Quantifying “Success” in Parish Ministry
“But test everything; hold fast what is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21)
Measuring quantitative success is relatively easy; but how does one measure a changed human being? Improved community priorities? Progress in personal spiritual life or for that matter in community spiritual life? Yet measure we must if we are to determine if our programs and ministries are having the desired effect.
In the mission-driven, service-providing, person-changing world of parish life, emphasis is usually placed on qualitative values rather than quantitative ones (the often apparent but immeasurable qualities of personal spiritual development and changed community values and priorities). If the truly important things are qualitative, how can quantitative measures be meaningful? How can the real value of what the church stands for be measured in any meaningful way?
Quantitative measures are not a substitute for qualitative goals. When developed and used thoughtfully, however, they are essential tools to assist in reaching them. In strategic planning a sequence of “How are we going to do that?” questions will lead from mission to measurable actions. These will offer some important performance measures, but they are not the only bridge between mission and metrics.
Consider why and how metrics may be important to parishes, then decide what to measure and how to make use of the data.
There are four fundamental reasons for developing metrics: focus, sustainability, effectiveness and communication.
The aphorism “We manage what we measure and what we measure has a good chance of being improved” points to the necessity of identifying what’s important for “success” and then keeping it in focus. For most parishes a fundamental benefit of strategic planning is to start from a clear statement of mission and then to identify how to achieve it, by working in steps from mission to mission-based goals to supporting objectives and then measurable actions. A good strategic plan is a roadmap to mission, with milestones along the way. By defining objectives and embedding them into personal, staff, program and ministry service descriptions and annual plans, clear expectations and directions are established throughout the parish.
The second reason is sustainability. Every nonprofit, including parishes must maintain and increase revenue streams if they are to survive and grow.
Beyond financial stability, however, is the far more important issue of how effective a parish is at achieving its mission. Meaningful outcomes must be attained and demonstrated. No matter how qualitatively outcomes are conceived, significant metrics can be formulated to monitor progress toward achieving them.
Fourth, beyond their direct importance to parish operations and ministries, metrics of sustainability and “success” are also of real interest to those who give to support the parish. To keep them closely involved and willing to generously increase their giving, it’s critically important to communicate to them not only the value and importance of the mission but to demonstrate with concrete data how successfully the parish is serving parishioners and the poor and the needy.
Once the benefits of measurement are understood, the issue becomes what to measure. This can best be broken down into (1) defining what is useful information (and 2) to whom. Potentially useful kinds of data include:
A parish should be aware of changing conditions that may affect its ability to sustain itself and its mission. The broadest range of metrics involves identifying, tracking, and discussing external factors such as:
How is the need for the parish’s programs and services changing—kinds of programs and services, increases or decreases in need, demographics, geography?
Is the basis of or relationship between costs and revenues changing?
Are there evolving external factors that may have an effect on the health or even viability of the parish and the way it frames its mission?
For performance metrics the problem is to sift through a wealth of available or collectable data and determine what is most valuable, to measure the performance of:
The parish as a whole (for review by the parish council and the priest and for communicating to parishioners)
Programs and services (for review in differing degrees of detail by the priest, parish council staff, organization heads, ministry and program leaders)
Individuals (for annual assessment by senior staff).
Performance measurement is too large a topic to be addressed meaningfully here, but the basic idea is to identify and winnow the most crucial data for operating with focus, sustainability and effectiveness. The primary sources for this information include:
Strategic plan actions
Standard financial reporting, such as cash flow and budget vs actual comparisons
Key departmental data in development, communications, membership, and program areas.
While trends, norms and performance data can be critical factors in assessing efficiency and sustainability, in the end it’s the identification and measurement of outcomes in service of mission that fundamentally validates the parish.
Outputs (what’s been done) are often confused with outcomes (what’s been achieved). Sometimes it’s not easy to define an outcome precisely or distinguish it from an output. It may be that several measures are required to frame a desired outcome. Often discussion and definition of outcomes can in itself be an important and revealing activity for priest and parish council alike. As with work on a strategic plan, this should not be a one-time effort, but an ongoing process of reflection and evaluation.
In is one thing to identify and gather data, and quite another to make best use of it. Once the critical metrics have been defined, including determination of who should receive what data, and how much data they can absorb, there is still the question of how to present it.
Some people can look at standard financial reports and immediately identify the most important information; others can only understand the import of numbers through distilled and simplified graphs. Since information is meaningless unless it is understood and used, sufficient thought must be invested in communicating appropriately to the various audiences (parish council, staff, key volunteers and the general parish).
Among the commonly used tools are:
Graphs of benchmark and trend data, which can be updated periodically to provide current context.
Strategic plan monitoring checklists, for a quick overview of the progress of implementation compared to the intended schedule.
Dashboards, which typically use vivid graphic tools, such as colors, dials and graphs to make them easy to read, though limited in the depth or quantity of information conveyed. Different dashboards can be developed with the information needed by different audiences.
The balanced scorecard, which distills a broad array of information into a concise summary report, from which key performance indicators can be distilled and tracked.
Financial models, which can define and track a complex array of variables for major initiatives.
Mission and vision statements are qualitative goals. The only way to pursue them, however, is through discrete actions that can be measured (performance outputs), compared (norms), projected (trends) and evaluated (outcomes).