Stats Lie Pt 2: Tunnel Vision

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series Stats Lie
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In the last post I started a series called “Stats Lie.”  That post was focused on stats and partial truths.  This post will explore the relationship between stats and tunnel vision. As mentioned previously, this is not a series against statistics or measurements, but about our relationship to and how we access the truth of a situation.

I currently minister in the context of an ethnic minority specific ministry as part of a larger ministry that is mostly homogenous (majority culture/white). Even today, there are great challenges to ethnic minority staff and students joining our organization as well as staying once they have joined.  The experience of cultural marginalization on multiple levels just so often is too much to overcome for longevity in this particular environment.

So 2012 is challenging for ethnic minority staff in my organization.

Let’s take a moment and go back 40 years….

In the last year, I and others I work with have had conversations with more people that were pioneering ethnic ministry in the earlier years of our organization.   One of the nuggets we learned was that in the early 70’s, some of the few ethnic minority staff pioneered a leadership development program that created space for all of the ethnic minority staff to be together for contextualized training, development, outreach and community in which they could invest in the areas that were making or breaking ethnic minority staff success.

It was ahead of its time. It was producing fruit. It’s what we’ve been working to do in our own context these last 4-5 years!  So what happened?

Stats lied.   Among other things.

At the time, the head of the organization looked primarily at one stat – evangelistic production.  This test case of a leadership development program for ethnic minorities was not producing the number of outreaches and evangelistic contacts that were up to speed with the expectations of the day.

The program was canceled (without real discussion with the ethnic leadership, but that’s another discussion).  Leadership was shuffled. There was then an exodus of Asian American, Latino, and Native American staff especially over the next couple of years.

Now I’m sure I don’t know the whole story and I’m sure there’s tons I don’t know, but I’ve heard enough to see the impact of one statistic on the entire culture of my organization.  One decision that resulted in losing almost a whole generation of Asian American, Latino, and Native American staff.  Furthermore, what was experienced by those early staff would end up being a repeated experience for many over the years – and even now. Opportunity lost.

A judgment was made on the bases of 1 criteria – and I believe we’ve been paying for it ever since. (This leader made many great decisions, but there was a price to pay with this one).

That’s one way stats lie.  In the hands of someone or a group of people who have tunnel vision, a rigid over focus on one area while losing sight of the bigger picture and other elements, stats become powerful protectors of the status quo.

Can you imagine, if you are one that serves in the same context as I do, what might have been different or what might be different had a different decision been made at the time – one that was made with enough awareness of all the significant variables at play for those pioneers of the day? How much pain could have been spared over decades?  How many ethnic minority leaders might have otherwise helped shape the direction of our organization?

Even today it seems we’re often fumbling around, making the same mistakes, all the while somehow managing to feel like we’re just staying focused on our “priorities.”  I wonder if a modern day tunnel vision is protecting tradition and the status quo, keeping eyes blind to the rest of the picture.  But this is a dynamic present in many contexts and not just my own.

One criteria lends itself to the trappings of certainty, rigidity, and over-confidence.  All of these things hurt our ability to see and understand how actions may impact a diverse group of people in different ways.

Fixation on one criteria + blind spots/lack of cultural awareness/rigid views = Lost Generation of Leaders

Are we making any of these same mistakes today?

What stats or standards of success do you think can block the bigger picture? What stats can deceive us into perceived success or failure when it may not be the case?

**For more on tunnel vision, check out a past post here called “The Disability of Competence.”


Series NavigationStats Lie Pt 1: Partial TruthsStats Lie Pt 3: ….Except For When They Don’t
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6 thoughts on “Stats Lie Pt 2: Tunnel Vision”

  1. Brian, good sobering story. You are a good writer. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how would you deal with a non fruitful contextualized ministries? The mission is not contextualization, but turning lost people into Christ-centered laborers. So what do you do if a ministry is successful at contextualization, but not effective in their primary mission of reaching the lost? Will you be addressing that in part 3?

    1. Thanks Pete and for taking the time to jump in here.

       It is sobering.  When I started learning some of the details of what was starting to be done it was crazy because it was a lot of those things we’ve identified as being vital to Epic’s longterm fruitfulness.

      Your question is a good one.  As I am writing this, I have been brainstorming an approach to measurements for EFM contexts that attends to the critical areas of success.  Evangelism and Christ-centered laborers are key of course.  But there are others.  I approached writing this out of my thinking about stats and the epistemology arena, but it’s got me starting to to think about what might be a constructive way of helping ethnic contexts evaluate those very questions.  Because we’re asking those too and they’re not questions that can go unaddressed.

      What I would say right now is that at the very least in the case of evaluating an unfruitful movement is to pause and assess the greater context as well as the future implications of “cleaning house” sort to speak.  In the case above, it’s not that what they were doing was just focusing on contextualization.  They were doing evangelism and outreach, but it just wasn’t keeping up with their criteria at the time.  But the issue of time – are we holding them to ethnocentric standards in terms of their timeline of fruitfulness? That might be one of the questions I’d ask.

