Contextual metrics are critical indicators

Consistent and accurate metrics can provide two overarching benefits.

One we’ve discussed before shows year-to-year trends in key internal operations like Sunday attendance, Sunday School enrollment, giving, and weekday participation (see “Shared metrics,” Outlook, May 19, 2008, and “Get ready to measure,” Outlook, September 1, 2008).

The other is to give your trends a larger context by examining outcomes at other congregations and in the town, neighborhood, or city you serve.

Contextual metrics can be unique and revealing.

Let’s say, for example, that your Sunday attendance grew by 5% last year; is that cause for elation or concern? If other churches in your community were growing by, say, 10%, then you are falling behind. If the overall population declined by 5% and other churches barely held even, then your +5% is a remarkable outcome.

Similarly, let’s say you measured a 10% growth in young adult members. If the surrounding area saw a surge of young adult arrivals and other congregations like yours are doubling the size of their young adult population, then you fell behind. That finding, in turn, should cause you to reexamine your ministry to young adults and to learn from neighboring congregations.

It’s easier to get reliable community metrics than you might think, thanks to the Internet. A search on “young adult population by county” yielded three million hits. Narrowing that to a single city (Indianapolis) yielded 110,000 hits. Narrowing to the north side of Indianapolis yielded 12,000 hits. Much of that information is irrelevant, but all you need are a few reliable sources of information for each metric.

As with internal metrics, the best contextual metrics provide insights into numerous questions, including questions you hadn’t thought to ask until you studied the numbers. And they stimulate further questions. Take that surge in young adults, for example. Who are they, where do they come from, how long are they likely to stay, what is their religious background?

Such questions are familiar to marketing concerns. Ask around to see who will share marketing data with you.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness Project.