Tom Arthur: Contemplating dashboards

Measuring things may be helpful. But not too often.

I’ve been contemplating dashboards lately.  In part because I’m borrowing a family member’s hybrid that has all kinds of information that flickers up at me while I’m driving, but also because I’m contemplating how my own local church can create a helpful quick picture of what’s going on in our church.  There are only a couple of problems.

Some things are super easy to measure while other things are not.  The dashboard that the North Alabama Conference has put in place shows the ease of some measurements (Bishop Willimon wrote about this much discussed and debated effort here on “Call on Response”).  Trends in monetary giving are simple to give a number.  Worship attendance is easy to measure.  Baptisms and confessions of faith are straightforward to count. 

But lately I’ve been preaching a lot about friendship with the poor.  How do you measure that?  How do you measure friendship of any kind?  One conversation I recently had suggested this measurement: how many toilets have you cleaned for people not related to you?  I’ve considered posing that question annually some Sunday morning and measuring the response over the years.  I’d love to see the numbers go up!  The North Alabama Conference dashboard does attempt some of this with its measurement of people served and people serving.  “Over accepting” (thank you, Sam Wells) this line of thought led one Facebook conversation partner to create this dashboard.  I loved it even though it was meant to be sarcastic!

I recently listened to an old “This American Life” episode called “ Numbers.”  The summary of the episode read, “Numbers lie. Numbers cover over complicated feelings and ambiguous situations. In this week's show, stories of people trying to use numbers to describe things that should not be quantified.”  Sounds like a familiar dilemma.  While some of the stories Ira Glass and his team told clearly did not work when people tried to quantify certain aspects of relationships, other stories told about relationship breakthroughs with the use of numbers.  At the end of the show there was a pitch, numbers included, for donating to the show to help cover expenses for the free podcast.  I guess it takes numbers to help tell stories about friendships.

When I was appointed to my first church out of seminary, I found that they were already busy counting things.  I got several reports in my inbox each week and thoroughly reviewed each of them, but over time this activity gave me anxiety.  I’d count diligently and weigh heavily every tick up or down.  I soon came to realize that these reports were best treated like my annual mutual fund report, analyzed  occasionally with many other things taken into account (overall market performance, social investment screening values, personal and family goals, etc.) over long stretches of time rather than daily.  Even then, someone has to count daily so that we can prayerfully discern and review later.

In the end I haven’t given up on the idea of a dashboard, but I’m using it kind of like the dashboard on my borrowed hybrid.  I look at it occasionally to make adjustments, but I’ve turned it off for my daily driving.  It’s too distracting.

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.