Monday, April 14, 2014

The Statistician's Approach to Improving Home Teaching (Part 1 of 2)

Go ahead, roll your eyes. Groan. Dread what is about to come. If you're sane, the question you are hopefully asking yourself is "how can you possibly use statistics to improve home teaching1?" Allow me to answer that question for you:

You can't.

Statistics by themselves cannot -- and will not ever -- be a useful tool for improving home teaching.

That is my official and educated position as a professional statistician. So please, for the love of all that is holy, let's stop talking about home teaching statistics2.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, by and large, when someone talks about home teaching statistics, they are referring to "the percentage of families who received a visit from their home teachers in the last calendar month."  I blame ward clerks for this.  Clerks are tasked with the ever-unpleasant task of reporting this percentage to the higher-ups once a quarter, and so they routinely ask those in charge of the home teaching program to provide this percentage.  The problem is that the clerks are the only people in the world who are asked to have this kind of information.  Those who are in charge of home teaching are required to, "give the bishop monthly home teaching reports. Each report includes a list of those who were not contacted."

From my own experience as a clerk, getting a list of names was nearly impossible.  Almost every time I asked for it, I was given the home teaching percentage instead.  I'm sure that my insistence on being given a list of names was not well received.  I can only imagine that it was a frustrating request because the list of families not visited was so long, and people hated typing out all those names3.

So, of course, since the monthly percentage is so convenient to report, that's what gets reported.  It's also the metric by which congregations often evaluate the quality of their home teaching program.  So here's a hint from a statistician: any time you try to boil any issue down to a single statistic, you're doing it wrong.

Statistics is the art of allowing data to tell its story (not to be confused with using data to make up your own story).  As with all good stories, there needs to be context and depth.  You have to be able to relate to the story, and if your statistics don't help you do that, they are worthless.

The monthly home teaching percentage is a worthless statistic.

Have I harped on that enough yet?  I think I've made my point.  So let's talk about how, as a statistician, I would recommend evaluating the quality of a home teaching program.  Rather than focusing on a single statistic, we're going to look at a combination of three key pieces of information4.  One piece is superficial, the second is contextual, and the third is personal.

The Superficial
First -- and this one is going to make you scratch your head -- calculate your monthly home teaching percentage (go ahead, take a moment to scream at me).  But never look at a single percentage alone.  Instead, look at a graph of (at least) the past three months' home teaching percentages.  In my congregation, it would probably look something like this (yes, this makes us look pretty bad):

What's important about this graph, however, is not the height of the bars, but the height of the bars relative to each other.  What you want to see is consistent, constant effort from month to month.  If you 31% in January, 73% in February, and then 20% in March, it means that you managed to motivate people to get involved in home teaching for a month, but their energy and enthusiasm wasn't sustainable.  Ministering to individuals and families should, ideally, be integrated into our lives.  If we are successful in this integration, the height of the bars should be fairly consistent from month to month.

The Contextual
While the previous graph may give us insight into the consistency of the home teaching program, that insight is very limited.  Most notably, that previous graph could mean that nearly every family is being visited in a three month period (equal effort across all the home teachers) or it could mean that the same 30% of families are being visited each month (effort is only coming from a limited group of home teachers) or anything in between.  So we need another graph, and the way this graph appears will give a lot more context into what is actually happening.  In this graph, we want to show the percentage of families whose last visit from their home teachers was one month ago, two months ago, and three or more months ago.  I provide two examples below and will discuss the interpretation of each.

This graph actually shows the percentage of families that haven't been visited.  In each case, 31% of the families were visited last month, so for 69%, it's been over a month since their last visit.  If there is a balanced level of effort from the home teachers, we would expect the percentage of families without a visit to decline  as we get two and three months out.  This would indicate that, although not every family is being visited every month, they have been visited sometime within recent memory.  On the bottom, we see what happens if only a portion of the home teachers are participating--the percentage of families who haven't been seen in recent memory keeps climbing.  Obviously, the goal should be to keep the bar on the left as small as possible.

