“What gets measured gets done.” — Tom Peters, management consultant, author of In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies 
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” — Sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein who often shared this quote with his students, but the quote might have originated with sociologist William Bruce Cameron.
Like other professions mine is itching to measure itself, but Einstein’s words haunt me. I am a pastor in a large protestant denomination. Recently my pastor friends and I were assigned the responsibility of tallying up a few numbers about our congregations, entering them into a database using a nifty, web-based data entry interface, and wondering together what it means.
Let me be clear, I love to count. I enjoy designing and implementing measurement systems for organizations. I built an earlier career at a university research center counting behaviors, attitudes, feelings, events, and decisions for human service and other agencies. We learned that large numbers mean something, small numbers mean something else. Sometimes we learned that the numbers mean nothing because we were counting the wrong thing. And so I learned — as I wrote in a previous article  — it is best to count the right thing.
Like other denominations, mine found itself panicked by reports of low numbers – numbers that we perceived to be bad numbers because they were low. Our worship attendance and membership numbers had been decreasing. So, in the heat of a moment, we became captivated by a cry for more. Give us larger numbers! We want more! More people in worship, more people professing their faith, more new members! In that moment we committed to finding more people, and attracting larger crowds. In that same heated moment we also committed to adding more church services to our arsenal by adding new faith communities … because, I presume, we believed more would be better.
Is it? Is more better? Of course, this is a dangerous question to ask about church. Church folk have long assumed that more people in our worship services and more people on our membership rolls must be better. Of course we want more people in church…right? I wonder, though, do we have room in our churchy hearts to ask whether or not God cares about more?
In an e-mail to a friend not too long ago I shared my concern that Church leaders indeed seem to be focused on increasing our numbers of members and worshipers — but at what cost, I wondered? What will we need to give up in exchange for becoming more attractive to a larger crowd? I recall that Jesus was not very interested in attracting a large crowd – although he sometimes did. Jesus seemed instead more interested in showing us how to die for one another, deny ourselves for one another, and love one another.
Did you ever notice that the closer Jesus got to the cross the smaller the crowd that followed him? Is God interested in more, or better?
Thick or Thin Faith?
A favorite author of mine, Miroslav Volf, theologian at Yale and frequent writer for Christian Century  frames the tension this way. He is concerned that today’s Christian is encouraged to practice a thinned-out faith – a faith that is essentially only goal-oriented.
Volf says a thin faith is not allowed full sway in shaping the way we live and think, but is used to simply achieve our goals, whether or not those goals are related to our faith at all. A thinned out faith is one that consists of vague religiosities that serve to explain the life we have chosen instead of shaping it. A thick faith, in contrast, first shapes the life, and then demands an authentic response.
We Need Thick Leadership
In short, Volf is describing an authentic faith. He calls it a thick faith, which, I believe, requires thick leadership — from pastors, for example. Today’s Church needs thick leadership, the kind that seeks an authentic, thick faith for our people.
How do we do thick leadership?
As I mentioned above, I have a bit of background in measurement. I devoted a large portion of an earlier professional life developing systems and tools for measuring the performance of people and groups and agencies. This is no easy task, and the stakes are high because I happen to agree with Tom Peter’s prophetic warning that ”what gets measured gets done.” Meaning, our measures do more than provide evidence of what we have done, our measures determine what gets done.
What Is Thick Measurement?
If I care about thick leadership, then, I need also to ask: What is thick measurement? Thick measurement captures evidence of authentic, thick, faith and thus, because we are measuring it, helps to determine or motivate a thick, authentic faith in our congregations. I tell my students there are two ways to measure: A survey is one way. A survey is known for providing broad data from more people, but a survey is thin measurement providing thin data. Survey data scratches the surface. A focus group, interview, or personal observations on the other hand provide thick data — but from fewer people — because the method requires digging a little deeper with each person, and this requires more time. But one way or the other does not seem sufficient. Is there another way to achieve thick measurement?
Can I Achieve Thick Measurement With Thin Data?
Sometimes, thick measurement can be achieved from thin, surface data if analysts are willing to do the extra work of seeking thickness through more complicated calculations. All good measurement systems try to wrestle with the tension between thin and thick measurement – and we must wrestle, if we hope to determine or at least motivate a thick faith in our congregations in the coming years.
But the stakes are high while we seek, it appears, to be asking only for thin data – data that assume more is better, while calling it a sign of our vitality. The very nature of our data – on the surface in raw form – has already communicated to me how I am to define “vital” – more people, more groups, more, bigger, more. We will enter our numbers and we will hope that eventually our numbers will increase, because, we are told, more is better and (did I say this yet?) what gets measured gets done.
And so we add people and call them professions of faith today with less regard for authentic faith tomorrow – at least as it appears in our measures. Our focus on more instead of better risks that we will replicate in order to add more without regard to living an authentic faith better.
If More Is Better Let Us Increase Our Mediocrity
To be blunt: Our focus on more and bigger numbers becomes, in my view, similar to a cancer-like replication of our initial mediocrity – the kind of mediocrity that compelled us in the first place to cry out in that heated moment – we need more! Which, as I am suggesting, was the wrong appeal. In the face of our mediocrity we should have cried out not for more, but for better. But better is harder to measure.
So, if we are to lead thickly, let us measure thickly – which will be more difficult and require more patience. But take heart, for thick leadership allows for patience.
And yet I confess my concern. I fear that authenticity will be an after-thought. Mediocrity, on the other hand, will be tolerated, as long as my numbers are greater. Will more be preferred even if it means more mediocrity? But surely we must want a thick faith. We must prefer not to replicate mediocrity, right? And yet since I believe in the value of measuring, I find myself caught between a raw number and a right place. Consider this question: Given our choice of measures, what do we consider vital, and what then will get done?
I still cling to the hope that our raw numbers can be useful if thick leadership prevails. The raw numbers, whether more or less, can be used to describe an authentic faith expression – if our analysis dares to be innovative, and if we concern ourselves with other than the raw nature of our numbers.
More People In Worship Is Not Necessarily Better
More people in worship, for example, is not an authentic, thick measure. Perhaps some of our newer measures are more attractive – more young people, more diversity among our people, for example – but these measures too are vulnerable to simply delighting in higher numbers of younger or more diverse mediocrity.
My denomination is also counting the number of small groups in a congregation, and so I am hopeful we will find thickness in our measures of small groups – as long as more small groups is only the first measure – are more small groups necessarily better? We are also counting the number of persons engaged in mission ministry. Again, I am hopeful we will find thickness in this measure. These measures are capable of pointing to deeper, thicker evidence that a congregation is seeking authenticity. But thick, innovative leadership will be required if we hope to use the raw numbers to point to what is better, not more.
Proportional Engagement In Ministry
Consider, for example, that we will have the raw numbers available to calculate whether or not we have more people engaged in mission ministry as a portion of those in worship. This ratio might become a useful thick measure because it reflects a thicker understanding of discipleship. But we must prepare to accept the difficult results. There is evidence that as a congregation’s worship attendance increases the more difficult it is to move the growing number of worshipers into a similarly growing portion engaged in mission ministry.
The test for our thick leadership will be to use raw numbers to demonstrate authenticity, not our size. If we agree that what gets measured gets done then we must be very careful about what and how we measure, how we talk about it, and how we analyze the raw numbers. Thick leadership will persistently care about and measure authentic faith, not an increase in size. We do not need more, we need better. I believe we can measure and calculate better.
© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2012)