Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

Last week, a friend, via Facebook, asked me how I was doing. “Excellent,” I wrote. “My family is healthy and happy.” At this stage in my life, everything beyond my family’s health and happiness is like desert, nice, but unnecessary.

Like individuals, organizations can’t evaluate how they’re doing without first clarifying what’s most important. That’s why so many teachers are frustrated today, schools obsess about students’ test scores instead of whether students are curious, kind, and able to accomplish meaningful things in small groups.

On Sundays, I often wonder how do religious leaders keep score? What’s most important in evaluating how a church, synagogue, or mosque is doing? That the budget is balanced, that attendance is increasing, that a lot of mission work is being done?

Our church is in transition. Sometime in the next four or five months, a new pastor will replace our two departing ones. The reduction is partly due to a 20% decrease in membership and a 13% decrease in giving.

Here’s my imperfect understanding of what’s happened. Four or five years ago we hired two progressive pastors who were left-of-center politically; some key church council leaders were lefties; our synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to ordain gay clergymen and women; our state voted in favor of marriage equality; and we rewrote our “Welcoming Statement” to explicitly reach out to GLBT members of our community.

That pace of change overwhelmed some people. Also, as it turns out, people inside religious organizations have dispiriting personality conflicts just like people on the outside. One of our church members told me the members who won the political debates about gay clergy, marriage equality, and the wording of our Welcoming Statement were not gracious winners.

How do religious bodies negotiate political differences and does that factor into how they are doing? Conventional wisdom is that religious leaders and their congregants should leave politics aside. I disagree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints. Public dialogue about controversial issues is so anemic right now, lots of people on the outside would take notice.

Granted, that’s easy to assert in the abstract, but when talking about abortion, the death penalty, or even marriage equality, it’s much, much harder to implement. In fact, I wonder, are there examples of political diverse religious communities thoughtfully engaged with contemporary issues? Birds of a political feather prefer to flock together, but is that inevitably true inside churches, synagogues, and mosques as well?

I hope not. And I hope our next pastor considers that challenge among the things that matter most.