       If viewed through evangelism alone, the decision would be viewed as just.  However, the decision was interpreted by many as “we don’t value your reality” and of course then, many left.  There was less than a one year sample size that a decision was made out of. That was an organizational game changer looking back.  That’s another question – what will our decisions represent and communicate and MEAN to these people given their reality?  What might not be seen as meaningful from majority culture perspective, could be mission critical for an ethnic minority community.

      It’s hard to evaluate the fruitfulness of a movement without really looking and entering into the context and understanding what the real issues and dynamics are.  If that’s really done, I think sometimes the questions about fruitfulness can start to look different.  That’s where I started to think about the tunnel vision concept.  It takes work to get a full picture, and sometimes we assume (me included) that we have a pretty good picture when it’s still a small fragment of what’s going on.

      I’ll keep thinking, but curious if you have ideas.  I’m directing our staff conference in a month and so we’ve been exploring some of your question with our field ministry team.  We’re wanting to reinforce the vision of what we exist for, but also honor the context and realities that shape what is going on.

      One thing to highlight also is that I agree that contextualization is not the mission. I don’t see it as a goal or as a strategy.  It can’t be divorced from the primary mission because it’s about reaching people in ethically and honoring ways.  We’re trying to unpack that a bit right now because currently I think there’s some gaps in how we are approaching contextualization.  Many talk as if its just a pragmatic strategy and a “means to an end” – the end being the primary mission of reaching those that don’t know Jesus. I don’t think that perspective serves the mission and it definitely doesn’t serve ethnic minority communities. It’s an orientation, a posture, towards the different types of people that make up the lost.

      We’re talking a lot through this right now so that’s why I branched off into a bunch of thoughts there – far too much for a blog comment, but these are needed convo’s both for EFM strategies and for the larger whole. 

      So a lot of this is processing out loud on the contextualization pieces, but I’ve been thinking a lot about accessing truth and reality amidst all the challenges lately and started thinking about how we use statistics for better or worse.  I’m sure there’s a couple more posts coming, but not sure what they are yet 🙂

      1. Brian,

        This is a great post, thanks for sharing honestly. As the saying goes I hope that now that we know history we won’t repeat it.

        I’ve noticed some of these same dynamics in my own ministry with Latinos. Depending on which stats you looked at, our movement was doing great or not so great. If you looked at our evangelism numbers, we were off the charts. If you looked at number of graduating christ-centered laborers, we were really hurting (for a variety of reasons: academic, financial, spiritual). To get a true picture of the movement you couldn’t have tunnel vision.

        I think Ethnic minority ministry is incredibly complex. If our stats for success are simplistic, we can miss some of the real reasons why we’re not seeing long term success in our movements. Evangelism numbers, for example, are very important. We wouldn’t be true to the mission without them. There are other important factors as well, which is why this post is so important.

        Pete brings up a good question, “What if they’re not successful at reaching people?”. That should always be in the forefront of our leaders’ minds. Some of that is related to context (ex. Muslim countries), some to poor strategy, some to alignment to vision. 

        I agree with you, Brian, that contextualization is not the mission. I would say that you can’t have the mission without contextualization. All ministry is contextualized, including Jesus’ ministry. The mission is always accomplished in contextualized ways. 

        Typically in our organization when we refer to “contextualized ministries” we are talking about to specific ethnic-minority contexts. I am becoming increasingly convinced that HOW we do ministry is just as important as WHAT we do. How we develop our leaders, how we “contextualize” to a particular ethnic group, how we do evangelism is crucial. Like you said, it can’t just be framed in terms of evangelistic strategy, it also has to be in terms of worth and dignity. (I think there are echoes of this in Acts 15 where Paul and Barnabas plead for the dignity of Gentile believers not to have to become Jewish in order to follow Christ. Any ethnic minority ministry is following in the same footsteps, creating a space to follow Christ as an ethnic minority. And if they are truly following Christ then they will be a part of His mission.)

        Finally, I’d agree with Margaret’s comments below that in many ethnic minority settings our ministry strategy begins to look like “Win, Build, Heal, Send”. I’ve found this to be true in Destino. We’re just as committed as ever to sharing the gospel with Latinos. Our desire is not just that they accept Christ, but that they truly have deep gospel experiences that heal them in ways that allow them to become lifetime laborers. As I said before, this ministry is complex and it is hard. If it wasn’t, we would have solved it years ago. It is important that we have a variety of statistics with which to measure the health of our movements, and continue to be about the mission of seeing lost students and faculty become truly Christ-centered laborers, living out of the fullness of their identity (including ethnicity) in Christ.

        Thanks for posting.

