Changing how we measure success in ministry

It’s all about the numbers.

I remember it well. It was the second month at my first full–time youth ministry job. I had inherited a ministry of about 20 students that had gone through a difficult transition. These students had seen a youth pastor come and go within only a year’s time and then found themselves under the leadership of inexperienced college students. When I took the job I realized that renovating and re-creating a vibrant youth ministry program would take years.

What I didn’t realize was that my superiors didn’t see it that way. From them, there were times when it felt like it was all about the numbers.

I don’t want to come across as harsh or bitter, but I want to tell my story as authentically as possible.

At the age of 22 I took a youth minister job that seemed full of potential. I was entering a situation at a large church and was given permission to be creative. I had a passion for youth ministry, and a philosophy that holds that relationships with students are more important than “big parties” and fancy programs. I had been reared under the guidance of the experts at Youth Specialties, most who were saying that relational youth ministry mattered more than programmatic approaches.

My goal was to facilitate relationships so that people grew in an authentic community. The program, in as far as it served to accomplish this end, was helpful but not the point.

In the second month of the job, I learned that it was all about the numbers for these leaders. Success could only be measured by the amount of people showing up to programs because this, they thought was the greatest evidence that God was at work.

So I sat in a meeting with my senior pastor and the administrator for the church. During this meeting, I was lectured on principles of church growth that grew out of the Willow Creek movement in the 1980s and 90s. I saw a funnel with various levels of entry points and at the narrow end of such a funnel: “a fully devoted follower of Jesus” would be produced. If I started with A, add B, and C, I would I  get D for disciple.

My senior pastor wanted to know why the numbers had not increased in my first month on the job. That night, I went home and cried in the arms of my then fiancée and now wife. The pressure of quotas and the subtle hints that I was to become a party planner and a sales person was just too much for me. It not only went against what I believed about the kingdom but it went against my own personal set of values. This was party planning and not relational youth ministry.

I’m now years past that initial meeting and I no longer work in that corporate church setting. I’m happy for the many things I did learn working at that church, and many of the people including my senior pastor are still folks that I look up to as godly models of Christian character. However, I’m convinced that they and I operated out of a different paradigms. One focuses more on quotas and business models another focuses more on signs of the kingdom.

Many people ask me what we should measure if it’s not numbers and attendance. I think I’ve finally begun to figure this out. I recently took a course on church planting. In this class, one of the things we talked about was the need to change the ministry scorecard (to borrow Reggie McNeil’s language). Instead of measuring success by numbers and quotas, what if we measure success by stories of how God is at work through various signs of the kingdom that we see in our lives? In other words, in ministry and in any church function, what is our primary goal? Is it to meet quotas? Is it to rant and rave about how many showed up? It’s not all about the numbers! Sure they’re important to a degree, but what we really should be advancing is the kingdom!

If we want to know if a particular ministry is being “successful” we should ask the following question: What signs of the kingdom have we seen or experienced during the past week? All other measurements of success fall subservient to that single question.