Stop Measuring the Wrong Things!

The fact is most of our old metrics don’t work anymore. COVID-19 made a mess of everything. That doesn’t mean that metrics are useless. It just means we have to stop measuring the wrong things and start measuring the right things.

Metrics will always be important. Without them we’d have no way to know if we’re winning or losing – making progress or losing ground. Every leader needs a dashboard of key metrics: A flash report that summarizes the most important data and quickly identifies potential problems or new opportunities.

For instance, if I owned a restaurant and could only get one piece of data each day, I’d want to know the gross sales between 6pm and 8pm. Regardless of whether they were high margin dishes or low margin dishes, I’d quickly know about any unusual increase or decrease that needed further investigation.

The problem is that all metrics have an inherent problem. Numbers lie. If we don’t know the context, they can lead us to the wrong conclusion and foolish decisions. In other words, if I don’t know the story behind the number, I can’t know what the number means.

A pastor once called me panicked because he was already behind in his budget by $100,000 in April. When I asked him what the problem was, he incredulously repeated himself, “We’re $100,000 down in giving! What do you mean, what’s the problem?”

I explained to him that without a context I had no idea if he even had a problem. Perhaps he had someone in his church who used to write a $200,000 check every February die or move away. In that case, he ought to throw a party because he’s $100,000 ahead of where he’d normally be. Or perhaps a bunch of families moved away, that would be a different issue. And if a bunch of families still attended but suddenly withheld their giving, that would be still another issue.

So here are some of the old metrics that are no longer meaningful and some of the new ones we will need to measure more closely.

Year-Over-Year Attendance Is No Longer Meaningful

The Outreach 100 metric of year-over-year growth was incredibly helpful. But it’s now useless. We obviously can’t compare attendance at a socially-distanced reopening with pre-COVID-19 numbers.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop counting how many people show up at our physical campuses. But those numbers no longer mean what they used to. And thanks to the improvements most of us have made to our online ministry, more and more people are going to choose to watch online going forward; further eroding the value of year-over-year physical attendance.

As a result, we’re going to have to figure out what physical attendance numbers now mean in our new framework and context. And we’re also going to have to find new measurements to determine if we are reaching more or less people.

The Old Financial Rules-Of-Thumb Are Useless

Giving per capita (total giving divided by average attendance) is another metric that used to be incredibly helpful. We could use it to measure levels of commitment and spiritual maturity within a congregation. It could also accurately project the increase in annual income that would come with growth, making it easier to make wise decisions about how much to spend on a new facility, expansion, or staffing.

But with the increase in online ministry and the corresponding increase in giving from folks who never set foot on a campus, the giving per capita formula is broken. Going forward we need to measure how much is given by those who physically attend and how much comes from people who only watch online.

The new financial metrics need to include things like the percentage of first-time donors with a zip code more than 30 minutes from any of our physical campuses. They need to measure not only the percent of income that comes from online congregants, but also what percent give on a regular basis and what percent or amount is simply a one-time gift. One shows appreciation. The other reflects engagement.

We’ll also need some new rules of thumb when it comes to spending. Pastors and church leaders used to ask what percent of the budget ought to be spent on staffing, debt, missions, etc. We now need to start asking what is an appropriate percentage to spend on online staffing and production. Churches that move forward with both a significant physical and a significant online ministry are going to spend much more on online staff and equipment than in the past.

Online Viewership Is Nothing To Brag About

It seems to me that most pastors and churches tended to primarily measure eyeballs (the number of views online) when it came to figuring out how many people they were reaching online. But frankly, if we are serious about online ministry, that metric is pretty useless; especially when a view can be as little as 30-60 seconds. That’s nothing to celebrate. That’s like counting how many people drove by your campus and looked at the parking lot.

We need to start focus on measuring engagement; moving from a sales model (the number of people who watched online) to a subscription model (the number of people who watch on a regular basis). That means measuring and comparing things like average view time, number of unique devices, online donors, likes, subscriptions, and location.

Measure Retention Everywhere

Finally, the most important thing to measure going forward is something that has always been important, but too often overlooked. It’s retention. Retention is the number one measurement of organizational health. It can be measured everywhere. And when it’s ignored it can lead to a false sense of success.

For instance, when more folks come in the front door than walk out the back door it looks like we are growing. But if measuring retention reveals that we gained 200 and lost 100 out the back door, the net increase of 100 would no longer be a cause for celebration.

The fact is, a revolving door online or at a physical campus does little to advance the kingdom. It leads to inoculation rather than transformation.

The List Goes On

We’ll always need metrics. It’s the only way we can keep score. But going forward we need to make sure we’re measuring the right things. The list above is just a starting point to help you and your team start thinking about the new metrics. You’ll have to figure out the flash reports and key measurements that are important in your ministry context.

For instance, how are we going to measure…

  • Decisions for Christ (Was that a nod-to-God or a real-life conversion?)
  • Discipleship (Are people watching or really changing?)
  • Baptisms (When, where, how, and who baptizes?)
  • Biblical Community (Are small groups the only option? Can Zoom groups work over the long haul?)
  • Community Service (How can we measure our impact upon community service when the community is far away?)

These are just a few of the things we need to create useful metrics for. And the list goes on. To get my full thoughts on the importance of using the right metrics, watch the video.