Youth Ministers, Politicians, and Other Liars: Five Tips for Honest Counting

I know a lot about ministers, and a little about politicians, and I know we both lie about numbers.

5 tips for honest counting

We lie about the numbers themselves, and we lie about what they mean. We have learned that data has power, so we game it (just like everyone else). A lot of this has to do with our collective insecurity around numbers.

Where I am from there is a common phrase: “Preacher’s Numbers.” Preacher’s Numbers are numbers that are made up, inflated numbers, fake stuff. Because metrics and data are an important part of ministry, we need to use them in a healthy, honest way. Here are five tips for using numbers well: 

1) You Need More Categories.

You need more than weekly attendance or camp sign-ups. We count what we value, so think creatively about your core values and find ways to quantify them. How many kids are giving money away? How many students graduate and join a church ? How many leaders know the parents of your most difficult kid? What percentage of kids make the transition from fifth grade kids program into sixth grade youth group?

2) Be Accurate, Be Consistent.

Don’t look at the room and guess how many people are there. In fact, you shouldn’t be the counter at all—you’ve got a conflict of interest. Create repeatable systems and stick with them so that when you look back through the years you can compare apples to apples to see what God is doing. Communicate to your mathiest engineer type what you want to count, and let them do their thing!

3) Dig!

Numbers are not value judgments. They don’t tell you anything by themselves—we assign meaning to them. Once you have accurate and consistent data, look hard for meaning. Talk with other youth leaders, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal things. Saying, “We want the graph to go up and to the right” is not enough: if you double your attendance without doubling your volunteer leadership you’ve still got work to do.   Look for the patterns and stories underlying the numbers.

4) Call a Spade a Spade.

So you created categories that reflect your core values, and you found ways to consistently quantify them. Congratulations! If they reveal that you are not meeting your goals, don’t ignore them. The thing about setting goals is that we know if we have failed. And we will. So fail away, then move forward in grace as the beloved of God. Don’t pretend you didn’t fail, and don’t stop improving.

The thing about setting goals is that we know if we have failed. And we will. So fail away, then move forward in grace as the beloved of God.

5) Celebrate!

Look at your accurate, consistent data and find places that God is moving. Fall in love with the categories that define your core values, and relentlessly pursue them. Identify some wins and shout it from the rooftops: I HAVE DATA!

Let us be ministers who don’t play fast and loose with numbers to inflate ourselves. Instead, let us be pastors who know what we value, and use data to pursue it relentlessly.


About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)

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