by Leigh Finke
How do we become better at church? I mean, literally. What does that mean, and how can we measure whether or not we are doing what we need to improve? That question is at the heart of my recent conversation with Peggy Hahn. Hahn is the author of “Faithful Metrics,” and executive director of LEAD, an organization devoted to growing leadership in churches through “relentless experiments,” as their website puts it.
Hahn’s expertise is in finding ways to improve church leadership through the practices of listening, personal spiritual growth and risk-taking. These skills will, according to Hahn, help churches grow in faithful ways during this time of change and uncertainty. For many churches, the metrics they measure are not telling stories of growth—quite the opposite, in fact. Some have for years seen their numbers, be it total membership, youth and children or donations, declining.
But these metrics, Hahn says, are the wrong ones. And they’re telling leaders the wrong story.
So, how do we get better at church? According to Hahn, we practice our faith. Look to the past (“skip the last 100 years,” Hahn says, and learn from the first century), look to the future and listen to those who surround us.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Connect Journal: Can you describe what you mean by faithful metrics?
Peggy Hahn: I would say, as a Christian community, anytime our metrics are focused on loving God, loving our neighbor and loving ourselves, we are in the box of faithful metrics. Faithful metrics are paying attention to what God is up to in our neighborhood, in our congregation and in our own lives.
CJ: If those are the metrics we’re using, how do we measure success in our churches?
Hahn: There’s no one size fits all to metrics. It depends on location; it depends on how we’re living out our call to love God, our neighbor and ourselves. It’s not one size fits all.
CJ: It’s not one size fits all, but do you think there are common goals that churches can work toward?
PH: If there are going to be common metrics for every person of faith, it boils down to prioritizing our lives to be able to practice our faith and to be able to invite others into those practices in ways that are inclusive and generous.
The other common goal that would be crucial would be to orient ourselves around our own theological practices—the work we do around baptism, which is a commitment to serving children, youth and families, and then the opportunity we have around the table, which, as far as I am concerned, is a call to how we engage in ministry in our homes.
CJ: Is there a way to apply one’s thinking about faithful metrics to children, youth and family, specifically?
PH: This is an opportunity to listen to people who are in our preschools, whether that preschool is at our church or in our neighborhood, to listen to people in our elementary schools and to listen to the needs that are happening in people’s lives. Our ministry is about helping people in their brokenness, in their pain, in their struggles, in their joys and successes of life, to notice that God is up to something in that. That doesn’t matter if you’re serving the first-third of life or the adult population.
CJ: Anytime you’re setting goals, and those goals have metrics, then you set up an opportunity not to meet those goals. Can you talk a little about failure in the context of faithful metrics?
PH: We teach two different kinds of failure. There’s failure that is the result of leaders taking risks and trying new things, and we think that’s what faithful leaders practicing adaptive leadership need to do in this day and time. It is about listening and learning experiments. And some of those experiments won’t work. And so we’ll have failure. Within that though, we have the opportunity to do more learning.
But the other kind of failure we see, and actually we see it more, is the failure to try. Failure to actually take a risk, turn up the heat and try something we haven’t tried before. That fear of failure is not missionary leadership, and I don’t think of it as setting faithful metrics
CJ: If you take a risk, and it doesn’t pan out, what are the consequences of that—if, for example, you’re already looking at declining membership? What do you say to a church who feels like they just can’t take risks?
PH: Here’s the thing, we’re taking a risk either way. We have the risk to try something, to practice our faith in a way that feels very uncomfortable and new to us, for example to invest in the stakeholders in our neighborhood instead of just in our church in a way that feels very risky for leaders. Or we are taking the risk to not try and threatening to just steadily decline and get worse. Either way we’re taking a risk, no matter which risk people are willing to take. By taking no action, we’re actually taking, in my opinion with all the change in our world, a bigger risk.
CJ: In your conversations with churches, how useful are traditional metrics? We don’t have enough kids in the church for youth group or whatever the case may be. What’s the relationship of looking forward, but also using more classical metrics?
PH: Measuring how many people showed up, at worship or confirmation or anything else, is a lag metric. That’s to say, by the time we are measuring, we can no longer change the outcome. Once you’re measuring how many are in confirmation, it’s very hard to change that number. All that energy goes into feeling bad or depressed around the current situation with the numbers, and it doesn’t inspire leaders to make the kind of shifts they need to make in order to change the ultimate lag metric. The focus that we work with is a focus on lead metrics.
Measuring lag metrics is measuring things that already happened. Lead metrics have the capacity to change the lag metrics. This is the place we put our energy and can practice our leadership. I’m not saying lag metrics don’t matter. We do care about numbers because numbers are people and we care about our people. But an over-focus on lag will just make us want to quit. We’ll quickly decline and feel defeated. A focus on lead metrics is inspiring. It gives us something to focus on that we can do for the future.
CJ: What are some examples of lead metrics?
PH: A lead metric for a church struggling with confirmation could be, let’s connect with 10 parents with confirmation-age children in our neighborhood. Now we get curious about where those families live, what’s going on with them, who they are and how can we build a relationship with them. Out of that relationship, over time, those parents will bring their children, if those parents themselves grow in their faith.
The opportunities are as vast as our creativity. Confirmation doesn’t have to happen once a week for an hour at church. We’re limiting our capacity. Why do we think confirmation has to be a group of kids who will ultimately stand in a robe? This was never the goal. We have institutionalized this in such a way that our lag will always stop us. But lead metrics will empower us and give us innovative vision for how we might think this stuff through.
CJ: What can leaders practice to prepare themselves for making the change from lag metrics to lead metrics? That’s a paradigm shift for measuring success.
PH: The early Christians were called the people of the way. There was a reason for that. There was something different about the way they were following Jesus, the way they were practicing their lives. This is at the heart of our faith. Practicing our faith, our own belief system, in such a way that we believe it, is first. The lead metric for just about anything is for the leaders to start practicing their faith like they themselves are curious, like they themselves are wondering what God is saying in this day and time with these sacred texts that we carry with us. We have to pay attention to the things that matter the most.
CJ: What is that?
PH: There are Christian practices that have been true for the Christian world for the past 100 years or so that we have come to believe are normal. And I have to tell you, those kinds of practices are hurting the cause. The most important lead metric that I would encourage any leader to set is to get serious about practicing their own faith lives and how they’re going to practice that. That may boil down to practices that are as mundane as creating habits in our lives.
CJ: Are there some more practical ways that can be applied to practicing risk-taking? PH: It’s only if we’re leading out of our faith that we can have the courage to say, we’re not doing that anymore. When I think about children, youth and family ministers, there’s nothing more important than serving people in the first-third of life. Our church needs that. We have got to pay attention to the children, youth and families who live near us, who are in our neighborhoods. If they speak a different language, if they’re in a different socio-economic group, get curious. Pray about it. Get a mentor in that community. Don’t take that as an excuse to not do it. Because those communities are exactly who we are called to serve
Categories: Winter 2020: "Practice Not Perfect"