A recent discussion thread on LinkedIn led me to reflect on typical church metrics. In my experience, churches focus on giving and attendance. Some will add a third metric related to their buildings. Whether the focus is on “nickels and noses” or the “ABCs” (Attendance, Buildings and Cash) people who comment on church metrics are wary. All agree that “Not everything that can be counted counts.” They know they should metrics that matter but they don’t know where to go from there

I do strategy and metrics for a living, so this discussion thread was of more than passing interest to me. Why do church metrics focus on these hard numbers? Why do these metrics often fail to measure the actual “health” in church health?

The answer? The Wald effect, a common metrics misstep.

During World War II Abraham Wald assessed the vulnerability of British bombers to enemy fire. Before Wald began his work the available data showed that some parts of planes were hit more often than others. Military personnel concluded that these parts should be reinforced.

Wald took a different approach. He took a top- and right-view diagram of the planes out to a runaway and watched the planes land. He marked a dot wherever he saw bullet holes and came back with something like this picture:

Careful observation led Wald to the opposite conclusion. He understood that the data was collected from bombers that survived! This introduced an inherent bias in the data, limiting the sample to bombers that returned.

He recommended that the parts hit least often should be protected.

Wald reasoned that a bomber would be less likely to return if it were hit in a critical area. A bomber that returned even when hit had not been hit in a critical location. Reinforcing those parts of that sustained many hits would be unlikely to pay off.

Church Metrics that Matter

Churches usually focus on those things that are abundant and easily counted. These numbers tell their “story”. When pastors and church leaders gather it’s a sure thing that church metrics will be discussed. The numbers they cite are real and are not “pulled from thin air”.

And often they tell the wrong in the story.

Church metrics are meaningless without the context of a strategy. Transition Ministries Group has helped numerous churches avoid this pitfall. How? By first guiding the church through the process of strategy development. Then the accompanying metrics are determined. There’s more to be said about this but I’ll save that for another post.

I’d like to hear your story about how the Wald effect led your church to measure the wrong things.

  • Do the giving numbers reflect discontent in the congregation or are they simply a reflection of current economic reality?
  • Do the attendance numbers only reflect those who survived the church visitors gauntlet?
  • Is the dwindling youth group a sign of trouble in the ministry or does it reflect the start of football season?

Remember: “Not everything that can be counted counts.”

If you believe your church may have made this “metric misstep”, the experienced practitioners of TMG will be more than happy to look at what you’re counting.

Alan Cole Church Metrics Expert

Dr. Alan Cole is a Board member of the Transition Ministries Group. He lives in northern Virginia where he develops strategy and performance metrics for a living. He blogs on strategy at Brass Ring Strategy and on everything else at eklego.

In his free-time he  enjoys reading and antique collecting. His favorite memory of 25 years of pastoral ministry is when he combined ministry with his passion for sports as chaplain for the Tucson Toros, a Triple A Houston Astros club. You can reach Alan here.