Ok Kirk, focus now…focus! Honestly, it was a hectic weekend and I just finished this book this morning. Hence why my syncblog is posting in the PM hours instead of earlier. But since Hacking Christianity hasn’t posted up their main snycblog either, I don’t feel terribly guilty.
Let me begin by saying I didn’t expect to like this book. However, that was based on the presumptive knowledge that this is the “death tsunami” book talked about in UMC circles.
I dislike the metaphorical use of tsunami to explain the inevitable effect of an ever aging denomination. Weems chooses this term because he’s looking for something that triggers alarm and horror. He states,
In the Scriptures, prayers and hymns of our tradition, our psalmists and poets described dire situations in the most compelling words they could find– a flood of mortal ills, as in the summer drought, a famine of compassion, life shaken as by an earthquake. Some images have become so familiar that we may no longer be moved by these stark words. Even so, one must be cautious when using analogies or metaphors that mirror such tragedies, recognizing that the effects of physical disaster differ from the results of the dire situations that writers attempt to describe.
Whether its a natural disaster like Indonesia or Japan or the political tragedy of the Zimbabwean ‘tsunami’ of Operation Murambatsvina, those events are talking about lives cut short with sudden violence. The very terror Weems wants to evoke in using the word tsunami is created by a sudden, wrenching, ‘gone before its time’ sort of death.
While one can play metaphorically with a UMC gone before its time, this works against his later description of a denomination that’s moved into its maturity and perhaps old age. The actual human deaths of his ‘Death Tsunami’ are largely natural results of the aging process and by metaphorical extension, perhaps the institutional deaths he reference are a natural result of aging as well.
It seems that in playing the tsunami card metaphorically, he cheapens the actual human lives cut short in tragedies that are still fresh in the minds of the world and traumatic effects on the survivors even as you read this. I’m not comfortable with using tsunami from a pastoral theology point of view. Even when discussing polity, we cannot forget we are also pastoral caregivers in all we do.
This concern aside, its a very accessible book in presenting Weems’ theses regarding how The UMC needs to engage in both changing our techniques of ministry but also adapting to our contemporary contexts. He gives a lot of attention to the need for The UMC to focus resources on reaching younger (if not “the young”) generations and committing itself to diversifying our denomination to match the diversity of the US. What Weems contributes in this book to the wider discussion of issues is not engaging these as separate issues but seeing how they are intimately connected. That means he recognizes two important things: 1) the younger generations are far more diverse than we realize and they value that diversity, and 2) this increased diversity is a result of larger population growth among racial ethnic minorities when compared to white population growth in the US.
In short, a failure to become comprehensible to racial ethical minorities = a failure to become comprehensible to younger generations and vice versa.
His remarks on the efficiency of smaller boards and agencies does resonate with me. An example from The UMC’s experience with Deaf ministry comes to mind. In 1988, the General Conference commissioned a study group to gather information on Deaf and hard of hearing ministries in the denomination. This study committee quickly grew to somewhere between 25 to 30 members in the eight years of existence. This not only made it difficult to meet in person but also made decision making processes very complicated and, at times, contentious.
With the 1996 General Conference looming ahead, that study committee had produced a statistical survey that gathered limited data on the severe lack of awareness and access to The UMC for Deaf and hard of hearing people. I was in charge of writing legislation that led to a small 10 person committee that would be responsible for a fairly specific task over the next quadrennium. That task was to enable small teams of our members and others in regional areas to identify annual conferences who were receptive to learning more about ministry with those who are Deaf and hard of hearing and run comprehensive awareness events.
We did find that we were able to balance geographic representation, laity/clergy, gender, race/ethnicity, and the varieties of Deaf, hard of hearing, late deafened, and Deafblind identities within a 10 person committee. We also found that a 10 person committee given a specific task led to a very efficient decision making process that enabled us to make whirlwind tours of the connection doing our awareness events and thus equipping and engaging new people in the idea of doing ministry with our communities. This committee became a standing committee under GBGM and was also tasked with disbursing funds allocated by the General Conference for our ministries as well as funds collected in an Advance Special account for Deaf ministry. (click. give.)
In its second quadrennium however, it became more focused on being a granting body with these funds and less emphasis was given to awareness events. Unfortunately, the work of the 10 seemed to drift somewhat as the subcommittee on grants was engaging in a lot of the work around the granting process while other members were unsure what their tasks involved.
So when I read Weems talking about smaller more efficient committees with specific tasks, I found myself nodding my head with the experience I had in seeing this work quite well. Yet when I read that such committees would become primarily granting agencies, I found myself shaking my head thinking, “no, it’ll need more than that in some way in order to work.”
I’d also like to reflect on Weems’ approach to outcome based reporting. Weems’ rationale for moving to outcome based reporting of congregational ministry is very much in alignment with what the Call to Action (CTA) report proposes. However, he is not quite explicit as the CTA report in what is to be measured as a mark of vitality. This works to his advantage as he articulates a somewhat different vision of metrics than the CTA and Vital Congregations puts forward. Yet it also works against him at times as his inexactness also allows for a tacit endorsement of the CTA proposals. I have my own reservations about what we need to measure in church metrics.
What Weems gets right is that outcome based metrics need to be sensitive to local contexts. What one church needs to measure to declare their vitality might be quite different than what another church needs to measure. Yet when Weems wants to tie these metrics to funding and resource allocation, we run into the difficulty of comparing apples and oranges.
