consumers will want to consume. This is manifestly not true. We are called to proclaim the Kingdom, to spread the seed, to share the Evangelium with the world. But God is the producer and the one who calls those who would receive (which, I would argue, is not the same thing as consuming). By simply obsessing over ASA, we have produced an ecclesial culture in which those who may be quite faithful are often punished and those who may not be faithful at all are rewarded. We need to find better ways of measuring success that involve careful, faithful, relational evaluation, not simply bean counting. The problem with the idolatry of ASA, as with all idolatry, is not with the thing being idolized but with the sinners who have decided to make a God to take the place of the real one. This is something I believe that we desperately need to repent of.

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  9. Joshua Bovis says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    The only times I seem to write on your blog is when I disagree so thought it time to write when I agree!

    I agree with you totally. I think ASA is a problem here across the pond as it is in the US. My take is that when we obsess with numbers it can lead one of two things:
    1. Pride
    2. Despair

    Thankyou for this.

  10. Frank says:

    ASA should not be overlooked, but should be understood for what it is. As an indicator of overall health of TEC, it has value. Look at what has happened over the past 50 years: attendance has plummeted, overall membership has nose-dived – – – all at a time when the U.S. population has increased by > 50%. TEC’s market share has dwindled, and shows no sign of reversing. We’re on our way to becoming like the Unitarian Universalists – an interesting group, on the fringes of the religious/social landscape, although having influence beyond our meager numbers. Our leadership has failed us, and continues to lead us on a path that shows no signs of leading anywhere but downward. In any other setting, leadership like this would have been ousted long ago, and replaced with leaders who can fulfill the group’s mission. I love TEC, I love its theology, I love its history, I love its worship. But unless we have a revival of historic proportions, I think we have a bleak future.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Frank,

      Again, even though I’m inclined to agree with you, I think it’s important that we are careful not to make the numbers say more than what they say. Even on the macro level, all that ASA can do is indicate the presence of a story. It can’t tell that story. It is true that TEC’s numbers have fallen catastrophically, much faster even than numbers in some other mainline churches. So what can that tell us? I think that it can tell us that whatever TEC is doing is not having an impact on the culture. So the line that becoming more “progressive” would somehow bring in loads of new people is demonstrably false.

      At the same time though, our shrinking cannot be taken in isolation from the shrinking of all churches that is happening across the American landscape. Almost nobody is growing. Even the Roman Catholic Church in America would be shrinking at an astronomical rate were it not for immigration from Latin America over the last two decades. And within TEC, while liberal dioceses and parishes have been shrinking quickly, so have many conservative dioceses and parishes. So too the Southern Baptist Convention, the LCMS, etc. So what does that tell us? I think that it tells us, in part, that whatever is happening to us is a larger cultural phenomenon that no church is going to ultimately be immune from. I think it also points us towards a different kind of orientation in mission for the future. If the Church in America is to thrive in the twenty-first century, we will have to develop new models of doing ministry. We will have to take on a missionary mindset, rather than just continuing to rely on old tricks expecting the same results. And we’ll have to decide what is really important, what we’re willing to live and die for, and what in our faith and practice is so essential that we are willing to proclaim it to the world even if it means our churches shrink into dust. It’s a scary time, but in some ways it’s also exciting. God is at work, humbling and purifying His Church, and when He’s done, the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against it.

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