Information really is vital

By Candace Barron
Special Contributor

This time last year, I was serving an appointment to two local churches. One of the items on my weekly to-do list was to input each church’s attendance, participation and offering statistics into the Vital Signs dashboard. It usually took less than five minutes of my time for both churches combined.

Why did I do it? Well, for starters, my bishop told me it was required, and when I accepted an appointment as United Methodist clergy, I agreed to operate under the authority of my bishop.

In addition, I felt it was important for several reasons—for example, keeping a running total made my end-of-year statistical reporting much easier. And always having the up-to-date numbers within reach let me know how my churches were doing as a whole. As an organization’s leader, that seemed like valuable information to have on hand.

Anyone can view the recent statistics of any United Methodist congregation in the U.S. at http://vitalsigns.trendsendapp.com. All you have to know is:

–  the Jurisdiction (ours is South Central)

–  the Annual Conference (Arkansas)

–  the District (see the map at arumc.org/districts)

– the name of the church (instead of scrolling through church names, you may begin typing your church’s name to bring it up as an option).

Before you go look, a point of clarification: Anyone can view the recent statistics for any congregation in the U.S. that keeps up with its regular reporting through the Vital Signs dashboard.

Why doesn’t every church enter the information? I wonder if some churches are operating under the influence of one or two myths.

Myth 1: Nobody looks at them

Perhaps pastors and churches who don’t plug in their statistics think that no one bothers to look at how many people showed up at Particular UMC in Yourtown, Ark., for the last five weeks… so why waste valuable time filling out yet another form that will only be ignored?

When I moved to this appointment with the Center for Clergy and Lay Excellence in July, I began looking at local churches’ statistics. I kept finding holes, though—missing information that, if present, could help all of us learn.

Attendance and giving information is months old by the time the statistical tables are published in the Conference Journal. For real-time information, a tool like the Vital Signs dashboard offers us a rich resource.

Most of my work relates to the vitality of small congregations in Arkansas. If I have no idea of a congregation’s trends in attendance, participation in mission or financial giving, it’s harder to determine when that church might be ready to take advantage of certain resources we can offer—such as a congregational coach, or a discussion group for pastors of small churches.

The bottom line: Yes, those of us working in the Center for Excellence do look at those numbers. And the more the reporting tells us, the more quickly and efficiently we can meet the needs behind the numbers.

Myth 2: Numbers don’t matter

Over the years, I’ve heard many opinions for and against counting things in the church. Sometimes those on one side of the issue will level accusations at the other: “Are you worried that if your numbers are down, you’ll be moved?” A common reply is that ministry is not about numbers, it’s about people. The counting proponents respond that there’s a person behind every number… and the exchange goes on.

In truth, we have a human need to quantify ministry, which we know isn’t always quantifiable. But when we do have information, I believe sharing it works in our favor. When paired with personal stories, numbers can give us clarity in our ministry and mission.

Numbers matter to pastors and to the churches themselves. We have to know where we are starting to tell where we are going. How can a leadership group make good on the statement, “We want to increase our average attendance by 10 people next year” if they don’t know how many people are attending now?

The Rev. Gil Rendle writes, “Leaders must know who they are, what resources they have, and what resources they need for the demands of their future.” Reporting through the Vital Signs dashboard provides the first two elements, and points to the third.

Cooperation counts

I was surprised when I learned that there were some Arkansas churches not using the Vital Signs dashboard. Since last year, the dashboard has existed as part of our covenant with each other. It need not be the senior pastor who gets this particular job done; many churches have assigned Vital Signs reporting responsibilities to a staff member or a designated layperson. (In fact, laypersons who discover that their church is not using the dashboard may want to offer to help serve their church in this way.)

United Methodists are a connectional people. That means we share the good and the bad, the positive and the negative—and the high and low plot points on the charts and graphs.

The Rev. Dr. Barron serves as an associate director of the Arkansas Conference Center for Clergy and Laity Excellence in Leadership.