Moneyball and the Church – New BFFs?

In my last post I wrote about what I think is a critical flaw in the approach that Vital Congregations used in gathering a list of potential metrics – namely that the metrics to consider must be available, in other words, already being collected. I don’t know that I made a strong enough case in that article for why metrics, specifically new metrics that encapsulate a fundamental new insight, are truly transformative. So I hope to reconcile that in this post.

Leading Metrics

First, there are two main classes of metrics when you study a business process. One class is fairly familiar, it measure results and benefits and is straightforward to understand and as a result is most commonly used in most situations by most folks. Dollars of revenue, profit, homeruns, steals, strikeouts, grades at the end of the semester. They are easy to see, understand and use. People know what they mean, and by and large these are called trailing indicators. In other words the measure what has already happened.

The second metric class is much harder to get a grasp on sometimes since they don’t actually measure what has happened, but can and do give a measure of the probablility that things will happen a certain way. Some things like that might be manufacturing quality, employee engagement, interest rates, price of gas, pitches per at bat, deflected passes. These are all things that, in and of themselves, do not measure results. But after careful study and analysis, it turns out many are good indicators of what results will follow. These are called leading indicators, or sometimes predictors. The best part about these type of metrics is you know when things are going wrong BEFORE the bad results happen. You can make adjustments, and change from failure to success, and from losing to winning.

Leading vs. Trailing

Ok, let’s give a simple example of how this whole leading vs. trailing works. Let’s say you run a car manufacturer like GM. You have some things you can measure. Initial Owner Satisfaction, Brand Impression, Sales, Internet Searches for specific vehicles, Price of Gas, Interest Rates. Now, this is pretty simple, but you can see that these things happen in a certain order. Let’s take a stab at which ones are leading and which ones are trailing indicators:

  1. Price of Gas
  2. Interest Rates
  3. Internet Searches
  4. Sales
  5. Initial Owner Quality
  6. Brand Impression

If the actual sale is the measureable result, you can see that items 1,2 and 3 all have to happen prior to the sale, so they are leading indicators. And reports on sales have to come after the actual sale, so items 4, 5 and 6 are all trailing indicators.

In this simple example, you can see if you are looking at “Brand impression” (think of the favorability scores that the UMC just received) you may not see a problem show up in the numbers until it is WAAAY too late. So be very careful when looking at numbers that are trailing indicators, it could mean you are letting a large problem build without addressing it.


Examples from the world of sports: If you have watched the movie “Moneyball,” you know in pretty good detail how identifying leading indicators, creating new metrics that capture that insight, and using them effectively has completely turned baseball upside down in the past decade. In the movie, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane successfully puts together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.  His key insight was that avoiding outs was more important that scoring runs. If you never made an out, you could score an unlimited number of runs in baseball. You could wear out all of the other teams pitchers, and your odds of winning go up greatly.

All the prior stats that people used to keep are augmented by brand new stats that are now being made public for the first time, and there are even more stats that are being kept secret in club houses around the country and we won’t know about for years. None of these stats can be found in the baseball almanacs, and once they were conceived of they had to be created and manually maintained.

Look at basketball, and Phil Jackson during his championship runs with the Bulls and Lakers.  Jackson would have assistant coaches keep track of some pretty crazy stats during the game that other people never tracked before, stats like defensive touches on the ball, even if they did not create a turn over, times diving on the ground or into the stands. Things that “don’t show up in the stats” and hustle plays, he created metrics for.

He believed that hustle and effort, even when it didn’t result in a traditional stat like a steal or block or rebound, was an important indicator of later success. They were leading indicators and eventually they would lead to steals and blocks and rebounds as long as they kept up the hustle. And, of course, in order to determine if his team was executing and hustling the same from game to game, he had to invent stats and start collecting them manually for his team.

To capture a new insight like hustle or avoiding outs, and to make it into a new metric and drive new and significantly better results REQUIRES, in my opinion, new stats.

Vital Congregation Metrics

What about the vital metrics? Do they end up measuring leading indicators? Do they end up capturing some new insights in a way that can transform the way leaders see and respond to the world?

The Vital Congregations initiative asks churches to track the following “vital signs”:

  1. Average worship attendance
  2. Number of people who joined by profession of faith
  3. Number of small groups, Sunday school classes and Bible studies
  4. Number of people from the congregation engaged in local, national and  international mission/outreach activities
  5. Amount given to mission (including apportionments and other charitable ministries)
These of course by design are, by and large, stats that churches can track the historical data on, looking for trends. But are any of them Leading indicators of growth? So they could be leading indicators of decline. If I had to sort them by the order that they happen:
  1. Number of people who joined by profession of faith
  2. Average worship attendance
  3. Number of small groups, Sunday school classes and Bible studies
  4. Amount given to mission (including apportionments and other charitable ministries)
  5. Number of people from the congregation engaged in local, national and  international mission/outreach activities
Not a lot of metrics that would indicate growth and outreach. Almost all of them seem geared towards people that are already members. I like the last one a lot, it would seem to capture actual ministry going on outside the walls, but I would love to see an engagement level score, like Gallop Management Journal does.
And what about youth ministry?  If we spend our time tracking attendance patterns and trends, what do we really learn about the vitality of our ministry?  About the future vitality of our ministry?
It is hard without measurements of emotional engagement and with very few forward looking leading indicators on the table.
Church leading indicators.

Certainly, paying attention to results and what already happened and is happening is valuable.  But looking outside of that, what are the new insights and new indicators? I am afraid we have missed a great chance to ask some very smart people to think about that.

I think there is a lot of great metrics that people could track, and that there are plenty of smart people, especially the ones trying to move the UMC towards a vital congregations model.

But we did not ask them or give them the freedom to bring in the cutting edge science of engagement and new metrics. We did not give them a chance to create the UMC version of moneyball. I would love to have seen what they could have come up with if they were turned loose.


Dennis Jackson – Twitter: follow @DennisJJackson

Father of 3 awesome kids, Husband to the world’s best wife, and volunteer at the best youth group in Texas.
When at work, computers fear me.
I solve problems.

Arlington TX ·



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