    2. Brian,

      I was reading back through “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” for discussion with the Destino executive team and came across a passage that I think fits this story perfectly.

      In chapter 7 he shares the illustration of a herd of cows out to pasture. Leaning on the fence is a man in a $700 suit yelling at the cows to get busier making more milk. “What the man does not understand is that, even as he threatens them, the cows are performing the miracle of turning grass into milk. Nor does he understand that his shouting will not cause the cows to produce more milk.”

      The author goes on to add:

      “A management obsessed with productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity. Its dream of dreams is to put the cows on the milking machine 24 hours a day…A healthier alternative is the Orbit of trust that allows time — without immediate, concrete evidence of productivity — for the miracle of creativity to occur.”

      I think stats can lie because like the man in the suit we fail to realize that the entire process is necessary for the creative leap. Yes, measuring milk output is crucial. But that can’t be the only thing. Just like you say in this post, we can’t have tunnel vision in how we interpret stats.

      Great chapter in a great book.

      1.  oh man! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that connection – but it’s exactly appropriate to this situation even though Mackenzie just is focusing on the creative process.  Leaders’ own anxiety can actually undermine what they are wanting, sabotaging progress for everyone.  It’s where power does it’s work unintentionally to maintain the status quo, even though everyone desires change on some level – just maybe not enough to create space for that empowering process to do its work.

        Fantastic connection, love it.  Love that chapter too – my dad grew up on a dairy farm so he totally got that chapter and really resonated with it from his days on the farm.

        Thx for dropping that here man.

  2.  Pete & Brian, thanks for this engaging question. The Epic Exec team, we were talking about our success criterion and what it looks like for us and how would we know? if we are being fruitful?

    I like what you said, Brian, that when we look at fruitfulness, we must look at the real context or reality of a people to evaluate effectiveness. It is about time and criterion that may look different. So, when I did Non-Asian American ministry thru Cru, I realized the leadership and discipleship and evangelism training looked different than w/ Asian Americans or Ethnic Americans, I realized that it often (not always) took longer to see the same type of transformation in Ethnic settings due to some of the reality of the Ethnic identity journey or story.

    Obviously the question then becomes: WHY? Well, the Ethnic American  identity or story is different and often times hidden or silenced and thus, does not lend itself readily at times to ministry or leadership expansion.  Often times, in ministry and leadership, growth and maturity issues surface in developing leaders at the deepest core, and thus, pointing to the fact that leadership development need to address these human realities.  When a people are rife with pains and sufferings due to racism, oppression or emotional or spiritual stuntedness, then prior to ministry or leadership training, we must address their woundedness w/ Christ’s healing and redemption in community.  What I have learned in my 26 years of ministering in various Ethnic settings, is that Ethnic American leadership development often times involves a bit more time for maturity or diffferent programs for development due to the above.  (We would all agree that leadership happens best when connected to who we are in identity holistically. We lead out of who we are.)

    In the words of our people, we are about win, build and send. But we find ourselves often times engage in win, build, heal and send. And this looks different and requires a different time table. But nonetheless, we are about the mission in our realities.

    BTW,what was most sad about history is that the man who was the leader being told his stats for evangelism was not cutting it, was a leader who loved evangelism. Their Stats did not tell the whole story.   If you find out the rest of his story, he went on to serve & lead in other prominent ministries to help w/ student and community ministries. Ironically, my introduction to this leader was that his trademark was that his organization was about equipping many AA’s to evangelism and leadership development; and the contextualized approach that he took.  (That is why I served on his board of directors team for 5 years.)

    Practically, if you were to ask me what this meant? I have an example: When we first started Epic 6 or 7 years ago, I could only find about 3 or less Epic staff in our midst who may want to do evangelism or movement launching. Why? Most AA’s are not as initiative in some areas or are too harmonious to do confrontive types of evangelism.  Many of our staff then, would also tell us: We prefer to do discipleship and caring and shepherding….

    We in Epic National knew that, but we needed to create something different that would honor their reality while encouraging them to still focus on their mission or movement launching. We also (not perfectly, you can ask our staff), designed training  that valued their Ethnic reality or dignity as a people but that honored them to grow in leadership with their identity intact and empowered for God’s glory.  In doing that, in a span of 4 years, I see our staff are more motivated about evangelism and more motivated about movement launching than before.  But they will do these tasks in their own time timetable and honorable ways.   But they will do it and we are so proud of many of our staff who were able to continue to stay true to the mission of God while growing in their identity as leaders.  Many of them also experienced more healing that empowered them to speak and lead differently today than ever before.

    (Please know that we still have ways to go in this for all of our own stories and our own leadership development.  It is NOT easy and very challenging, and often times  it can be easier for us to even just be tunnel visioned as well. We need God to keep us looking at people holistically and with dignity. We are also learning that as well. )

    I hope I am making sense.  Pete & Brian, thanks for engaging us on this important topic.


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