In college, I learned an incredibly important lesson about problem solving and planning. It involved errors, and four main types of errors we make but are often unaware of. A Type I error involves applying a good solution to the right problem, not getting the expected result, and abandoning the solution to look for something else, instead of analyzing what went wrong. This is like taking an antibiotic for a day, not seeing improvement, and moving on to a different treatment. The problem isn’t in a misdiagnosis of the problem or applying the wrong solution, but in not giving the solution a long enough time to treat the problem.
A Type II error is to use the wrong (or inadequate) solution on a correctly identified problem. For me, the modern approach to stewardship is a great example. People do not possess a deep spirit of generosity and do not live in a culture of sacrificial sharing and economic equity. But instead of teaching generosity as a spiritual discipline and a key component of growth in discipleship we employ pledge cards and step charts and other behavior modification techniques intended to get people to support the church budget, then we wonder why we have to do them again and again, year after year. The solution offered treats a symptom, but does nothing to address root causes and the deeper problem. This is a Type II error.
Skipping Type III for a moment, a Type IV error defies common sense, but happens frequently nonetheless. A Type IV error is to apply a poor solution to the wrong problem — repeatedly. I worked with a church that was being sued for a third time for people falling on ice in front of the church building. There was a blocked pipe that backed up, flooding a section of sidewalk in front of the church. Whenever the temperature dropped, the water froze. Ushers dutifully spread salt every time it happened. Now, I admit I am a brilliant consultant, but my suggestion that they fix the pipe — which they did — was not one of my best efforts. It was obvious, at least to me. Often Type IV is not due to ignorance, but to habit — we’ve always done it this way. Once we see one way to deal with an issue, any other pathway simply disappears.
Which brings us to Type III — applying fantastic solutions… to the wrong problem. Or, more accurately, taking appropriate action based on poor, inadequate, or wrong information. This is the plight and plague of many churches today, using good processes, tools, resources, and techniques to produce mediocre, frustrating, and confusing results. I got a really good example of this last week at the School of Congregational Development when I talk to some market consultants for new church planters. This has been a boom industry for independent and evangelical churches for almost twenty years, but it was the first time I met anyone doing this kind of work. Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but when we got to examining the common mistakes made in launching new ministry sites, this caught my attention. I am going to call the guys I was talking to Bob, Phil, and Dave — not to protect anyone’s identity, but because I don’t remember their real names. I got their permission to record what they said on my little digital recorder, so this is fairly close to a verbatim, and it pretty much speaks for itself. The thrust of the discussion leading into this conversation was that many very intelligent and experienced church planters make assumptions about the information they use to make decisions, without realizing that it isn’t the right information. One such piece of information is called EBI (effective buying income), which measures a discretionary and dedicated spending potential of each household unit in a particular area. Developed by economists and marketers to predict the success of new product launches and retail outlet placement, church planters have gotten addicted to this statistic: the higher the EBI, the better. But this is a Type III error.
Dave: See, what we forget is that the EBI follows a bell-curve pattern — the highest givers are not those with the highest EBI, but they are found in the midrange.
Phil: And most church developers do know this, but they ignore it. The idea is that you have to connect with fewer givers at the high EBI end of the scale — and this is great if you’re after dollars, but it isn’t sustainable. You need a broad financial base, which comes from the midrange.
Bob: And even the midrange is tricky. For churches, EBI isn’t enough. Spending patterns and charitable giving patterns do not follow the same rules and laws. What impacts giving most in the United States is debt-load. There is a negative correlation — high debt, low giving/low debt, higher giving. There is a positive correlation between EBI and debt-load in America — the higher the EBI, the higher the debt-load. Successful church plants are most likely in areas of moderate EBI + low debt load.
Phil: Like, most new church planters salivate over a growing development where thirty-something couples are starting out — high EBI. But you look at the debt-load. Yikes. It is a bad target. Look at retirement areas, another popular target. Low debt-load, but a declining or stable EBI with uncertainty about what will be needed later on. Not a good target.
Bob: Poor racial ethnographies, low debt-load, but low EBI. We hear people say they want to launch new churches that will become self-supporting within a few years, and when you ask them what they are basing this idea on you find out they don’t know. They just think it should happen.
Dave: It’s not bad data; it’s just not the right data… or maybe insufficient data is the right way to say it.
Me: It would be like planning a trip with a map that only had east-west roads on it; no north-south routes included.
Dave: Exactly. It’s like people are trying to figure out how to get to Canada looking at east-west highways. You can pick a hundred different great routes, and none of them will get you where you want to go. You can drive forever and never get there. You can drive fast, safe, have the car tuned up, refuel, etc., and it won’t make a bit of difference because you aren’t on the right roads.
How often are we driving as fast as we can, but in the wrong direction? How much of our time and energy is given to doing really excellent work that doesn’t produce the results we want or need? Denominationally, I see our basic Type III error is applying the solution of “more” (more congregations, more members, more programs, more money, more marketing) to the critical goal of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I used this analogy years ago, but I think it still holds true today. We need a bucket to carry water. The ultimate goal is to provide water to thirsty people. The bottom of the bucket we have is rusting out and leaks. The solution we have come up with is to put more in the leaky bucket. We have a church that provides living water to a thirsting world. As a denomination, United Methodism has been leaking members and active participants for a long time. We have redoubled our commitment to give water to those who thirst. And our strategy? Get more people in the leaky bucket. In my mind, we’re making a Type III error. What do you think?
