Sheila Peters, associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Fisk University, recently said, “Assessment means nothing if you do not use that assessment to change what you are doing.”
Her words remind me of an early childhood experience.
One evening, my father talked to my mother about the district pastors’ meeting that day. Suddenly, tears ran down Dad’s face. Mother asked, “Bill, what is wrong?” Dad replied that the district superintendent had announced that pastors no longer were required to submit monthly reports of their efforts in ministry.
Monthly reports no longer would be filed that listed actual numbers of visits made, professions of faith, baptisms conducted, people joining the church, attendance at worship or in Sunday school classes, or amounts of offerings, including monies given to support conference claimants (apportionments).
Mother said, “Not doing these reports should be a relief from a lot of paperwork.” Dad’s reply still haunts me: “If we don’t make these reports, the church will decline.”
Years later, I asked Dad why these monthly reports mattered so much to him. He told me that it was not that the reports mattered so much. Rather, the loss of accountability and a discipline of life mattered.
He believed that pastors who no longer made monthly reports to district superintendents would probably not report these numbers to the local church laity. I can recall asking why that was important. He said, “These reports forced accountability and a discipline that made me reflect on my calling and on the laity’s calling to live their faith in ways that reached new people on behalf of the gospel.”
He went on to say that a zero on any report meant that pastors and laity would lose the discipline that created a focus on inviting people to grow in faith or to make professions of faith. Then he made this statement: “A zero meant that I’d forgotten my passion for the gospel—for the reason I was in ministry.”
Many people are talking about renewed accountability and effectiveness measurements of pastors, laity, bishops and general church leaders and about how best to make these reports. In and of themselves, these new reporting systems will not change the church. As Dr. Peters said, “Assessments means nothing if you do not use that assessment to change what you are doing.”
If assessments/reports/measures don’t point us toward people and don’t ultimately point us toward faithfulness to the God whom we serve, then all of this reporting will not change the church.
I believe this commandment of Jesus calls us to the reason we are paying attention once again to measures and accountability—“Love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we take this commandment into our hearts and minds and if our hearts expand to bursting with passion that comes from loving God and loving our neighbors, then these measures are not just reports. They are weekly, monthly and annual indicators of how we are living out our response to this commandment of Jesus.
These reports and measures can help us change only if they remind us of the reasons that we do this work of ministry. If these efforts of accountability only enable pastors and laity to build lofty reports that the bishop and the cabinet see or that other clergy or laity note, they will not change the effectiveness of ministry. However, if these reports and measures can be a guide to the temperature of our souls and to our commitment to the ministry of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, they have the potential to re-engage us in ministry.
If our reports make us wince, we may need to reflect deeply on our calling to faithfulness to the gospel and our own passion for ministry. If our reports make us smile and rejoice, we will want to celebrate. In all cases, these reports should send us to our knees, individually and collectively, to pray that the Spirit of God will fill our hearts, minds and lives with a passion for the gospel and with a commitment to live daily as faithful witnesses to the power of love made known through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Greenwaldt is the top executive of the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.