Beyond Numbers: Quantification and the Holy

This week’s insightful article is written by Rev. Alyssa Lodewick, Associate Director of The BTS Center. Learn more about Rev. Lodewick in her bio below.

The statistics are troubling: According to research undertaken by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University, United Methodist clergy in North Carolina have a “particularly high rate of obesity” (41% compared to 29% of North Carolinians as a whole) and experience “above-average rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and arthritis.” They also encounter anxiety and depression more often than their non-clergy peers.

I’m not typically the betting type, but I’ll wager that you know a ministry leader in the UCC whose profile sounds remarkably similar. Disheartening as the statistics may be, there is hope. Last January, Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, director of the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data, wrote that clergy health has “improved slightly in the last few years.” Among ministers in Duke’s Clergy Health Initiative, for instance, the rate of depression has decreased, falling from 11.1% in 2008 to 9.6% in 2012. According to Lizardy-Hajbi, these positive health-related trends may indicate that “more clergy are beginning to pay increased attention to their overall health and well-being.”

Count me among them. Several months ago, I bought a fitness tracker that helps me monitor my activity levels, cardiovascular performance, sleep quality, and a variety of other health-related metrics. In so doing, I joined a widespread health-and-wellness movement that focuses upon the quantified self; the movement’s tagline is “self knowledge through numbers.”***

Along with millions of other Americans—the largest maker of fitness trackers sold almost 11 million fitness devices in 2014 alone—I use technology to acquire data about “various aspects of [my] daily life in terms of input (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical).” I then am supposed to use the data that I have collected to make and maintain lifestyle changes . . . all with the hope of increasing my levels of health and well-being.

FitbitStandOver the past couple of months, as I’ve worn my fitness tracker, I have successfully changed some of my health-related habits. For instance, when I hear the tracker’s “time to move” alert, I get up from my desk and take a short walk, so my level of sedentariness at work has decreased. I also have become more aware of my heart’s functioning, and the way that it positively responds to exercise. All in all, tracking my health-related numbers has proven beneficial and helpful.

That said, there are some unintended consequences of tracking my “quantified self” that concern me.  For example, I have noticed a psychological shift in my self-perception: I now have a tendency to think of myself (or reduce myself down to) a series of mechanistic numbers.  On some days, it feels as though my core being is defined by “3.6 miles walked, 77 minutes of exercise, 482 calories burned, 8.6 hours of sleep (with 5.3 quality hours), and/or 92% of recommended daily activity completed.” Even more complicated is the fact that I have become entangled in a strange sort of inner competition: if I don’t complete at least 100% of my daily activity goal—or if my health-related metrics on any given day decrease from the numbers I racked up the day before—I encounter a sense of failure.

My fitness tracker experience therefore makes me wonder: How might the QS movement affect its participants’ senses of self? And how might preoccupation with the “quantified self” shape the ways in which we experience ourselves as spiritual beings?

Furthermore, might similar questions be asked about faith communities? So often, we use numeric metrics to judge the health of our churches and religious institutions. We determine their levels of success by counting how many people they serve, or how many people fill their pews, or how many stewardship dollars are pledged. How might all of those numbers affect the ways in which communities of faith view themselves and their missions?

In July, Time magazine published an article entitled “In Praise of the Ordinary Child.” In it, author Jeffrey Kluger described the lives of children growing up in privileged environments. Many of these young people participate in myriad after-school activities, receive expensive tutoring each week, start playing sports as soon as they can walk, and/or commit hours upon hours to community-service projects—all in efforts to bolster their chances of developing into “above-average” human beings. It’s gotten so bad, according to Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be, that “‘Some kids in elementary school find out they’re not among the best at something, and it seems dire to them.’” This is a hard lesson to absorb, but also an important one, because, as Jeffrey Kluger reminds parents, “If you’ve got kids, here’s a nasty truth: they’re probably not very special—as in, they’re ordinary, average, unremarkable.”

i-am-ordinary-8-728 (1)Every once in a while, when I contemplate my quantified self (and my quantified church), I feel like one of those elementary-school youths.  When the stewardship campaign that I have chaired fails to reach its ambitious goal—like so many other stewardship campaigns before it—I learn that I am not any more remarkable than my stewardship predecessors. When I struggle to fit in my daily walk, while my friends are crowing about how they manage to incorporate rigorous early-morning exercise sessions into their hectic schedules, I remember that I am no different than other average men and women who need to sleep and sometimes lack willpower. Finally, when my fitness tracker indicates that I have failed to achieve 100% of my suggested daily activity, I realize that I am just one small fish in a sea of millions of Americans who don’t get enough exercise.

In short, I am utterly ordinary.

But what’s so bad about being ordinary? And is there even such a thing as “ordinary,” when each and every one of us reflects the imago dei, or image of God?  Our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls: all are intimately connected with the Holy . . . regardless of how much we weigh, or how efficient our hearts are, or whether we can run a half-marathon, or how many people sit in our church pews, or what the numbers on our fitness trackers indicate.

Ultimately, the all-encompassing love of God makes all things extra-ordinary; we are extraordinary in our ordinariness.

Using metrics to gauge God’s immeasurable love is impossible, of course. But I wish it wasn’t. If more of us, individuals and faith communities alike, could truly grasp the grace-filled extent of the universe’s most important “vital sign and statistic,” how much more courageous would we be in our spiritual workouts? Instead of wasting energy on fears of failure or divine judgment, we could fully commit ourselves to the marathon of transforming the world, confident in the knowledge that all of us—even at our most “ordinary”—are already winners.

***Author’s Note: If you’d like more information about the quantified self, or “QS” movement, the clothing manufacturer Under Armour recently published a “Beginner’s Guide to Quantified Self.” You may also want to check out the @QuantifiedSelf Twitter feed, investigate the QS Facebook page, or attend a Quantified Self Meetup Group near you.

AL_2013Rev. Alyssa Lodewick is the Associate Director of The BTS Center, the mission successor to Bangor Theological Seminary. She earned Master of Divinity and Master of Social Work degrees from Boston University. Before Alyssa allowed herself to pursue a religious vocation, she spent the first part of her professional life working for a variety of nonprofit organizations and academic institutions, co-editing To Educate A Nation: Federal and National Strategies of School Reform along the way. Connect with her on Twitter @AlyssaLodewick or via email (alyssa@thebtscenter.org).

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