Church and “Big” Data

If you were to pick up a popular business magazine or click through a business blog, at some point you would probably run across some article about “big data” and its implications for some facet of business strategy or performance.

Big Data is our friend...even when it wants to play a game.

Big Data is our friend, even when it wants to play a game of tic-tac-toe.

Big data is a pretty significant movement in business strategy and goals today. Simply defined, big data is gigantic amounts of data that is handled and processed to glean insights for multiple applications in business, government, scientific, and military sectors. The amount of data that is handle is so voluminous that it requires off-site data centers to handle the workload.

Properly harnessing the insights of big data has become a fundamental “best-practice” for leading edge businesses and agencies that help them better understand their key constituents, buying behaviors, market conditions, and an assortment of other important information. These aren’t gigabytes or even terabytes of data, but petabytes and exabytes.

In the millions and billions of figures of any given data set, experts look closely to see if they can gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace and better position their business, or client, for success.

Not too many churches talk about big data…but we should.

Granted, the amount of data that properly comprises a legitimate “big data” set is far beyond what most churches and ministries could ever need to use. What is important here is the the principles at play. For too many churches and ministries there is a lack of coherent strategy and sustainable vision because most plans in these categories are made on false assumptions. We believe we know who our primary constituent (from guest to member) group is, and we are able to assume how they want to be involved. This kind of reflection, unfortunately, too often begins in the mirror and stays in that reflection.

One of the primary tools that any church can learn to utilize is a properly maintained and properly updated membership database that tracks participation and involvement of our guests, attenders, and members. Having a good database is one of the first tools that needs to be established in a church and that is consistently updated by staff and lay people.

When you have a database that is able to regularly accept the inputs from the whole host of activities any given church provides throughout the year, the leadership of the church can begin leaning on that data set to learn about trends and participation. Some databases also enable a church to see different levels of potential relationships between members.

As a result, data can help understand how people are involving themselves but it can also provide key relational connections for ministry.

In some churches that can leverage the analytical insights from data sets in the community and partner them up with ongoing trends in their congregation, the larger data set can aid in crafting new ministries and developing a strategic vision. Later this week, we’ll talk about some specific practices and examples.

However, for our first purpose here we hopefully are making the case that even in a local church properly taken data can be an aid to ministry. One of the first steps for any church or ministry is to engage with a suitable database system that allows them to collect data from a number of reliable sources, perform specific searches of that data, and let the numbers help identify trends and movement.

It should certainly be said before wrapping up that this kind of data is helpful to a point, but it will never eclipse the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and inspiring vision for ministries of a church. Data sets are a tool for helping leaders understand what is going on and how they can best adjust their ministries. But data only provides an isolated view. Christian ministry is, at its core, a person-to-person practice that requires relational proximity and personal authenticity. Data provides a picture but never equals the physical practice of ministry among God’s people.


Staying the Course

One of the most dangerous moments for some church staffs is that moment when the senior pastor, or senior leaders, arrive back from a ministry conference discussing a new model or after they’ve read the latest influential book by “Insert Mega-Pastor Name” and decide that shifting (yet again usually) to this new strategic model will bring together the necessary parts for the church, or ministry, to reach a new level of success. Having sat in a tenuous conference room of nervous staff members while the senior pastor held up a book and proclaimed it was the new ministry map…after having heard the same speech only 16 months prior…it is a difficult time for any ministry.

In the revised introduction to his updated text Competitive Strategy, Michael Porter writes this: 

Finally, in recent years there have been some who argue that firms should not choose competitive positions at all but concentrate on, variously, staying flexible, incorporating new ideas, or building up critical resources or core competencies that are portrayed as independent of competitive position. I respectfully disagree. Staying flexible in strategic terms renders competitive advantage almost unobtainable. Jumping from strategy to strategy makes it impossible to be good at implementing any of them. Continuous incorporation of new ideas is important to maintaining operational effectiveness. (xv-xvi)

Having a strategic vision allows organizations to accomplish goals and expand their effectiveness. For those of us in church and ministry environments, we are reminded of Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” However, Ephesians 4:14 also seems apropos here.

One of the overwhelmingly keys to success in any organization, religious or secular, is a clearly articulated, clearly defined, and clearly navigated strategic vision. Strategic vision should be like the  pin in a map at the end of a route, marking the accomplishment of a task or journey. If we take this idea of our organizations being on a journey to that successfulness, then we also realize it is deeply hurtful to the organization if the captain keeps changing course when the wind blows or decides to dry dock at every port to install a fancy new keel. It won’t work.

A well articulated and coherent strategy for an organization needs time to work and time to be worked. Like we’ve mentioned before on this blog, when organizations fail to accomplish their goals it is often (at a ratio of 85%) a failure in keeping with a strategy and not a failure of the strategy.

Leaders in secular, as well as religious, organizations have a difficult task ahead of them. As leaders we must carefully develop and arrive at a plan for the journey of our organization. Then we must relentlessly stick to that plan (providing for some minor tweeks to the internal processes) and see it through to accomplish our vision.

Staying the course in allowing vision to happen is a key part of seeing our success journey find the pin at the end of the map. So stick to it! Stay the course!

Jul 2013