Many years ago, I borrowed a friend’s car. I really needed a vehicle, so it was a blessing to have an extra set of wheels. However, there was a small component on his car that didn’t work that actually caused some major issues. The gas gauge didn’t work.

Obviously, the car runs perfectly well with a broken gas gauge – except for when you run out of gas. No big deal though, there was a simple fix. Whenever you filled the car up with gas, you simply had to reset the trip odometer. As long as you filled it up again by the time the vehicle hit 250 miles, you were fine.

However, what happens if you forget to reset the odometer after you fill the tank? That’s when you start playing a guessing game.

If I filled it up two days ago, I can easily drive it until Friday before it will run out of gas, right?

I’m pretty sure it was close to 250 when I filled it up, so I’ll just drive it to 375 before I get gas again.

Truthfully, there are only two sure things I could do when I found myself in that situation. 

  • I could go straight to the gas station, fill it up, and reset the trip odometer. No more guessing.
  • I could go to the mechanic and have the gas gauge fixed.

These little gauges on the dashboard are pretty remarkable. They’re really simple and do very little (if anything) to improve your vehicle’s performance. However, if they don’t work (or you don’t look at them), you are literally driving blind.

Just Like Your Car, Your Ministry Needs Guages Too

As reluctant as we would be to drive a vehicle without a speedometer, a gas gauge, or a temperature gauge – it’s amazing how many of us lead ministries for years paying little (if any) attention to the data, feedback, and metrics that describe what is happening under the hood. 

These gauges on our vehicles help us know that everything is working the way it’s supposed to be working. Generally, gauges alert us to malfunctions and dangerous situations. Oftentimes we don’t pay attention to our dashboards until a warning light comes on. The check engine light lets us know that there’s a problem, hopefully before we find ourselves stranded on the side of the road.

I’m not suggesting that ministry leaders don’t look at data. I’m just not convinced that us ministry leaders always looking at the most important data. Let me take that one step further. I’m not convinced that we’re looking at the correct data correctly. 

  • Maybe you know how many volunteers serve in your ministry.
  • Maybe you know how many kids attended last weekend.
  • Maybe you know how many kids signed up for camp.
  • Maybe you know how many kids were baptized last quarter.

All of these are great things to know, but are they really telling us everything we need to know? Probably not.

Sometimes You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

A couple of years ago, I conducted an exercise to plan out a volunteer recruiting campaign. We didn’t have as many volunteers as we needed (said everyone, everywhere). We decided to identify how many volunteers we actually needed so that we could set an accurate recruiting goal. This exercise opened a can of worms that I didn’t see coming.

  • First of all, we couldn’t agree on how many volunteers we actually needed. We had X number of spots to fill to cover us on the weekend. However, we couldn’t figure out how many volunteers it would actually take to fill X spots because some volunteers serve weekly, some serve every other week, and a few just want to serve once a month as a sub. If we want to set a goal to fill X spots, how many potential volunteers are we really going to need? It was complicated.
  • Second of all, we set the wrong target without even knowing it. We knew we needed X number of volunteers to fill X number of spots, so we assumed that we needed X number of people to fill out a card, raise their hand, text in, or show up to our cool volunteer orientation. What we didn’t account for was that not everyone who filled out a card, raised their hand, texted in, or showed up to an orientation actually became a volunteer. We were actually way off. What we thought was a successful volunteer recruiting campaign was actually far from successful.
  • Lastly, we missed out on another really important number. We knew we needed X number of people to fill X number of spots, but we didn’t account for the fact that X number of people leave the ministry every month or so. The X number of spots actually grew WHILE we were recruiting. We didn’t actually recruit X number of people to fill X number of spots, but even if we did, we still would have come up short because we didn’t actually know how many people would leave their roles during our campaign.

I was a little impressed with myself for my forward-thinking planning before launching our volunteer recruiting campaign. I just didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. Why didn’t I know what I didn’t know? I had never paid attention (or even knew to pay attention) to the data and metrics that were in front of me all along. Knowledge of this information would have helped us set better expectations and goals – and would have helped me see that my volunteer recruiting campaign wasn’t going to solve our problems on its own. I actually learned a few things that would guide me well for many years:

  • I needed a better gauge that revealed volunteer health. Yes, I need to know how many volunteers I need vs. how many I have. However, I also need to know the frequency makeup of all of my volunteers. My preschool and elementary ministry can both have 50 volunteers – but if preschool only has volunteers on an every other week schedule and if elementary only has weekly volunteers, I have two very different volunteer teams.
  • I needed a better gauge that revealed how many volunteer recruits actually become volunteers. Ten years ago, I was shocked to discover that only 30% of my recruits actually became volunteers. I would later learn that 30% is fairly common. That meant that I needed to recruit 150 people to actually grow by 50 volunteers. This was a horrifying truth. However, I later came to learn that I could increase that percentage and eventually came to retain 70-80% of my recruits (that story is for another day). 
  • I needed a better gauge that revealed how many volunteers leave my ministry on a weekly/monthly basis. I’m amazed at how many years I was in ministry before I ever pinpointed what that number was. It was years before I actually knew how many volunteers I needed to recruit to simply keep up with the number of volunteers I currently have. I also learned that there were things that I could do that would increase my retention. However, until I began tracking these numbers, I’d never know what actually worked.

