This episode of Monday Morning Church is sponsored by KiSSFLOW, the church workflow solution.
Courtney: Welcome back to Monday Morning Church. We’ve got Michelle Leake on the podcast today, coming from Valley Creek Church with multiple locations in the greater Dallas area and an extension site in Buffalo, New York. Michelle, I’m looking forward to our chat today.
Michelle: Me too, thanks for calling.
Michelle, you are the, and this is a mouthful, director of data systems and analytics at Valley Creek, which is not the typical church staff title. So if we can start with, would you break that down for us? What are your roles, your responsibilities? How did you come into this position?
The position really has two major focuses or foci; the first part is managing the data systems for the church. So the church management systems where we oversee membership information and an attendance in classes and gatherings, and giving and tithing and that sort of thing, and up keeping those datasets and making sure that assignments are updated and kept. That’s one side of it and a nice chunk of it, that’s probably familiar to most people. The other side of it is a data analytics role, which takes all of these data and presents them to our church leadership in a way that is helpful for decision making. And that’s fairly new to our organization. So we have spent the first year that I’ve been on staff really fleshing out what that looks like and helping ministries grow and their use of data and them helping me and understanding how they want to see data presented to them. So those are the two aspects. It involves a lot, from presenting the data visually on an ongoing basis like our weekend engagement numbers. And how engagement in particular gatherings is related to other aspects or components of someone’s time at valley creek. So if they are serving as a leader, or they have given recently, that that gets included in the analysis that go forward.
What were you doing before you came on staff in this position?
My former life was as a researcher at one of the large public school districts, I worked in research and evaluation and leadership there, and I was also professor at a university, so I learned all the analytics and my educational background is aligned with that. My background is PK-12 data analytics I would say. And program evaluation.
So bridge this gap for me, because that is a far cry from the traditional church roles. How were you attending Valley Creek and they just discovered you and thought they could use you, or were they actually actively searching for someone to fill this position?
I came to Valley Creek’s attention, as it were, the leadership’s attention through serving. One of the core strategies that we have at Valley Creek is leadership development, and I happened to know and be serving with one of our pastors, and he knew a bit about my background and asked me if I could present some information on how some classes that we give that provided deeper understanding of who we are as Valley Creek, how those are related to people then wanting to go serve on a team and be part of a small group and so forth. And so he allowed me to serve creatively. He said, you just go and do what you do, here’s what we wanna know. And so I ran the analyses and presented the findings to him, and he presented them to leadership, and then some months later, an opportunity came up for someone to take over the data systems position, and they expanded the position to include my skill set.
Okay, so you came in, they already had the data systems, obviously, that’s a very common part of most churches, but the actual analytics portion was something that was new to you joining the team.
Okay, so how have you found, if I can ask you’ve been there for how long now at the church?
About a year and a half.
Okay, a church is kind of run the traditional way and bringing in this data and doing what they’ve traditionally done with it. You come in and you bring in the analytics side. How has that transition been for you, for leadership, to now move more into really informing decision making?
It’s been wonderful. It’s one of those things that, so the thing about data analytics is unless you don’t use it, you have no idea what it can do for you, but once you know what it can do for you, then you want it and you want it all the time. And that’s really the renaissance that we’re in right now where, our leadership is just beginning to see the connection between all that they’re doing and the return that that’s bringing the fruit that is bearing. They are, after every gathering, they wanna know, based on serving rolls, and based on how long people have been here and based on whether or not they’re part of what we call the all-in community, which are those who are really… they’re all with Jesus and they’re all in with Valley Creek. What are they doing? Are they coming to these gatherings? Are they inviting others into community, by inviting them to come to these gatherings as well? We are also looking at… we just very recently gave a short survey to our congregation and asked them where they are on their journey of next steps of their spiritual growth, for this point in time where we just completed a series that really speaks to who we are as a church, that we are church that follows the cloud and that we are moving as God moves us and where are we right now in our spirituality and our growth, this is a very new thing for them. And so I’m in process right now of analyzing those data and getting them ready to present. The expectation is now that we can look at data too, and that’s very exciting.
