“Discernment Analytics”

As a volunteer in the Minnesota Conference of the UCC, I chair a committee with the unwieldy title, “Discernment and Preparation for Authorized Ministry,” lovingly referred to by its members as DPAM. We work with people who are seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ, and the framework we use is (you guessed it) discernment. We ask the Members in Discernment (their acronym is MIDs) to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider their calls to ordained ministry and to share that process with our committee.

As you know from the life of First Church, there are many situations and topics that require careful discernment (that is, not just a call to ordained ministry). There are a lot of ways to move through any discernment process. There are the logical ways like making lists of advantages and disadvantages or interviewing people to get information and opinions. There are the spiritual practices like centering prayer, the examen prayer, and lectio divina. There is also another way, one that you may have learned in college – or maybe in high school—if you studied science or social science. The person who taught it to you almost certainly didn’t describe it as a method of discernment; the class was probably called “statistics.” Or if you took it recently, maybe “data analytics.”

Please do not be alarmed. You are going to understand this sermon even if you didn’t take statistics, or if you passed only because you memorized all of the formulas, or if just thinking about math gives you the hives. Because, truly, statistics is only incidentally about arithmetic, and is very centrally about the way we decide whether or not we believe something.

To put it another way, all of the really compelling things about statistical analysis were in the first chapter of your textbook—the one you didn’t pay much attention to because it didn’t have any of those formulas you knew you had to memorize. The first chapter of the book is usually about the decisions and assumptions—choices, really—that lie behind and beneath all of the mathematics you are about to study. And like other things that are behind and beneath routine actions, they are both important and easy to overlook. So let’s look at some of them.

We’ll start by counting something. That sounds easy enough, but it is remarkably easy to count the wrong thing. There is a famous story about Abraham Wald, a mathematician who worked on an important project about fighter planes during World War II. The Americans wanted to add armor to the planes so that they would be less likely to be shot down, but armor added weight to the planes which reduced their range and maneuverability. So the military examined planes that returned from battle and counted how many bullet holes were in each part of the plane. They reported the smallest number of holes on the engines of the plane, and the largest number on the body. They were about to add armor plate to the bodies of the planes. What Wald saw (and confirmed with an elegant mathematical proof) was that there weren’t holes in the engines of the planes that came back because they weren’t shot down. The information that they needed was not where the bullet holes were on the planes that came back safely, but on the ones that did not.

An example closer to home is the question of what promotes congregational vitality? All too often we choose the convenient measures—membership, attendance, budget—rather than working to learn what vitality really means. Or as my statistics professor said, “It is better to measure the wrong thing poorly than the right thing well.”

Once we figure out what we want to count, we will want to compare that count to something else. If I hadn’t promised there would be no math in this sermon, I would call this the “denominator problem.” (The number we counted is the numerator). There are generally choices about what the comparison number will be, and the choice we make determines what we are going to learn. As a trivial example, consider the dental health product that is “recommended by nine out of ten dentists,” except that the small print says “among dentists who named a specific brand.” I suspect that the proportion of all dentists who recommend this product is way below 90%. More seriously, when we look at the job creation rate for our country, it makes a difference whether we compare the number of new jobs to the total number of people in the country without jobs, or just to the number who are “seeking work.”

Okay, now we have several pieces of information and we want to see how they compare and contrast. Usually we want to know what causes what, and only rarely do we have the kind of information that lets us answer that question. Whether you have ever taken statistics or not, you probably know that “correlation is not causation.” Two pieces of information can be mathematically related to one another without one being responsible for the other one. This becomes a theological issue when someone is trying to understand how tragic and painful events can happen in a world with a benevolent God. One interpretation is that God caused the bad thing to happen as part of a bigger plan for the person. Another interpretation is that the bad thing happened and God was able to transform the experience into something positive. Both are logical, but the second one is consistent with what we know of God from scripture, tradition, and experience, and the first one is not.

In the brief passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we just heard, Jesus shifts our usual understanding of the connection (correlation?) between treasures and our hearts. We usually think that we search out treasures to meet the desires of our hearts. He turns that around to say that our hearts follow the treasure we have chosen.

The passage from Matthew and the one from Joshua are not the lectionary texts for this Sunday. For this sermon, the idea came first and the texts came second (the technical term for this is “proof texting”). Jesus spoke to the question of correlation, and Joshua spoke to the question of choices and of errors. It turns out that in inferential statistics, it makes a great deal of difference what kinds of errors we are willing to make.

Here are the two choices: On the one hand, that we will believe something that is not true (That’s type I); on the other hand, that we will reject something that is true (Type II). While we don’t want to make either of these mistakes, the mathematical reality is that to make one of them less likely, we make the other one more likely. We have to choose.

Science is clear: Type I errors are to be minimized. Scientists do not want to err on the side of falsely saying something is true. The conventional standard for published results is that there is an estimated 95% chance that the thing is true (which is actually problematic in some ways I don’t have time to talk about today). Public policy has often worked in the same way. Political leaders evaluating programs ask how many ineligible people are collecting benefits; we might better ask how many eligible people have been denied benefits. Discernment in the life of faith often turns us in that better direction. We might ask different questions and accept different errors. We might ask, “How many true asylum seekers have been denied entrance to the United States?” And we would be willing to tolerate the “error” that some false seekers might be admitted. We might ask, “How many children have gone hungry this week?” And we would be willing to tolerate the “error” that some children whose families could afford food themselves will get free or subsidized food. We might ask “How many disabled persons have been denied access to public places?” And we would be willing to tolerate the “error” that some disabilities might be exaggerated.

Discernment in the life of faith means we are willing to choose to incur expenses and inconveniences, that we are willing to occasionally be misled or taken advantage of, that we are willing to be challenged or mocked for making those choices.

Joshua, at the end of his life, has a simple instruction to the people: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” That is the question behind and beneath what we do (statistical or otherwise). Will we serve the One who calls us to tend the sick, care for the children, feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the prisoner?

Those MIDs (Members in Discernment) are asking this question in a particular way, about ordained ministry in the UCC. In some fashion, though, all of us are asking the same question, all of us are in a discernment process—a process that can rest on logic and spirit and even discernment analytics.