Sabermetrics for the Church? Bishop Daniel Martins March 5, 2015 Commentary Last October, I posted in this space an article titled with the neologism Ecclesiometry, in which I suggested that, as we live more deeply into a post-Christian era in Western culture, the most helpful metric by which to gauge church vitality may well be the number of adult baptisms. Then, in December, The Living Church published another piece I authored, deploying an analogy from baseball — the “five tool player” (hit, hit for power, run, throw, field) and the “five tool priest” (preside, preach, teach, lead, care). As this material has been bouncing around in my mind, I find myself curious about how emerging trends in the analysis of the performance of professional baseball players might be exploited by those who are interested in the “performance” of church communities. When I first began to pay attention to baseball a half century or so ago, performance statistics were considered important, but they were pretty simple. For hitters, the relevant numbers focused on batting average, runs batted in, and home runs. For pitchers, it was about earned run average and won-lost record. Then, in the mid-1990s, baseball analysts began to take advantage of the rapid rise of computing power. They realized that technology enabled them to analyze a virtually endless array of statistical information that previously would have been either too cumbersome to keep track of, of questionable relevance, or both. Batting Average and RBIs were hybridized to produce Slugging Percentage, which, in turn, yielded a now-ubiquitous stat known as OPS (on-base plus slugging). Now we have such abstractions as Value Over Replacement player (VORP), an arcane number that measures marginal performance indicators, data points that are essentially statistical outliers. Catchers used to be judged defensively by how many passed balls they allowed and how many baserunners they threw out. Now they are evaluated as well by how well they “frame” pitches, subliminally suggesting to the umpire how to perceive the strike zone, with the intent of influencing how the official calls balls and strikes. Every year Episcopal churches prepare parochial reports, which are aggregated and become the basis for the assessment of the health of dioceses and of the national church. We measure membership, attendance, total activity (number of services), and giving. But are we measuring the right things? That is, are we stuck with just Batting Average, RBI, and ERA? Are we even keeping track of the right data? What are some possibilities that could yield information that we are currently missing? Here are some possibilities that come to my mind relatively quickly. There are no doubt many others that I’m not seeing, and I would like to think this post might start a conversation about what those other statistical performance indicators might be. Is there a way the Church could ride the sabermetric wave? First-Time Visitors This is arguably a retrograde concern, an artifact of the “Christendom” model of understanding church dynamics. Yet, while there may be fewer “lookers” than there used to be, they still exist, and it seems rather self-evident that the flow should be monitored, if for no other reason than to chronicle its decline, but also to correlate it with other data that might yield helpful insights. It’s low-hanging fruit. Second-Time Visitors Is this category redundant, a mere extension of first-time visitors? Not really. Tracking the ratio of first-time to second-time visitors can shine a light on the first impressions a church community makes and how it welcomes newcomers. But is this really the statistical “sweet spot”? Maybe it’s the nexus between the fourth visit and the fifth. Or the eighth and ninth, or something else. Maybe the attendance behavior of visitors and newcomers needs to be overlaid on a particular time frame to be statistically meaningful. But we won’t know unless we collect and analyze the data! Advertisement Average Annual Giving (AAG) This one has been around a while, but few bishops and parish leaders are paying much attention to it. AAG is simply total regular giving (plate and pledge) divided by average Sunday attendance (ASA). This figure is truly in the spirit of sabermetrics because it’s utterly abstract, unlike, for example, average pledge or average household giving. But it is a key indicator of the overall quality of stewardship in a parish, which is, in turn, a strong indicator of spiritual formation and maturity. Number who self-report a decision to tithe We can’t know, of course, how many of our communicants actually do practice tithing (10% of income given to the church). But inasmuch as we teach tithing as a spiritual discipline, we can certainly find ways to give people the opportunity to bear witness to having crossed a significant threshold in the growth as disciples. Self-reported behavior is significant in its own right. Number of adult formation events There seems to be a lot of energy around adult spiritual and discipleship formation. Offerings in that genre vary widely in quality and content. Eventually, it may be feasible to develop quantifiable values that can parse such characteristics, but we can in the meantime simply count individual adult formation events because that alone may tell us a great deal. Number of youth formation events This is, of course, cognate to the previous category. But it deserves to be tracked separately, since the spiritual formation of children and youth is qualitatively distinct from that of adults. Number who move in and out of the barrier between “active” and “highly involved” Classical wisdom is that the majority of total activity in a church community (however that might be defined or measured) is generated by a minority of its members — conventionally expressed as an 80/20 divide. (First, it might be a good idea to develop some measurable indicators to verify whether this is indeed the case, but we’ll just assume as much for present purposes.) This obviously creates an informal but still quite real inner core, as well as an outer circle of membership in the parish. In the course of any given year, some are going to move through the barrier between these two circles, in both directions. What might we learn if we kept track of these movers and reported the data up the line? Might such information have predictive value for the vitality of a congregation? Is it a leading indicator of either growth or decline? Number who engage Scripture privately on a regular basis Episcopalians are not renowned for their biblical literacy and fluency. Nonetheless, there is rising interest in changing that cultural pattern, as