For several years in my twenties, I had a job in sales with a large corporation. I wasn’t very good at it, and I hated nearly every moment of it—of the actual job, I mean. I enjoyed most of the people I worked with.
Looking back, however, I can see how God used it for good. It was a school of hard knocks, to be sure. But it paid the bills while I was working toward something else. And it forced me to be more outgoing than I would normally be. (When I became an engineer, by contrast, I was practically the social butterfly of the office! Extroversion is relative.)
One year our general manager decided to post our names on a wall with a bar chart indicating the percentage of our annual sales quota that we had retired per month. It just so happens that I was lagging behind most of the year, so, of the few dozen salespeople listed, I hovered near the bottom. It embarrassed me greatly.
Whenever I passed this “wall of shame,” I wanted to place an asterisk by my name, with a footnote explaining my unique set of circumstances that led me to this point… If only this industry weren’t in a downturn. If only this customer hadn’t done this. If only our competitor hadn’t done that. I wanted to justify myself.
And of course there would be truth in these excuses. There was some bad luck involved in my lack of success that year, just as there was some good luck involved the next year when I blew out my quota.
Still, the bottom line was that I didn’t like my job. I didn’t have a passion for it. I wasn’t trying very hard, because I had mentally checked out. Indeed, unbeknownst to my superiors, I was going to school at night, taking calculus at a community college in order to get an engineering degree and change careers.
Do you think my lack of motivation played a role in my being near the bottom of that chart? Of course it did! I didn’t see it that way at the time, but it’s clear to me now.
With this “wall of shame” experience in mind, you might imagine how I felt when I read an article in the current issue of The Christian Century (subscription only) about William Willimon, a favorite preacher, theologian, and writer of mine who is nearing retirement as United Methodist bishop of the North Alabama conference.
According to the article, Willimon has “decimated the career ladder” in his conference, promoting better qualified younger clergy over more senior clergy. More controversially, Willimon implemented his own wall of shame, which he calls the conference “Dashboard.” The Dashboard is an online listing of each church in the conference, along with its weekly numbers for giving, attendance, hours of service, and professions of faith—”for all the world—and the rest of the conference—to see.”
To critics, “the Dashboard seems to treat the dynamics of church life like so many hamburgers sold.”
And to their point, such a chart does feel uncomfortably like sales and marketing. Numbers alone can’t tell the story of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the life of a particular congregation or necessarily measure its impact on its community. At times, Jesus himself had great numbers on his side; at other times, people were leaving him in droves. At all times, however, Jesus was doing exactly what his Father wanted.
Numbers can’t be everything for a movement whose founder warned that “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Regardless, no church is truly successful apart from the work of God. We sow and water, by all means, but the Spirit brings the harvest. Too much emphasis on the things that successful clergy do—which “walls of shame” can’t help but exalt—teeters dangerously close the old heresy of Pelagianism.
This emphasis on numbers also feels a bit defensive. The decline of the United Methodist Church—along with the rest of mainline Protestantism since its peak in the 1960s—has less to do with a lack of evangelistic zeal (not that we’ve had an abundance of it!) than declining birthrates among Methodists and other mainline Protestants. That isn’t as crass as it sounds: it’s another way of saying that the most important and effective evangelism occurs as Christian parents raise Christian children.
But Bishop Willimon knows all of this. He’s one of the brightest lights in our denomination. He’s credible. I respect him. I trust him. I trust that he knows that numbers alone can’t tell the whole story. I trust that he’ll put the numbers in proper perspective.
But guess what? Numbers do tell one important part of the story.
See, this “wall of shame” bugs me. But as I’ve tried to show, that’s mostly a personal problem. The wall of shame also motivates me. It compels me to ask difficult questions: “Am I being complacent? Am I being faithful to my calling? Am I doing everything I’m being called to do to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ? If not, what else can I do?” If it takes something like Willimon’s Dashboard to motivate someone like me to ask these questions, how is that not a good thing?
I’m sure that the kind of accountability that the Dashboard represents will come to the North Georgia Conference sooner or later. I won’t be intimidated by it. I’ll welcome it.
Jesus gives all of us, lay and clergy alike, our little talent. I want to hear those words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Don’t you?