Dashboards and Sabermetrics

I just returned from the South Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s annual gathering for worship, business, and fellowship. As with most mainline denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, etc.), we are experiencing decline in membership. Leaders in the United Methodist Church are seeking ways to stop the losses through a variety of studies. In the United Methodist Church, the Call to Action Report is one study vehicle focused on vitality.

This Call to Action Report is moving many administrative leaders in the United Methodist Church to want to “measure” vitality through what some are calling “dashboards”. As to how vitality is defined and how it is measured, there is still not general consensus, but the movement to measure vitality has grown and is now upon South Georgia Methodists. Just as other conferences, we are headed toward the “dashboard” it looks like our Bishop is also wanting churches to measure statistics more regularly. Several other Methodist conferences are already using “dashboards” each week to fill out the statistics of what is deemed “vitality”.

Methodists have always kept good records and statistics, the debate now is more about which statistics speak most about vitality. Is it professions of faith? Baptisms? New members? Money given missions? Amount given to apportionments?

Whenever we start talking about statistics, I can’t help by think about baseball. Baseball enthusiasts love their statistics. Former Major League ballplayer Toby Harrah once said, “Statistics are like a girl in a fine bikini. It shows a lot, but it doesn’t show everything.” It’s true that statistics don’t show you everything about a player, but they do tell you just about everything you would ever need to know about how affective a player is on the diamond. That is, if you’re looking at the right stats.

So which states do we look at. If you look at the back of baseball cards since the 1950’s, you will find the same sets of stats presented in the same way: Position played, Games, At-Bats, Runs, Hits, Doubles, Triples, Home-Runs, RBI’s, and Batting Average. The only recent change to relevant baseball statistics is On-Base Percentage (OPS).

But what about the new science of Sabermetrics? Sabermetrics is a statistical science in baseball which measures more than the “end of game” or “end of season” statistics that most fans have always measured. Sabermetrics looks more at “in-game” statistics. Sabermetricians would argues that RBI’s (Runs Batted In) by an individual player is not nearly as helpful a statistic as say VORP (Value over replacement player). VORP would look at how many runs the player would give the team over a replacement level player in the same position over a full season.

Fans of Sabermetrics argue that one can not only see the past but predict the future of players by evaluating their “in-game” performance. For example, sabermetricians argue that the stat “BABIP” (Batting average on balls in play) can actually help identify pitchers who have fluke seasons. This stat is said to show whether the pitcher’s next season will improve or regress based on a huge formula of factors.

I share all this because while Methodists have always kept good records on members, baptisms, and other details, we have never really been in the “statistics” business. It looks like we may be headed in that direction, and as with most Methodist preachers (me included) we like to think ourselves experts on any given field after about 20 minutes of reading. I want to go on record that I don’t understand all the nuances of Sabermetrics, but it does help me appreciate the science of useful statistics. It also lets me know that there are other useful ways of measuring vitality than the traditional stats.

What stats will we measure? What will they tell us about the past? What will they tell us about a church’s vitality? And, what will they tell us about the future potential of a pastor or a church? I wonder…

One of the great debates between “old school” baseball scouts and “new school” baseball sabermetricians is how to judge talent. Scouts believe in subjective measurments (look, sound of ball off the bat, quickness, speed, lively movement of pitch, etc.). Sabermetricians believe the stats can give what they need through objective measurements. Here’s a link to a great debate on scouting vs. statistics in baseball.

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