well as emerging evidence that a habit of personal engagement with Scripture correlates positively with self-reported spiritual growth. Should we start measuring this more intentionally? Might there be some connections between Bible study and other signs of congregational health that we’re not presently seeing? Number who pray some form of the Daily Office regularly The Daily Office lies at the core of the Anglican spiritual tradition. Even so, and even though it can be adapted to fit most anyone’s pattern of daily life, only a relative handful of Episcopalians practice it in any form on a regular basis. If we start keeping the score, might the score improve? In combination with other indicators, could it be one component in a spiritual matrix that could serve as a general barometer of spiritual fitness? Number of reported conversations with an unchurched acquaintance on spiritual matters Interactions between disciples of Jesus and non-disciples of Jesus, some of whom are in fact future disciples of Jesus, is the crucible in which evangelization is engaged and begins to produce fruit. Only a fraction of such interactions will be part of a sequence that results in eventual faith and baptism, and we don’t know on the front end which ones they will be. But we do know that if no such interactions take place, there will be no conversion. It’s a cultural shift to suggest to Episcopalians that they should have these conversations, let alone count them and report them. But aren’t we in a place where new habits are called for? Number of reported conversations with an unchurched acquaintance in which Jesus is talked about This is a variation on the above, with a sharper point on the subject of the exchange. Number who self report that they are growing spiritually Self-reporting of intrinsically interior and private experiences and practices must not be confused with the experiences and practices themselves — a certain (unknowable) percentage will mis-report about such things for a variety of reasons — but the fact that something is self-reported is itself a potentially useful data point. Number of “well parishioner” pastoral care events A good priest will “be there” for parishioners in crisis or acute need of one sort or another. We expect as much. And key lay leaders — wardens, vestry, the treasurer, program heads — will necessarily get a lot of the priest’s time. But what about the rest? What about those who just “show up” faithfully, send in a regular pledge check, and help with this or that when asked? Very often they fall into the cracks pastorally. Pediatricians generally want to see babies up to a certain age, not because they’re sick, necessarily, but just to monitor their health and growth. These are called “well baby” visits. Should not those with pastoral cure aspire to a similar level of care? I know from experience that this is daunting, just because of the time demands. But what might the long-term impact on a congregation be if the clergy were proactive about “well parishioner” pastoral care? Average length of vestry meeting This may seem like a meaningless factoid, and seen in isolation, it probably is. But, when correlated with other metrics, it may be part of a data package that rapidly identifies a parish with an at-risk relationship system. My intuitive hunch is that a longer meeting time would be a negative indicator. Number of parishioners involved in local service clubs Again, this may not be a very significant piece of information in stand-alone form. But if the demise of Christendom invites us to reconfigure our mental habits — from seeing engagement with mission as opening the doors of the church and inviting people to come through them to mixing it up with the needs of the world in the world — then involvement of lay people in local service clubs may be an interesting number to keep track of. Number who participate in mission trips Hundreds of parishes send teams of adults and youth on mission trips every year, both domestically and abroad. Houses and schools get built or renovated, wells get dug, people have basic health care needs met, children get taught the gospel. Does the experience of going on one of these trips have a lasting effect on the spiritual maturity of those who go? On the parish that sends them? If there were a positive correlation, would we not be more invested in organizing more such trips? Alas, we don’t know, because we don’t measure and report the data. Is there a partnership with a local public school? The state of relations between the public school system and local faith communities is not yet so universally deteriorated that there can be no fruitful partnerships: churches providing school supplies, backpacks, Thanksgiving meals, and the like, for school kids whose families cannot afford them. And sometimes church plants use a school gym for worship on Sundays. I know anecdotally of a handful of such partnerships that have richly blessed both the church and the school. Are there more? Is this an experience for which some best practices can be shared? Conclusion This is not an exhaustive list. There are undoubtedly many, many more behaviors and experiences of individual Christians and Christian communities that no one has thought to measure and compile statistics on. Many of them might turn out to be of little or no usefulness. But the effect of sabermetrics on the business of professional baseball has been monumental, nothing short of revolutionary. Arcane data sets that nobody would have thought important thirty years ago are now factoring into decisions about the deployment of multiple millions of dollars of team resources. It would be foolish of church leaders not to attend with more diligence to the collection, correlation, and analysis of correspondingly similar data. The featured image is “Boppin’” (2009) by Flickr user Professor Bop. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 2 Responses Charlie Clauss March 5, 2015 The phrases “reported” and “self-reported” catch my eye. This speaks to the needed culture change, where we are actually talking about these things with one another, and clergy are willing to raise the issues with their people. Also I can’t help but reflect on the fact that in baseball, there is an agreed upon “most important” statistic: the won-loss record. All other metrics serve that. Does the Episcopal Church currently have such a statistic? A great book on that topic is “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” where the author makes the point that a team must have agreed and committed to a common end. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. Δ This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.