Yeah, I can imagine, especially since you’re coming from a field that, like you said, if people haven’t used it, they just can’t appreciate what it can actually do for them.
Right, and it goes way beyond just simple engagement and tithing numbers. These are pieces, but they’re clearly not what tell the whole story. And so if I had to put an unofficial title next to my name, it would be a data story teller. That’s what I’m here to do, is to take all of this information, which I don’t know what church isn’t data rich at this point in time, we have so much information and telling a story behind these numbers.
Yeah, when you first described the traditional data systems, membership in attendance, tithing giving the ones you would expect, there are probably a thousand beyond that. Once you get excited about acquiring data and trying to tell the story through it, there’s a wealth in every church. Valley Creek is a multisite church, how many do you run on a Sunday morning at your physical locations?
At our worship center and our kid’s ministry, and our student ministries, we run about five thousand to fifty-five hundred per weekend.
So with multisite and obviously a large number of attendees, there must be some administrative challenges, and you have an extension site, which is pretty far away in Buffalo, New York. What are some of those administrative challenges that the church faces?
Well, the administrative challenges are not necessarily tied to being in the multiple sites, but here’s one that does come up: we are looking at data now and in pretty real time just through the mechanisms that we have in place. So by the end of Sunday services, our leadership is looking at the numbers to see how many people have served this weekend and how many kids have attended and engaged in kid’s services. And the challenge is communication with all of the different ministry leads and campus directors to make sure that they’re doing their part to get the numbers that our leadership team will need in order to see where we are. We have it down in a system now that I think is working very well for us, we have clear guidelines that have been established by our leadership team that say, these are our expectations of when these data are going to be in, and if not, here’s Michelle’s number, you should be in contact with her shortly. So it’s my role just to make sure that it all runs smoothly on weekend services. And then I process those data and get them into a visualization format for our leadership team. The administrative challenges probably have a lot more to do with event management than with actual data capacity. So we have multiple locations where there could be multiple events or gatherings that are occurring, and sometimes that takes coordination at multiple sites at the same time for the same skills, like for our check in team, which is something that falls under my responsibility, or perhaps something that has to do with check in itself. We just need to make sure that everybody has the information they need as these gatherings are happening simultaneously.
So you mentioned making sure these things run smoothly, how have you incorporated technology to help this run smoothly?
So we do have a church management software solution or platform, of course that we use for check in and for most of our engagement data. And what we don’t gather through that system, we use online technology like Google sheets to record data, and then those data in turn feed into a visualization. We used to Tableau as a visualization software that can show in some pretty easy to interpret graphics, what’s happening with our church across every question that our leadership team looks at a regular basis.
So right now, when you look at some of the needs that you have currently, what are some solutions you’re looking for coming around the bend?
So, one of the great challenges that we have as a church with regard to data specifically is a lack of historical data. And what I mean by that is being able to tell for instance, where people are now compared to where they were at a given moment in time when we might wanna look at that point in time. So those data are very challenging to find in the current means that we have. So we are looking for a way to incorporate a data system that allows us to capture data continuously and as data change that those are tracking capability and they are capable of being pulled at any point in time as opposed to having to purposely create, “okay, we’re going to look at the January first snapshot. We’re going to look at the February first snapshot.” That’s not something that has been widely used in church management software to my understanding to this point. However, in the industry I came from, it’s a given. You just have continuous data that you can look at any given point in time, so, in order to create forecasting, which is where I would love to see us go is a church organization, you need to have those data available for you in order to create the sufficient number of points on time, to be able to tell change as a relation to time.
This really fits in well with you saying your actual role is more data storytelling.
Right, so we’re in the process of actually creating those data points ourselves. And at this point is a manual process. I think as other church leaders begin to look at data as a companion to their decision making scope, that they may want to consider the idea of creating more than just what their attendance was on the weekend data points around that. Because if you wanna know for instance, how long it takes for someone to go from walking in the door that first time to becoming what we call an “all in.” But somebody that’s fully in with the church. Then you have to have those data points that show the date in which that status changed from guest to participant to all in or full membership.
