Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

Even Meat Loaf knew there was no long-term paradise by the dashboard light...

[If you're a Baby Boomer, this is an opportunity for a stroll down memory lane;  if you're the child of Baby Boomers, go to YouTube and watch the video by Meat Loaf performing the song by the same title as this blog entry and say to yourself, "That's why my parents are the way they are!"]

However, at least one Annual Conference in the United Methodist Church is praying the light from their dashboard will reveal at least growth, if not paradise.  If you haven't seen it yet, here it is: http://www.northalabamaumc.org/weeklyreport.asp.  Briefly, it is a series of dials measuring the weekly results emailed to the conference from each church by noon Monday reflecting the following metrics: membership, attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, people serving, people served, and apportionments paid.  Proceeding further down the dashboard, one can learn which churches excel in each category.

The dashboard was developed under the leadership of Bishop Will Willimon.  I have admired Willimon for years, having read nearly all his books and even listened to his tapes (back in the day) and his podcasts.  But I wonder if the Bishop and Conference, like the character Meat Loaf sings about, won't one day regret the actions they took by the light of their dashboard.

I want to share just a few ideas why this is an idea that may produce more trouble than light.  First, as any driver's education instructor will tell you, new drivers often get enraptured by all the data and opportunities for distraction made available by the dashboard that they'll not pay attention to dangers outside the car.  I imagine nearly all cars that run into trees had dashboards whose metrics were all within optimum parameters right up to the point the front bumper wrapped around the tree trunk.

Second, placing so much emphasis on the metrics on the dashboard measuring the performance of hundreds of churches clearly communicates the importance of the institution over that which comprises it.  Though automobile companies have tried to sell us the way a car rides as an end in itself, ultimately it serves a purpose larger than itself; i.e., getting us from point A to point B.

Finally, and most importantly, over time we forget these metrics represent real people with real lives and real problems.  Prior to going into the ministry, I worked in the financial industry and was very familiar with dashboards and the accountability they sought to establish.  What happened to every account representative, every manager and every vice-president was this: it was just a matter of time that all accounts were measured by and reduced to the numbers they generated.

From July 2006 to March 2007 I took a short term leave of absence from pastoral ministry and went back to the financial industry where I was a claims representative for a very large insurance company.  I worked in the department that took the initial claim report.  Each week, I spoke with hundreds of persons who had just had an auto accident or a house damaged.  Most times their voices were still shaking from the adrenaline released during the stressful moments just prior to the call.  The emotional state of the caller could suddenly move from grief to anger to remorse within a range of seconds.

The "appropriate metric" for our calls was 11 minutes per call.  If you were more than 2 minutes over, you were deemed "out of compliance" and a meeting with your manager was scheduled.  One week, I received such a notification; I was out of compliance and had a chat with my manager scheduled for me in my computer.  I went to the meeting.  Not wasting any time on small talk (I'm sure managers had dashboard metrics limiting the number of minutes they spent talking to claims reps about the number of minutes they spoke with claimants), he got right to it: You were out of compliance by several minutes last week.

I responded with a question: Do you know why?  He didn't - all he had was a dashboard...numbers.  Take a look, I suggested, you'll see one call that was about 2 hours long.  2 hours!?!?  What took 2 hours?  Were there computer issues?  You see, when metrics rule the day, the only acceptable reason for being out of compliance is if the instruments upon which you depend...the computer and its network...aren't working.  No, the system was up and working fine.  What in the world took 2 hours?

I spent several minutes detailing the experience of listening to a woman describe her house having just burned down.  She'd lived in it all of her adult life.  She'd been widowed about 2 years and the fire took all the pictures, memorabilia and other precious artifacts of over 40 years of marriage and 3 children.  Additionally, the fire had taken the lives of two beloved pets and the last, prized automobile her husband had purchased before his death.  Some of the call was listening to her describe the items lost and the stories that went with them.  Some of the call was spent placing her on hold while I arranged an auto rental for her since she had no idea how to do it.  Some of the call was spent listening to her weep.  It was at this point the manager closed my file and said, "Good job...get back to work."  I like to think his manager called him in and asked why he was out of compliance in his compliance meetings with claims reps...I like to think I messed up his dashboard so he could tell that story.

It's not that I'm not for accountability when it come to the church or pastorate.  I'm all for it.  Bring it on.  But don't, for a minute, think that these numbers will bring us any closer to paradise.  Accountability just has to be more than numbers when it comes to the church.  Accountability, especially in the United Methodist tradition, sounds like this: "How is it with your soul? Where did you see God at work in your life this week?"  Those answers cannot be reduced to a virtual needle on a virtual meter on a website.  Even more, those answers are much more messy, unwieldy, and, perhaps, even ambiguous.

I live in Alaska where there are pilots everywhere.  A pilot in one of the congregations I serve was explaining to me the difference between visual flight rules and instrument flight rules.  Instrument flight rules are used when there is no visibility - at that point "your instruments - your cockpit dashboard - is God!"  Are we, the Body of Christ, really flying blind?  I think not.  I think we're enamored with the numbers because the real questions of accountability are not easily measured at all.  There is no paradise by this dashboard light...or, am I out of compliance?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jon. I have no profound response to what you have written. I like what you had to say and I shall think of your kindness and of the lady you helped over the phone. My job requires that I speak with students and former students over the phone each work day, and I would like to think that I speak with them in a kind and helpful way. Your thoughts have helped motivate me for tomorrow's work.