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Growth is needed — but at what cost?  

08 July 2022

Research from other sectors suggests that setting targets can be deleterious to mental health, says Florence Gildea

A PRIEST questioned the future of rural ministry when he reported on Twitter in January that no one had turned up for an advertised communion service (News, 21 January).

There is, of course, more to the Kingdom of God than bums on seats, quorate PCCs, and electoral rolls that warrant the name “roll”. But, realistically, there cannot be less — not if we want to pay the gas bill, let alone our clergy.

So, it is no wonder that, in seeking to reverse this decades-long trend, targets have been set: numbers of new vocations, new worshipping communities, and, most of all, congregants. But, in the effort to raise collective aspirations, is there a danger of trampling on church leaders’ well-being and resilience?

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” Peter Drucker, the so-called founder of modern management, once quipped. That seems remarkably uncontroversial in a society in which people improve their health by increasing steps, reducing calories, and “knowing our numbers”.

At the same time, many have experience of “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” as the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern summarises the Goodhart Law (originally coined in reference to monetary policy). Few measures capture the full story, and the ones that we prioritise often reveal our biases or political inclinations. For instance, the Government routinely measures unemployment data, but not the number of people earning a living wage or in good-quality work.

Setting a target also, typically, changes people’s behaviour so as to gain the associated incentives or avoid punishments. But this can mean that the overall aspiration is missed. For example, to boost their exam performance and place in the league tables, schools have been found to “off-roll” pupils who, they fear, would bring down their averages. Education — the intrinsic good that exams were designed to assure and demonstrate — thus falls victim to target culture, where exam performance becomes the ultimate end.

FOR churches, in particular, there is inevitably a balance to be struck between “worldly” measures of success and an upside-down faith, in which God sees what is not publicly shown, the Kingdom of God grows imperceptibly, and a heavenly host puts paid to humanly calculated risk ratios. We might be able to fill our churches by fear-mongering, or balance the books by emotional manipulation — but would the body of Christ have grown, or would we just have inflated our own egos?

It is worth considering, also, the political origins of our target culture in Margaret Thatcher’s governments of the 1980s. As a result of the belief that, without the competitive drive of the marketplace, publicly funded institutions would veer inevitably towards inefficiency, targets were designed to replace those pressures and demands. Targets, in other words, were a mark of distrust.

The question then follows about the beliefs behind the bold outcomes set by the NCIs: whether the targets have been set to encourage, to incentivise, or to push, and whether it is felt that leaders in dioceses and parishes need extrinsic motivation alongside their internal sense of vocation.

Research to discover what led teachers at work to develop mental-health problems at rates higher than those in the general population found that prescriptive targets were playing a part. As well as unmanageable workloads, feeling that they were under constant surveillance and assessment ground down their morale and job satisfaction.

The continual pressure to meet and beat targets, this research found, was felt by teachers to come at a cost to their relationships with pupils. The emphasis on academic performance meant that teachers could not be so attuned to students’ emotional and psychological needs.

IF THESE effects on mental well-being were replicated among church leaders, the implications could be devastating. What happens to pastoral care and the depth of discipleship if we are playing a numbers game? Could the end justify emotionally manipulative evangelistic means? And, perhaps most fundamentally, can anyone spread the Good News while they feel like a failure?

Harm to clergy well-being would not be just an unfortunate side effect of target-setting. It would jeopardise the very thing that the targets seek to achieve: growth. A burned-out, stressed-out clergy is hardly in a position to speak of Christ’s invitation to abundant life, the peace that surpasses understanding, or the freedom in him. Given the importance of authenticity in mission aimed at millennials and Generation Z, this mismatch is not a glitch in the strategy, but a fundamental flaw.

So, by all means, the NCIs should equip, resource, and encourage churches and congregations to speak about their faith in contextually and culturally relevant ways. Undoubtedly, too, church leaders should be proactive in their outreach, seeking opportunities to be a blessing to their communities. We are all under the commission to go forth and make disciples, compelled by the torrent of love and grace which we have seen flowing from the heart of God to our world — not by quotas.

Florence Gildea is the Bishop of Leicester’s social policy adviser.

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