Categories: Church Leadership, Critical Thinking
boy Dan, I must be really, really naive – for some reason I thought that new faith communities (or rejuvination of existing communities) occurs when the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of folks…that a spiritual fire ignites through laity (and hopefully – perhaps – clergy as well) and spiritual formation, accountability and Christian action make this group of Jesus followers so compelling that people keep coming…I didn’t know it was all because of EBI’s and such.
maybe I am not realistic enough to do this new church stuff…very disillusioned right now.
I hear you, Deborah. I do think it’s a “both/and” kind of thing. There are great, amazing, and helpful tools out there to help us, but sometimes I think they get in the way instead of enlightening. When I hear impressive stories of new faith communities, it always centers in discernment, vision, intuition, and attention to a “still small voice.” Very rarely — but to be fair, they do happen — a new faith community emerges because people crunch the right numbers and read the right demographic reports. I think what is best is when people pay attention to the facts and figures and include them in their prayers and discernment processes. Too often, we settle for one or the other, and miss important value from the side we ignore.
Are you sure we haven’t fallen into Type IV space? I see the centralized programmatic solution to declining numbers completely missing the point – malnourished spirituality to be addressed by spoon feeding broadly and deeply. Instead of thirst, I see a house afire. Fixing the bucket won’t solve the problem; we need several hoses. We need to shift the culture to accept that, like prayer, disciple-making itself is a universal and critical spiritual discipline. Spiritual maturity cannot be reached without it. At its root is generosity with God’s love – to such an extent that one desires to lead others to do the same.
Ya know? You may be right. I think a lot of people are making a lot of effort to do the right thing — Type III. Misdiagnosing the problem but working very hard and very faithfully to make a difference. I also think a lot of people try some fairly simplistic and ineffective things to deal with real problems. But, you know, Rex, we’re doing dome pretty lame things to deal with a lot of the wrong things. In many ways, we make this harder than it needs to be. So many churches are so busy trying to do so many good things that they have little or no time to step back and make sure they are working on real problems. This is not an indictment, but a statement of reality. We may quickly be becoming a Type IV church!
I like the error types. Very helpful.
After reading this, I think I have a better handle on the whole issue between you and your former bosses.
Can we focus a bit more on the nature of the leak? The actual data point I’m familiar with is number of members, but how many of them are leaking out and how many of them are dying?
Unless you have a secret that I do not, there is no way to fix the bucket in a way that stops people from dying. If death is the biggest problem, then getting new people is about the only solution we have to work with.
That said, I quite agree that making disciples does not just mean rounding up every body we can an luring them into the church with magic tricks and toys. But I want a better understanding myself of the problem before I go getting a new bottom for my bucket.
In any system, you can only improve that which you control. We don’t control death — either slowing it down or speeding it up (in a few key places…) — and we don’t control those who enter or leave. All we control is the environment through which people pass. Is the environment designed and conducive to retention?
A survey of UM membership and attendance statistics over the 42-year history would say ‘no.’ However, we do see places where the evidence points to a ‘yes,’ even though the demographic factors would indicate the opposite. It is fine to show growth in a healthy, high growth area, but it is quite another thing to grow in a declining environment, or to retain members/participants in areas where no one else seems able to. The default answers/solutions we have used in the church are Type II and Type III — poor solutions to the right problem (a membership or stewardship campaign or new church start to address feelings of irrelevancy and disaffection from the church), or good solutions to the wrong problem (leadership development and small group ministry relationship building to address declining numbers). Where we are seeing impressive results is where good solutions are offered to the right problems — leadership and relationship solutions aimed at issues of relevancy, connection and disaffection. Relational solutions work best with relational problems; programmatic and resource solutions work best with technical/structural problems. My assessment is that we keep pitching programmatic and resource solutions at fundamentally relational issues.
I agree, it is interesting that we focus so much on new churches, new ministries, new campaigns, when we don’t use the same focus on fixing and supporting what we currently have going. Not to say that we shouldn’t do anything new or start new churches in communities that don’t have churches. But when we ignore current problems and realities by thinking that a bunch of new church starts (in just the right neighborhood) is going to solve our membership/stewardship concerns, we are missing the point.
I think of the EBI issue when thinking of a new church start– rather than focusing on which community might be the best one to pick based on its potential giving/lack of debt/ability to handle its money well, could we perhaps be developing ways to help congregations teach its members how to be more economically stable, get out of debt, and perhaps develop a ethos of generosity?
I think sometimes we try and fix the bucket, but we fall into the type 1 trap– we don’t see results right away and we see the leaky bucket and we think that our solutions are failing when in fact, we are simply seeing the reality of the leaks– we are afraid of failing too much, and afraid that perhaps in the process of fixing the bucket, too much water will be lost– so instead we just keep putting water in, instead of filling the holes. I hope that we can move beyond treating symptoms because we are afraid of what the immediate results might be, to solving the root causes even if that means a more difficult process.