Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Managing by Actual Data

Now that the holidays have passed, I was reflecting on some of the decisions we made to maximize our impact in Christmas season. This year was interesting, in that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday - something that happens every 5 or 6 years (depending on whether there are one or two intervening leap years), so this will happen again in December 2016. Remember, in the Presbyterian tradition we worship on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day (but we always worship on Sunday).

The previous time it happened was December 2005, and that year we made the erroneous judgment that there would be very sparse attendance on Christmas Day. We were wrong. We didn't exactly need crowd control officers on Christmas - it was actually a little below average for the bulk of the program year - but compared to say, summer attendance, it was really good. It was more than we had any Sunday in July of 2005. The crowd was also a lot of drop-ins, as well as people who decided to sleep early on Christmas Eve and come the next day.

So as we planned this year, we decided to trust the data from 2005, not our instincts. This meant that we asked the choir to come back on Sunday morning after a late evening on Christmas Eve (our late service ends just past midnight) and we had coffee fellowship afterwards, because we guessed that a number of the attendees would be newcomers. We wanted this (hoped for) surfeit of new visitors to have a full worship experience.

We were right. Or should I say, the data were right. We had an attendance experience similar to 2005 - good numbers on Sunday, including an unusual number of visitors. We gave them the best we had - full music, a fresh sermon (not a repeat of Christmas Eve) - and not a holiday skeleton crew.

The lesson is simple: make decisions based on actual data. Our instincts, and those of many in the congregation, continued to be that Christmas Day would be sparse. We were able to adjust our decisions to our reality for two simple reasons: we had acquired data and we acted on the data. How many churches fail to acquire data on every event? We count obsessively. We record what we count. We know how many pounds of corned beef were eaten at the St. Pats dinner; we know how many bagels are eaten at coffee hour.

Also important is that it is our data. Our context is not your context. Our data is not your data. For example, our conjecture is that one factor could be the predominance of Roman Catholicism in our area. So many of our members are former RCs it's amazing (mostly divorced RCs who feel rejected by their church). In Roman Catholicism, Christmas Day is when you worship - it is a holy day of obligation. (This is why Catholic midnight mass begins at midnight while our late service ends at midnight. Their worship is Christmas Day, ours is Christmas Eve.)

If you don't have data of your own, you may be able to learn from ours - but it may be totally off for your ministry context. We're grateful that we record as much data as we do, and in this age of everything being in electronic documents, it's easier than ever to find the records. They don't even have to be particularly well-organized - this is what "search" functions are for. My encouragement to you is to write it down. Save it in a Word document, or software such as Evernote, so you can find it. It may not seem useful at first, but it will.

Acquire the data, study it, trust it. Good decisions are easier to make when they're backed by facts.

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