Dashboards Everywhere: What's a Missional United Methodist to Do?

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning dashboards everwhere
One conference's overall dashboard

They're coming.

And in some places, they're already here.


Dashboards have been used in industry and some time-critical service businesses for a decade or so now to provide an at-a-glance graphical assessment of what the company in question believes are the key performance metrics they need to track and act on to improve.

Several Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church have adopted these to create a graphical display of how each congregation, district, and the conference as a whole is performing on specific metrics placed into the system each week by local congregations. It is believed that these metrics, in a graphical format, provide a snapshot of the vitality and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of those congregations and their pastors.

What we measure matters. The dashboard pictured above captures and portrays weekly and cumulative data from every reporting congregation on membership, worship attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, the number of people serving in outreach, the number of people served in outreach, and apportionments paid. It also calculates a figure called AVM-- attendance as a percentage of (or versus) membership.

In that conference, performance as measured by this dashboard system becomes a key factor in determining pastoral appointments.

All of these metrics are important for congregations as institutions. The four core functions of congregations since the late fourth century have been the public worship of God (attendance may be an indicator of how well or poorly that is going), teaching basic doctrine (baptisms and professions of faith might be an indicator of this), caring for one another (may not have an indicator here), and being a reliable institutional player in the local community (# of people served, # of people serving and apportionments may be indicators of this). So in at least three of the four core functions that congregations have designed themselves to do for 16 centuries, these metrics seem to capture at least some relevant data.

But as I've frequently noted on this blog and in my work around the connection, those four core functions don't include any serious process for discipling people in the way of Jesus Christ. That function had been a core part of congregations prior to 375, when the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the legal religion of the Roman Empire. It was carried out through what was known as the catechumenate, a three year process of building close communities around newcomers to the faith so they could learn and begin to practice the way of Jesus in their daily lives. After that period (which could be shorter or longer, depending on individual progress of lack thereof), persons would be baptized and then given further instruction in the theology of the church (a process called "mystagogy").

The result was that persons who were in the church, by and large, had been well and deeply formed in living the Christian faith and in the basic habits and "tempers" of discipleship. To be a member was to be incorporated into the body of Christ as a disciple of Jesus, and indeed, a disciple who was actively prepared to carry out the world-changing mission of Jesus wherever she or he may be or be led by the Spirit to go.

The catechumenate had been the primary means for discipling people in the way of Jesus as a pre-requisite for entering the full life of the congregation. It had even been affirmed and strengthened at the Council of Nicea in 325. But after 375, it very rapidly degraded nearly everywhere except the far fringes of the empire. It was all but gone by the sixth century.

In its place for most people? Attendance at worship, participation in other prayer services,memorizing answers to doctrinal questions (called "a catechesis"!), showing up at the confessional and performing the assigned penances. Of course, those things were also already in place to some degree prior to 375. But when catechesis was an intensive journey of learning to follow the way of Jesus, these other things were there as more of a maintenance system after the catechumenal process. They weren't relied on or designed to be the primary delivery channel for discipling people!

What one was left with for most people then was at most a kind of "maintenance discipleship."

So how could you have access to something like what the catechumenate used to do? Two paths were available-- preparation for ordained ministry or entering a monastic community. Either of those could put you into a similarly rigorous formation process that everyone used to have. But both of them also took you out of the community in significant ways, while catechesis had taught you how to live as a disciple of Jesus squarely in it!

John and Charles Wesley had set up a similar process for forming people to live out the baptismal covenant in 18th century England-- the trial class meetings. Here, anyone who had a sincere desire to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from their sins could be part of a group for three to six months to begin to learn how to live into the General Rules of the United Societies, sets of concrete practices and means of grace that corresponded with the baptismal vows of the Church of England (and many churches, including the UMC today, as well!). They met weekly to watch over one another in love until these in whom new birth was gestating or about to be realized attained "normal Christian body temperature," both willingness and ability to live this way. Then, they could be recommended for admission to the Methodist Society, as well as a "regular" class meeting where they would continue to be supported and challenged to grow in holiness of heart and life toward "entire sanctification," perfection in love in this life.

The General Rules were for these early Methodists a significant way to measure progress in actual discipleship to Jesus. Were people avoiding harm? Were they getting extricated from addictions? Were they ridding themselves of slaves and working to end the slave trade? Were they visiting the sick, the poor, and the prisoners? Were they zealous to do good to those near and far? Were they attending upon all the ordinances of God-- including those, such as the sacraments and the ministry of the word publicly expounded, that required they also participate in congregations? Were they manifesting more holy tempers, and getting free from the power of unholy tempers?

These are questions about discipleship to Jesus. Metrics or stories showing progress on these issues would report actual progress toward our stated mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Steve Manskar and I in 2008 proposed some additional questions for charge conference forms, all based directly on the Book of Discipline. These questions would help congregations describe and measure ways they were providing more than the "maintenance discipleship" most of the metrics on the current forms, as well as those captured in many dashboards, provide. The forms committee thought they were too hard, in part because they would make the form too long. One question about the number of Covenant Discipleship groups was added. That was all.

The more I've thought about it, the more I've thought perhaps the forms committee was right, or at least partly so. Congregations still aren't set up to engage discipleship well. But they can be places that connect people to other groups, like those trial class meetings, or class meetings, or Covenant Discipleship Groups that may be composed of people from several different congregations (I am in one of these), or Emmaus 4th Day groups, or campus ministry groups, or OSL chapters, or United Methodist Men's mentoring groups, that are explicitly designed for this purpose.

So what's a missional Methodist to do with what appears to be the inevitability that many, if not all, of our pastors and congregations will soon be expected to complete and be evaluated, perhaps weekly, on the current "maintenance discipleship" dashboard metrics, instead of progress in actual discipleship, scriptural holiness, and perfection in love in this life? We know, after all, that the standard we have in Christ, not to mention Wesley, calls us to rely on and work for more than improvements in the maintenance metrics, and we also know that those maintenance metrics don't necessarily equate with discipleship to Jesus much at all! (For a major study confirming that very finding, see Willow Creek's "Reveal" study and my entry on it on this blog).

Some advice.

Give our leaders what they want.

Fill out the dashboards as often as you have to, faithfully, honestly, and with the best cheer you can muster. The questions aren't illegitimate for indicating some of your congregation's effectiveness in its core functions. They have some value. Recognize that and go with it.

But don't stop there. Give them more, too. Give them more and better data about those areas of the four core competencies of congregations not covered well (if at all) in the dashboard.

But also give them something like your answers to the questions Steve and I proposed.

Or give them answers to the questions I suggested above.

Or find another way to communicate regularly about the progress or lack of progress in discipleship, in holiness in heart and life, you observe among the people where you are. These will be stories, most likely, observational evidence of growth and struggle in people's lives. You might be able to send that in to your DS only once a month or so.

But do it.

What we measure matters.

So don't settle for measuring only "maintenance discipleship."

Measure and regularly report on "the more excellent way," too.

After all, that's what we Methodists are all about!