In a church, how do you measure success?

Perspectives on Measuring Outcomes

In the world of business, it’s the “bottom line.”  In terms of performance or potential a company’s profitability establishes its value. The paths to profitability lead to various business metrics.  These are precise measurements easily quantified.

But in the world of nonprofit organizations in general – and churches in particular – there is no profit motive.  Quantitative measures are often difficult to define.  So, what do – or should – churches do?

One approach is to focus on the essential purpose or mission of the church and leave the question of success up to God.  Count what we can with the conviction that the true and ultimate results will be known only in eternity.

Another approach is taken by a leading church development consultant, Gil Rendle.  In his book, Doing the Math of Mission, Rendle takes on the challenge of measuring success in the mission and ministry of our churches.  He observes that most churches simply count rather than measure.  We count activities and resources, such as attendance, offerings, members, and participation in programs.

Doing the Math of Mission makes a compelling case and provides useful guidelines to move beyond merely counting toward measuring the results of our ministries.  This can be achieved by first gaining clarity of the church’s mission in terms of the differences to be made in the lives of those served.  Then define outcomes that will confirm such difference has been made.  What follows is an extensive discussion of the tools of metrics, which the author notes “must always be in the service of purpose.”

Profoundly helpful to this discussion is the work of Jim Collins, a former professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of the popular best-selling books Good to Great and Built to Last.  In a 35-page monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, written as a sequel of Good to Great, Collins applies the principles of greatness seen in businesses to nonprofit organizations.

Collins begins with a discussion of tracking success without business metrics.  How do we define “great” in nonprofit organizations, including churches?  The starting point is to make a clear distinction between inputs and outputs.  Inputs are about resources, outputs are about results.

For churches, the inputs include time and talent given by volunteers, financial contributions of congregants, and the church’s “brand” – the perception of the church held by congregants and others. Collins’ good-to-great principles, adapted to nonprofits, can strengthen a church’s inputs on its path toward greatness.

The outputs of greatness are: Excellent results in achieving the church’s mission; the distinctive impact a church makes with the people it touches; and the resilience with which it endures.  Gather evidence, quantitative and/or qualitative; clearly describe the results; and track your progress.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a shift of focus in nonprofit organizations from measuring success by activities and resources to measuring success by results and impact. The trend is toward measuring outputs, outcomes, and impact. For example, one approach sees outputs as activities and outcomes as results of activities. In some cases, impact describes long-term results. While models and definitions of the terms used may vary, the essence is similar; success is measured by ultimate results.

The journey from good to great requires relentless focus on continuous improvement of inputs which leads to greater excellence in a church’s ministries. Collins says, “No matter how much you have achieved, you will always be merely good relative to what you can become.”

Principles for Measuring Outcomes

  1. The mission identity of a congregation is foundational to both the effectiveness and excellence of its ministries. Mission identity includes a clear sense of who you are as a church which is shaped by your beliefs, culture, and history; an understanding of your “field” of mission, that is, who you intend to reach and serve; and a vision for the impact or difference that you believe God is calling you to make in the lives of people that you touch.
  2. Clearly written and widely supported core values that inspire and guide action provide a strong basis for alignment of behaviors and practices authentic to your church’s mission identity and effective in pursuing missional goals.
  3. Congregational participation in missional conversations and processes of discernment are invaluable to building widely shared ownership of a church’s mission identity and core values.
  4. What is the change your church seeks to bring about? What difference does your congregation intend to make?  In whose lives and to what end?  Answers to these questions are the basis for defining the outcomes that result from your mission and ministries.
  5. Some outcomes may be described with numbers but others will be more powerfully described with narratives. Testimonies of transformation are a vital measure of outcomes for churches.
  6. Strategic choices must be made to select only those priorities and outcomes that will best achieve your church’s mission and vision. Less is more.  Focus on what you can do well.
  7. Implementation is the key to success or failure. Support success with an annual Ministry Action Plan that implements SMART goals and objectives as well as measuring the outcomes of your mission and ministries.

©2017 Don Eastman

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