If you’ve ever gone to a driving range with someone who considers themselves a decent golfer, you’ve experienced something like this: After hitting a ball, they make some kind of frustrated, guttural sound and then say something to the effect of: “Well, yeah I only hit that 180 yards but these are range balls…and it’s chilly out…and hitting off the mat always shortens my game. That probably would have gone at least 210 under normal conditions.” I don’t know if there’s a term for this, but let’s just call it “statistical exaggeration for appearance sake.” (obviously, this doesn’t happen to me…I’m quoting a friend of mine…)
Fishemen do this too. A 3-foot fish they caught becomes a 5-foot when they retell the story. A 5-foot becomes a 10-foot. Eventually the beta fish they bought at Petsmart becomes a Great White that they landed with a paper clip and a hair scrunchie.
And these aren’t the only place I notice this kind of thing. Because in addition to golf, statistical exaggeration is something I see and even struggle with in the world of church employment.
Most pastors I know are optimists.
They tend to see the good in a person, focus on the positive in a situation, and try their best to inspire positive vision in their staff/volunteers/church.
And this is a good thing. Sometimes a necessary thing. When it comes to doing vocational ministry, a lot happens that can make it easy to become bitter or negative pretty quickly. Pastors who have a lot of positivity are often times needed to help keep people motivated and hopeful in times of difficulty or struggle.
But along with that comes some risk.
Mainly: The risk that being overly optimistic might draw close to the line of being untruthful.
There is a thing that’s known among many a church staff called: “Pastor Stats.” This refers to statistics about a church or ministry that are exaggerated by the leader or pastor in order to make things look better than actuality. If a Christmas program had around 1,100 people attend, the pastor stat says that there were “over fifteen hundred people in attendance!” If a church has 10 growth groups with around 12 people in each, the pastor stat says that there are “hundreds of people involved in growth groups!” If a financial campaign’s goal is $10,000 and so far $3,500 has been raised, the pastor stat says “we’re about half-way there!”
And I get it.
I’ve even done it!
As the leader and pastor of a church, there’s a strong to desire to get people excited and feel encouraged by growth or success or momentum. A pastor is so often challenging, pushing, and stretching people, it makes a lot of sense that his or her heart would be to want to positively inspire and encourage people for their hard work, prayer, or money given to something.
Not only that, but when you add the fact that God is mixed in with all of this, of course any pastor is going to want to honor and praise God for what they believe He is doing. Hopefully, the heart behind everything a church does is driven by the desire to make God known and connect people to Him. Therefore, it can get very easy to slightly stretch the truth in the name of optimism so God is glorified and people are excited. Or maybe more accurately, it can sometimes feel like a lack of success of a ministry or event is dishonoring to or a misrepresentation of God.
Or at least that’s how I think sometimes.
So, I get it.
And as I’ve been thinking about this, I wondered: Was Jesus an optimist?
I mean, obviously Jesus was a positive person who wanted to give people hope, joy, and peace, especially about God. But, certain things Jesus said come to my mind when thinking about Jesus’ attitude about the Church in the face of reality.
At one point, Jesus tells His closest followers and the foundational members of the Christian faith:
I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. – John 16:33
A few things I observe in what Jesus says:
First: He desires us to live in peace. And not just any peace; not peace tied to our possessions or status, but in Him only.
Second: He shoots straight with us. Life sucks sometimes, even the Son of God knew that. He wasn’t trying to sugar-coat anything, even for His best friends. Experiencing trials and pain is a sign that we’re a living being, it’s a part of life. We will get hurt, things will fail, life (even life with Jesus) will not be all smooth sailing.
Third: But He doesn’t end there. He follows up reality with a further truth, in the face of difficulty, the best thing we can do is keep our hope in Him. Trust Him. Seek Him. Look to Him. Hope in Him. No matter what and always.
What if, instead of using semi-false statistics to encourage people, we pastors and leaders started saying things like: “Well, we didn’t have as many people/students/kids/ attend as we wanted, but for those who did, we are so excited to see what God does in their lives. Thank you so much to all of you who made this event possible. And next time, we’re going to keep hoping and praying for more and more people to show up and lives to be transformed!”
Or even: “That was pretty much a failure. I’m discouraged and frustrated it didn’t go like we wanted. Thank you so much to all of you who gave and supported it and we want to apologize for any of you who feel frustrated that it wasn’t what we thought and you were told it would be. Please hear me say that you can trust our team to gather and talk through all that we learned so we can make sure when we do this again, we do it in a way that accomplishes exactly what we believe God is doing.”
Think about it, in other situations, it seems like falsely increasing statistics would actually be counterproductive to what the goal is. If a baseball hitter is slumping and hitting around .150, a trainer isn’t going to make them hit any better by telling them they’re hitting closer to .200. If anything, the player needs to hear the exact truth to know how to best proceed in their training and figure out what they need to learn and change. A sales-team leader isn’t going to exaggerate sales statistics to motivate his team, they’re going to be painstakingly accurate so that they can better sell the product moving forward. A doctor isn’t going to tweak the numbers of someone’s cholesterol or physical therapy progress, they’re going to give them the honest truth, even if it hurts at first, because in the long run will lead to betterment.
In the same way, I believe that falsely increasing statistics in a ministry setting isn’t going to inspire people (or not me, at least) to do more, it’s going to distract from the truth of the matter and what needs to be learned and possibly changed in the future, to do God’s work as best as possible.
So pastor-stats might make people feel better, but are they going to actually make things better?
I learned a leadership concept a while ago that said it is much better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around. We hate the idea of under-promising. We want to promise the most we possibly can so people take notice, get excited, jump on board, and God is glorified. But in reality, over-promising can very easily lead to working harder not smarter, burn-out, and a result that falls short of expectations that were too high.
I wonder if those who are pastors and leaders in vocational ministry (myself included) need to practice under-promising more. Not selling God short, not sacrificing excellence, not promoting laziness. But simply promising exactly what they believe God is calling them to do and lead, and then striving to make it the best it can possibly be.
Worst-case scenario, whatever happens was exactly (or close) to what was expected.
Best-case scenario, something even greater happens, God is glorified, and the work of you and your team is multiplied.
Then a pastor can stand up in front of his church or ministry and passionately talk about all the incredible things that happened, without having to stretch anything to try and make it look better. For one, he doesn’t need to stretch anything, because it looks pretty darn good on it’s own. And for another, the credit goes 100% to God, since He was the One who showed up and made things happen that were above and beyond.
And for those times things fail, tell it like it is. Authenticity wins over appearance every time.
My hope is that I (and all pastors) will start being painfully honest with those that we are leading. My guess is that people will respond with much more support in the face of complete honesty, than they will with hearing trumped up numbers.
And for real though, driving range golf balls go way shorter than normal ones.