So we encounter a pit and pendulum here. Different metrics for different contexts will make funding allocation a somewhat subjective decision by those granting funding and those making appointments of clergy to congregations. On the opposite side of the pendulum the CTA seems to suggest by imposing a “one dashboard to rule them all and in the darkness bind them” metric system is to provide a technocratic objective measure that for comparison. The pit beneath this pendulum is of course the difficulty of measuring theological concepts like “discipleship” and “transformation of the world” in the first place. Blah!
Stepping back from this conundrum for a bit, I recalled my experience with a Deaf non-profit agency in Boston where I worked part time while writing my dissertation prospectus. DEAF, Inc. is a fantastic example of a grassroots organization becoming a vital provider of services that no one else provides. It began as a part of the nationwide spread of the Independent Living Movement and has branched out in a number of other areas as the Deaf community in Boston has identified them. They are largely funded by government grants for social services and in particular, independent living services. During my time there, we were transitioning to outcome based reporting that was being mandated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
A transition to outcome based reporting meant that instead of counting how many service hours were spent helping people find housing, we were going to be counting how many people we assisted in successfully finding housing. This caused a great concern because many of us knew that the numbers wouldn’t look so good…not because we weren’t helping people look but because there was so little affordable housing available and wait lists were absurdly long. But how would this impact our funding when people in the budget rooms of the government who had little knowledge of what we do looked at the statistical reports? Our anxiety was looming large!
However, we were given the flexibility to establish our own outcomes and build our metrics with sensitivity to what we were doing. That is, the ultimate outcome goal was six months of stable residency in affordable housing. But what we would be measuring is each step of the process along the way.
Goal: Six months of stable residency in affordable housing.
In the last year how many consumers of our services have:
1. Spent six months in stable residency in affordable housing
2. Begun residency in affordable housing
3. Applied for three or more affordable housing programs
4. Identified 10 possible affordable housing options for application
5. Begun training to understand how affordable housing programs work
6. Identified themselves as needing affordable housing
As you can see, with such metrics, we could easily identify the many many people we worked with along the path to affordable housing and what we were doing with them to move them along that path. It would provide those unfamiliar with the work a snapshot of what we do and also a glimpse into where the glitches in the process may be. If we had a lot of people progressing along this path and getting stuck at metric #3, then that would indicate the problem with not reaching the ultimate goal lies outside of our work and in the lack of affordable housing.
This sort of outcome based metric system would provide funders (the government budget wonks in this case) with a much clearer picture of what the problems are than “we provided x number of hours helping consumers with affordable housing issues.”
It would also reshape how our agency viewed and designed our work. Previously, we’d simply sit down with people 1:1 and help them start filling out forms and getting on waiting lists. They’d end up with no real understanding of why they were forever waiting when they needed housing. With this sort of metric, we’re engaged in first identifying the needs, training consumers to understand the process, then engaging them in identifying options and filling out applications. It becomes more empowering for consumers of our services to learn these skills and become self advocates. It also builds an awareness among not only agency workers but consumers of our services where the problem really lies and this awareness can be translated into community organizing for advocacy work to push for more affordable housing.
Weems seems to understand this sort of contextualized outcome based reporting and tracking when he discusses the idea. Yet he doesn’t spell it out specifically enough to translate this into ministry contexts. Instead, we’re left with the CTA wanting to measure the number of professions of faith, membership, worship attendance, etc.
What if we explode these “ultimate outcome goals” into contextualized tiers of metrics like what I did above?
Completely off the top of my head and through my fingertips into my iPad, maybe something like this would be possible:
Outcome desired: More professions of faith next year than this year. (This is lifted directly from Weems’ ideas for creating achievable forward looking outcomes.)
Working from a theological understanding that a profession of faith is the result of an understanding and acceptance of the complexities of Christianity and, in the context of this book, United Methodist teachings. Curiosity in such understandings is unlikely to occur without a hospitable and warm environment to discuss such matters with like minded people. Working off the study of younger generations I mentioned in a previous post, such community and opportunities for critical engagement with belief is what Millennials are looking for. Also based on this research, service programs are more likely to attract these younger people than traditional activities like worship. Based on this practical theological understanding we might end up with metrics that look something like this:
In this year, how many people have we engaged in the following:
1. Professions of faith.
2. Educational opportunities for study of Christianity and United Methodist teachings.
3. Small community fellowship groups that extend hospitality
4. Invitations to our worship services.
5. Invitations to programs, activities, and service opportunities in our community.
6. First contact with those outside of our usual congregational demographics.
You can start to see how this gives steps to achieve along the way to genuine professions of faith that become achievable measurable goals in their own right. It also allows a congregation to identify what aspects this process are becoming roadblocks. If invitations to service programs aren’t connecting with worship services, then we have an indicator that it’s time to sit down with these people and ask what they’re looking for in a worship service and create something that deepens the spiritual and theological aspects of their service engagement.
While the apples v. oranges concern comes when comparing what different metrics among different congregations in different contexts. I think this sort of outcome based reporting that is led by theological understandings developed within and for the contexts of local churches would serve to create more vital congregations than the CTA dashboards I’ve seen.
So, despite the weakness of Weems not going as far with outcome based reporting and connecting it to his general push to contextualize revitalization and mission in The UMC, he did get me thinking in practical ways in developing alternatives to what I see wrong with many dashboard indicators I’ve seen proposed.
Hats off to a successful engagement in dialgoue!