3 Possible “Vanity Metrics” in Ministry

A “vanity metric” is a metric a leader or team focuses on that has no relation to organizational health. In fact, it can be a cover for a lack of health. Ministry leaders must be aware of the lure of vanity metrics.

Metrics in ministry!? What!?

Yes, some ministry leaders hold disdain for all metrics, as they view planning and evaluating as “too worldly” or “too much like a business.” I understand the concern, but it is unwise to ignore all metrics. Ministry leaders should want to know how many groups there are so the group leaders can be cared for, how many people have come to faith so the people can be followed up on, how many kids are in the ministry so godly leaders can be trained to care for the kids, and so on. Equally damaging to ignoring metrics is being obsessed with metrics, where leaders (or churches) find their identity in metrics and wrongly equate them with transformation.

We should not hold disdain for metrics, but we should hold disdain for vanity metrics. Since it is a new term for me, let me explain it a bit further. I first read the term “vanity metrics” in Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman – the founder of LinkedIn. According to Hoffman, a vanity metric is a metric that presents a rosy picture of the organization but doesn’t actually contribute to the health of the organization. He cited an interview with Ev Williams, the founder of Twitter, where Williams confessed Twitter had been bragging about “the number of api calls they were handling each day, as they were being praised for encouraging developers to build on top of their platform.” It is OK if you don’t know what an api call is. The important part of the story is that the leadership team realized the metric they had been focused on and bragging about had no correlation with the health of their organization or the success of their mission.

Why cite a metric that has zero impact on the mission? Vanity. Thus the term.

So what are some possible vanity metrics in ministry? I say “possible” because each context is different and I can’t speak with clarity to each context, but here are some vanity metrics I have seen from my days consulting with ministry leaders:

1. Number of programs

Not only does over-programming not help the true mission of the church (making disciples), but it can actually be a hindrance. My friend Will Mancini has stated this very well: “Most churches are over-programmed and under-discipled.” While we know that activity does NOT equate transformation, some leaders continue to brag about the number of programs that being offered.

2. Number of staff

I have seen ministry leaders say with pride the number of staff they have on “their teams,” usually projecting a sense of success because of the size of the team. But the size of a ministry staff can be a vanity metric if it distracts from developing all of God’s people to serve, if it lowers the culture of equipping, and if it relies solely on “paid professionals” to do the ministry. Often the leanest teams are the ones that thrive at giving ministry away and developing others.

3. Number of ministries

Just as the number of programs offered can be a “vanity metric,” so can the number of ministries – both internal to the church and external to the community. It is possible to spread energy, resources, and time across too many priorities and too many initiatives and thus have less of an impact. The “number of ministries we have” often does not tell the whole story and sometimes masks an unhealthy one.

I am sure there are others. If a business wisely abandons “vanity metrics,” how much more should a ministry?