If you’ve never operated within faith-based organizations, this can seem like a strange question. But when you do and you are someone who champions data-driven and data-informed strategies and management practices, you’ll get this question more than once.
Let Me Set the Stage for You
A faith-based leader is trying to answer a complex question. So, you start working with the data. That may be financial, behavioral, or even demographic data. (Maybe it’s all three!) You assemble the data into a model that provides a framework to evaluate measures and dimensions that inform thoughtful reflection on what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.
Then you judiciously represent your findings with your observations and conclusions completely supported. Only instead of gracious acceptance, you’re met with a phenomenon that not only dismisses uncomfortable realities but completely believes in an outcome that can neither be substantiated by measurable indicators or even historical precedent.
Ever been there? I have. And there isn’t much to talk about after that.
When leaders fail to wrestle with the data, they exchange the strength of authentic faith for an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations about accountability and current realities.
At this point, you’ve moved well beyond pragmatic realities to intangible realities such as psychology, personality, and past experiences that powerfully shape what a leader believes to be true or not true.
And Then You Get the Question: Can You Be Spirit-Filled and Data-Driven?
Let me first say I want to dispel the idea that leaders of faith-based organizations are somehow inferior to leaders in non-faith-based ones simply because they are people of faith. That simply isn’t true. Faith—at its core—is the belief that something unexplainable or unlikely is at least possible. There isn’t a leader in nonprofit and for-profit settings who has accomplished anything of significance that also didn’t believe something was possible when everyone else disagreed.
Further, I’ve read enough business strategy documents and seen enough financials to know that some conclusions from leaders of non-faith-based organizations are just as much “full of faith” as anyone else. I’ve also been around growing organizations enough to recognize and admit that things happen which are often unexpected. I celebrate those experiences, but I don’t count on them.
It Comes Down to Your “Social Software” Systems
When your culture—your “social software” as some call it—openly and intentionally explains things through the eyes of faith, being a data champion can be tricky. My hope and intent are never to minimize the role of faith in the life of a leader or organization. That would be disingenuous for me or anyone else to do. Rather, my desire is to show that data ensures we can make the most of the time, money, people, and opportunities available to maximize our mission delivery capacity.
I reject the idea that being spirit-filled and data-driven are opposing realities that can’t co-exist.
I would never say follow the data blindly because a good data analyst is always aware of the inherent bias of data structures and the context in which the data is interpreted. I would also say never follow your gut or intuition blindly either. That would be poor stewardship of the organization you lead and the donors you represent.
Here’s How I Reason It Out
Faith in what we believe should be tested against what we know is likely to happen. What we do with that information is different from accessing and appropriately weighing the conclusions based on that data. To validate the model but choose a different set of next actions that stand in contrast to what the data suggests is entirely different from rejecting data entirely.
There is ample evidence in sacred texts to suggest that numbers mean something. For an ancient culture who had to work with an economy of words, they sure did place a great deal of emphasis at times on measuring current realities. Maybe this is an indicator that numbers and measures are important, too.
For leaders of nonprofit organizations, you have a responsibility to the donor. As we see the shift from trust-based giving to evidence-based giving (i.e. Do I trust the organization? vs. Can the organization demonstrate program efficiency and quantify the impact?), it’s imperative that numbers guide the leader’s decisions around the allocation of operational resources such as time, money, and people.
The theories of life change and discipleship must be challenged or validated with empirical measures. The measure of success is “life change” in many faith-based organizations. (Life change is the net result of a process of personal transformation.) In church contexts, this is often referred to as discipleship. There is a tremendous amount of theory that exists in how discipleship programs should be formed, structured, and implemented. Yet, little emphasis is placed around establishing measures around each phase of spiritual growth to give insight into how effective our assumptions and commitments are at generating the life change.
Data is amoral. It is not good or bad nor is it right or wrong. Data is simply data. It finds its meaning when it aides leaders in making more informed decisions and clarifies how vision and strategy can be translated into objectives and key results which are the building blocks of execution and growth.
Too Much Is at Stake
If faith-based leaders truly believe their ability to achieve their preferred future has implications in this world and eternity, then wouldn’t it make sense to use every available resource to ensure you were making the best decision? The only reasonable conclusion is yes.
For those faith-based leaders and organizations willing to wrestle with the data and, as a result, have honest and candid conversations with themselves and others, they will discover the confidence they need to move forward with intention and purpose knowing they are delivering on their commitment to influence people and change the world.
Faith and reason are not opposing forces. Rather, they are collaborators (maybe even co-conspirators) in the leader’s toolbox that enable them to believe in what has yet to be seen and see what may yet be believed to be true.
Ben Stroup is Chief Growth Architect and President at Velocity Strategy Solutions where he helps leaders design, develop, and deploy smarter business growth strategies. Ben is a futurist, disruptor, and data champion. He leads a team that takes a structured learning approach to business challenges, which allows them to assist leaders in bridging the gap between ideas, innovation, and revenue—taking ideas from mind to market.
Velocity Strategy Solutions is an on-demand, next-generation business strategy and management consulting firm which provides clients with a relentless focus on data, execution, and results that positively impact the bottom line. Velocity delivers integrated people and revenue strategies combined with a disciplined approach to growth architecture that elevates the capacity of leaders, teams, and organizations to succeed and win more.