What Data Should I Track

This is a great question.

The simple answer is – everything. 

Seriously, if you can put a number to something, why wouldn’t you track it? There is a distinction to consider. Just because you are tracking something doesn’t mean it needs to be on your dashboard.

Think about this for a minute. 

When your check engine light comes on, your mechanic can run a computer diagnostic and your onboard computer will give your mechanic a code that describes exactly what caused the check engine light to come on. It could be related to a misfiring spark plug or the failure of your engine fan to turn on at the correct temperature. Your onboard computer is literally measuring hundreds of your vehicle’s functions, but you won’t actually know any of this data unless the check engine light comes on. This data is important to know when you need to know it, but it’s not usually critical information to pay close attention to.

You need to track as much data as you can (hopefully your database and check-in systems do this automatically). However, just like your car, you need a dashboard that puts the most important information right in front of your face for constant feedback. Your dashboard keeps you aware of your ministry’s immediate health and helps you make quick decisions that are critical to leading a healthy ministry.

Here’s an example of what data you should track:

  • Total volunteers
  • Volunteers who served this weekend
  • Volunteer recruits
  • New volunteers
  • Lapsing volunteers
  • Percentage of weekly volunteers
  • Percentage of non-weekly volunteers
  • Volunteers by service
  • Volunteers by roles
  • Volunteers by ministry
  • Volunteer tenure (serving anniversaries)
  • Age of volunteers (typically by preteens, middle school, high school, college, and adults)
  • Weekend attendance
  • Attendance by service
  • Attendance by room/age group
  • First-time families
  • Second-time families
  • Third-time families
  • Attendance frequency
  • Number of Small Groups
  • Number of Small Group Leaders
  • Number of Small Group Leaders per group
  • Number of kids per small group
  • How many attended a baptism class
  • How many have been baptized
  • How many have attended a child dedication class
  • How many kids have been dedicated
  • How many kids went to camp
  • How many kids went to VBS

You get the idea, right? The truth is, you probably already have this data. The question is, how accessible is that data? If it requires you to run complicated reports or dig through months-old sign-in sheets, that’s not good. What if all of this data could be collected on a weekly basis (if it’s weekly data), and kept in a centralized place. That could be helpful, right? Honestly, it probably wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes a week to track all of these data points. The hardest part is just getting organized and figuring out where to access all of this data. However, once you have it all in one place, you’re going to have a better pulse of what’s happening in your ministry and you’re going to be able to make decisions much quicker than you do now.

Here’s an example of what data should live on your dashboard:

All those data points are great. However, no one needs to look at all that data on a weekly basis. Having it quickly available is helpful, but a dashboard only needs the most important data points. Remember the car analogy. Your dash only has 4-6 measurements like speed, temperature, and mileage (it has that battery thing too, but I’m not even sure what that’s about). If you were building out a dashboard for your ministry, what kinds of data points do you want to see on a weekly basis? Here are a few ideas:

  • This weekend’s attendance (probably divided by age groups)
  • This weekend’s attendance as a percentage of the last 4-8 week average (is attendance trending up or down)
  • This weekend’s volunteer number
  • This weekend’s volunteer number as a percentage of the last 4-8 week volunteer average
  • Current total volunteer number
  • Current total volunteer number as a percentage of total volunteers needed
  • Current total volunteers broken down by weekly and non-weekly volunteer percentages
  • Current total volunteers broken down by age percentages (preteen, teen, adults)
  • New volunteers (monthly)
  • Lapsing volunteers (monthly)
  • Number of new families (1st visit, 2nd visit, 3rd visit)
  • Number of small groups
  • Number of kids assigned to small groups

You’ll see that some of the numbers on your dashboard aren’t necessarily numbers you’re tracking, but it’s mathematical equations of what you’re tracking. Your dashboard shouldn’t just tell you the most important data, but it should tell you the relationships between the most important data. It should tell you trends. It should tell you the direction in which you are heading.

Driving with Your Eyes Wide Open

The best organizations in the world make informed decisions every day. Accomplished leaders keep their eyes on metrics to anticipate what is just around the corner. The smartest executives have weeks, months, and years’ worth of data within arms reach. The ministry you lead is no less important than the world’s biggest companies and you can be as savvy as the smartest executives. You already have the data, you just need it where you can see it and you need to see it in a way that tells you what is happening (or not happening). Sometimes an “informed” leader is just as important as an “inspired” leader. Watch your data points and ensure that you’ll always be an “informed” leader!