Numbers in ministry are something every church leader thinks about. The extent to which we think about numbers is often seen in the questions we ask. “How many people attended Sunday? How much was the offering? How many baptisms have we had this year? How many small groups do we have? How many kids went to camp? How many people accepted Christ at the event?” I know I’ve asked these types of questions a million times since 1990 when I started working in churches.
A few years ago though, one conversation really changed the way I think about church numbers. A young pastor I was supervising once asked me, “Are we responsible for inputs or outcomes?” What a great question. I chewed on that question for a long time and it made me re-evaluate my approach to leadership. You see, I tend an outcome-oriented guy. As such, I’m influenced by business-minded-thinking. I like metrics, measurables, goals, and charts. I like the idea of rewarding people who know their measurable outcomes and then exceed them. I’m a firm believer that “measured performance gets improved performance.” But is being outcome-oriented really the best to lead? Generally what I measure focuses on the result rather than the cause. Which of those two measurements is really more important?
Maybe you’re wondering, “What’s the difference between an outcome and an input?” Some refer to outcomes as “lagging indicators” and inputs as “leading indicators”. Simply put, outcomes are the results and inputs are the causes. Understanding the difference between outcomes and inputs can shift our leadership in significant and important ways. I know that as I’ve pondered the difference I’ve certainly changed. Something I’ve noticed is that I’m certainly not alone in being an outcome-oriented guy, but I often find myself in unexplored territory when I start orienting more on inputs.
Why We Tend To Measure Success By Outcomes Rather Than Inputs
1) We live in an outcome-oriented culture. As I mentioned earlier I’m influenced by the world of business. It’s hard not to be living in America where capitalism is a huge part of our culture. Many pastors, like myself, read business books that extol the virtues of measurables and metrics. As a result, in church we frequently ask outcome-oriented-questions: “How many people attend your church?” “How many small groups do you have?” “What’s your budget?” Culturally speaking, these numbers are viewed as measures for success.
2) Outcomes are easier to measure than inputs. Outcomes are very tangible and relatively easy to chart. Inputs can be more abstract and more difficult to track. For example: it’s simple to track how many people came to a special event at your church, but it’s hard to track how many parishioners invited others to the event. It’s easy to do a headcount at the event and measure how many people came. It’s difficult to track how many of your church members asked others to come. At our church we measure how many invite cards we print and how many are taken. That single input-measurement forces us to think differently about how we encourage people to invite their friends.
Why We Should Measure Success By The Inputs
1) Outcomes are the result of inputs. Good outcomes flow from good inputs. We’ve all heard it before: “Garbage in, garbage out.” In my own experience I’ve seen the best outcomes when I stopped thinking (and worrying) so much about them and I instead focused more on the front-end work (the inputs). When good outcomes are not present in my life, my work, and my small group, it’s almost always because I’ve not been putting adequate effort into the inputs.
2) Outcomes are God’s business. It’s up to the farmer to plant, water, and harvest. Yet the actual fruit being harvested was made and grown by God, not by the farmer. The same, I believe is true for those of us in leadership. We plant, water and harvest (inputs) but the fruit is produced by the miraculous work of God.
3) Maybe we should focus more on inputs and trust God for the outcomes. It’s human nature to want to control things, but the reality is that we are not in control. We are all taking a ride on a giant dirt clod hurling through space at thousands of miles per hour. WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL! Once we grasp this liberating truth, we are free to focus on inputs.
- Input more development into the people you lead.
- Input more hope into people who are hurting.
- Input more passion into your work.
- Input more Jesus into yourself.
- Input more time into your spiritual growth.
- Input more preparation into your sermons.
- Input more excellence into your projects.
- Input more time into your practice.
At the end of the day, if we focus on the inputs the outcomes will improve. So today I find myself asking my staff different kinds of questions than I used to ask.
- How many times are you going to communicate and promote this event?
- How many times per week are your volunteer leaders communicating with the students they lead?
- How often are we offering discipleship opportunities?
- How many mission events are we planning this year?
- How much time went into planning your communication?
- How many times did you connect with parents this month?
- How many lunches did you have with small group leaders/coaches?
- How often are you spending quality time with Jesus each week?
- How often are you taking your spouse on dates?
- How many times was the gospel shared during the mission trip?
The funny thing about all this is that although our church staff still maintains a spreadsheet showing our outcomes, I just don’t look at it as much as I used to. Another interesting side effects of this kind of shift is that these kind of input-oriented or leading-indicator-oriented questions make me think more about the health of my staff and our church than outcome-oriented questions. Personally this has been a great change that has stretched me and helped me grow as a leader. What are your thoughts?
In my next post I’ll write about practical ways to focus more on inputs, so stay tuned.