So for some of the executive pastors listening who are getting excited about what you’re talking about and it’s resonating with them, I’m sure you could give a whole list of data points that would be helpful. But outside of the typical ones, what would you say are the two or three that they should start with thinking about collecting?
So the membership piece is a huge one. So you wanna show growth the day they go from walking in the door that first time as a guest to the day they first participate in an event that you have, an extra service event, to the day when they decide they wanna join a serving team, to the date that they wanna join a group to the day that become a leader of that serving team to the day they become a leader of that group. If you don’t capture those points separately, you will lose how much time it takes to get from point A, which is guest, to point B, which is “all in” and just being really part of the church vision. That’s a big one. That’s on my dream list right now. Yeah, I would have to say, we probably don’t emphasize enough in our data gathering piece where people are as far as why they’re engaged and where they are in their spiritual growth, it’s a very subjective process, I’m so proud that we have leaders at Velley Creek church who just value that. It’s a challenge to ask people where they are spiritually at a given point in time, but to serve them well, to steward the resources that you’ve been given well, asking them where they are and using that information to process where you’re going to take the church in the next season is incredibly valuable. The balance between wanting to honor the fact that people are engaging with Jesus on a very individual level, but wanting to know as a church body where we are spiritually, I think that that’s something that the church leader would work out at that church. But for us, for Valley Creek, it fit in very well for us to know as we just completed a series that’s all about, we’re all in with following God where he’s going, where are you right now as you’re taking your next steps? It worked and it allows vision casting in a way that will be fruit bearing in the following season. So I would have to say that’s another data point, and I know there’s been some churches that have done surveying to that end. I know there’s very well-known example of that, but I would encourage church leaders to be thinking about how looking at subjective individual information in a way that can be explained corporately is worth the time and expense and effort to do it.
Do you create these surveys or do you outsource that process?
So, this was the first survey that we had done as a church body, so we were led by our church leaders in creating the survey. It was just based on their understanding of what they wanted to know on where we were as a church in our growth and our spiritual growth. And so we did it ourselves. So it’s very Valley Creek specific, although there are questions that any church organization could use.
Because you are in such unique role, where do you go to learn and be challenged?
I’m really, really blessed that I can go to many people for gaining more maturity in my craft and spiritually. I have connected with an organization that is world renowned for their knowledge of Tableau, which is the data visualization software we use, and they’re helping me just take my knowledge of Tableau to the next level, which means that they’ll be an even greater excitement and data storytelling. Spiritually, I have two tremendous leaders who I report to, who, every time they pour into me, I end the conversation just by thinking God, because they’re just such humble, amazing leaders. As far as the data analytics piece of it, just connections through industry, and I’m an avid resourcer of all things internet when it comes to data analytics. So, I just plug in and use what’s around me.
What encouragement would you give to, maybe it’s executive pastors who are bent towards data analytics, or other people who are in roles similar to yours when it comes to helping the church embrace it and get excited about it?
Yes, well, patience is a big thing here, right? So I would imagine that anyone else who comes in with my skill set and just a willingness to want to make the church an even greater church, would be interested in doing everything at once, and I would just caution them to instead to ask and listen to what the leaders are saying and then respond to what they’re saying and then maybe move one step beyond them and just saying, “okay, well how about I also show you this.” So one of the big challenges I faced when I came in, I just wanted to show our church leader, everything, and I’m a year and half in, and I still haven’t shown them everything I want to do with this role. I would encourage anyone coming into this to just spend the first season listening and just processing so that you’re on the same page with your executive pastors and your leadership, and it just makes a smoother transition. And it builds the trust capital that’s necessary for getting people to use something they’re not used to seeing and making it a part of their decision making.
That’s fantastic Michelle, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Oh, thank you. I enjoyed it.