Today is the deadline for submitting my Congregational Report to the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I will dutifully count the number of baptisms, new members, confirmations, and so on that occurred in 2011. I will report income, expenses, and mission support. And I will guesstimate the totally ridiculous “Total number of people (including children) actively participating in the life of the congregation in 2011.” This is supposed to include members and non-members, and then be broken out into “race/ethnic origin.”
Check out this instruction about the race/ethic breakout: “This is not an exact count but an informed estimate.” Informed by what? Judgments based on the way people look?
I could go on about that part of the report, but I want to make a more general point today. I guess I can understand why we have to send in all these statistics to the National Church. But then they get posted online.
Why should anyone trolling the web be able to see how many members my congregation lost to death last year, or how much money the members contributed? Whose business is all of that besides the congregation itself?
Putting all those numbers “out there” only feeds our human, sinful need to compete. “My church is growing more than your church! We won the baptismal sweepstakes this year!”
And I say this acknowledging my status as the most competitive person I know. But that desire to be “better than” (rather than just “better”) is a result of our human sinfulness.
Are these numbers supposed to be some “objective” way to measure churches or pastors? That’s just silly. It’s like when I’ve heard folks say that “Pastor so and so really grew that church.”
The bottom line is this – pastors don’t grow churches. Churches don’t even grow churches. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit that “Calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies” the church according to the Small Catechism.
Yeah, my church grew last year. We’re doing great financially. I am blessed to be in a place where that is possible.
But it’s not because I’m working harder than a pastor in a church in an area where there’s high unemployment so contributions are down. It’s not because I’m a better preacher than a pastor in a church where the community around the church has changed.
Pastors should be humbled by studies that show guests make up their mind about re-visiting a church within the first few minutes of being on the church property. Much more important than a pastor’s brilliance is the work of the Property Committee (a disheveled facility implies “if they can’t take of their buildings they can’t take care of me”) and welcome given by the greeters/ushers and the congregation.
Numbers aren’t the only way – nor are they the best way – to judge the effectiveness of a church or a pastor. There must be context for the numbers to even begin to mean anything – and throwing them up on the internet devoid of any context is at best meaningless, if not downright misleading.
We’re not given any idea in Scripture how big the churches were that Paul founded in Ephesus, or Corinth, or Thessalonica, or anywhere else. We don’t know if they were growing, or whether the Corinth church had a greater offering than Ephesus, or whether the church at Thessalonica had more cash on hand a the end of the year. What we do know is that they were actively ministering to the needs of the people in their communities, and that they were proclaiming the Gospel.
It is too easy for churches to get sucked into the worldly idea that success can be quantitatively measured. When we do that as an organization, then we model for church members that their own success in life should be measured that way.
That’s a long way from the Gospel.
I’ve got to stop writing now, I have a report to do. If nothing else, it’s given me a chance to meditate on what is really important in my life as a pastor and in the life of the church. I’m interested in the opinions of others – comments are most welcome.