The Personal
The last piece of information you need is feedback from those being home taught and is where you actually learn if your home teaching program is working.  This feedback should be received during the regular meetings the leaders of the men's organizations are supposed to have with the men.  During these meetings, the leaders should ask a couple of tough questions.  Questions like:

  • Do you have a friend in the ward you would feel comfortable going to for advice if you were having marital/relationship problems?
  • Do you have a friend in the ward you would feel comfortable talking to about your concerns of paying for heat this coming winter5?  
  • Do you have a friend in the ward you feel comfortable asking for advice about your home improvement projects?
  • Do you have a friend in the ward you feel you can safely talk to if you had concerns or doubts with respect to church doctrine?
If you're getting a lot of 'No' responses, you're home teaching program isn't working and you should probably work on building friendships within the group.

If you're only getting a few 'No' responses, congratulations!  Your home teaching program is a success6.  You will also know which people feel the most socially disconnected and are probably in need of additional friendship.

A quick note on this piece of information: First, don't ever publicize a percentage of 'No' responses.  When you make a display of this information -- and especially if you make it a common goal to reduce the number of 'No' responses -- you inadvertently put pressure on people to give the answer they think you want to receive.  The only answer you can be interested in with these questions is the honest answer.  Remember that the focus of these questions is not to demonstrate how good your home teaching program is.  The purpose is to gain the insight necessary to take steps that may improve the lives of those being home taught.

One more caveat on this:  if you're going to buy into this kind of an approach to evaluating the quality of your home teaching program, you may want to consider (partially) abandoning the expectation that home teachers visit every family every month.  It would be nice if it happened at all, and it would be fantastic if it happened consistently.  But only if it's happening because people are getting together in friendship.  If your 100% home teaching is accomplished through a sense of duty instead of friendship, I would argue that you've lost a lot of the strength of the home teaching program.

The home teaching program has infinite potential as a power for good.  I worry that by boiling it down to monthly percentages, we've put artificial limits on its potential.  We need to talk less about metrics and more about relationships, friendships, trust, and ministry.  We need to stop caring so much about the numbers and motivate ourselves to care about the people the those numbers represent.  We need to stop using improvement in numbers as a motivation to do good and start using our motivation to do good as a way to improve our numbers.

For Part 2, I'll discuss some strategies and concepts for organizing home teaching that, in my opinion, have the potential to enhance the process of building relationships between people.

1 The home teaching program in the Church is a kind of internal tool for evaluating the spiritual and physical needs of families within a congregation. Each family is assigned a pair of home teachers from among the men who are expected to come visit the family periodically, get to know the family, and be their first line of spiritual and temporal support.  For an extremely sterile description of home teaching, you can read what the Church has written in its administrative handbook.

2 Everything I'm about to say could be applied to visiting teaching as well. But I'm male and ego centric and am not directly affected by visiting teaching.  So I'll talk about home teaching and you can call me sexist.  Deal?  Okay, moving on.

3 Now would be a good time to point out the the Church's computer software has the ability to generate this list automatically if people would use it. But people don't use it. I can't really blame them for that, because the software isn't particularly user friendly, and is only available on the lone administrative computer given to the congregation which is always in high demand. So what I'm really trying to say is that if the Church would finally go about making home teaching reporting available online, you'd get much better usage, much better reporting, and much better tools for improving home teaching (assuming we stopped talking about it in terms of monthly percentages). 

4 You may be curious about the difference between a statistic and a piece of information. If I were to state it simply, the statistic is the number. The information is what that statistic tells us about what we are trying to measure. The numbers I'm about to address aren't what's really important, but what they tell us about the home teaching program.

5 By this I mean, minor financial worries. I'm not advocating that we should feel comfortable borrowing large sums of money from each other, but perhaps it isn't all that bad to be comfortable saying things like, "money is tight right now and I'm worried about the cold weather" or the car breaking down. Some of these things can be repaired or alleviated if you can find someone with the right skills, and it would be good if we had relationships in which we were comfortable letting down the barriers that prevent us from talking about these things with strangers.

6 Well, maybe. It's possible you're getting a lot of yes responses, but the friendships involved aren't between home teachers and home teachees. But I don't know that it is important to know if the friendships involved are related to home teaching. If you're getting a lot of yes responses, it means a lot of people have a support network within the ward, and that really isn't something you need to bother tweaking. Instead, your home teaching program will hopefully support and expand those relationships while allowing you to focus on building networks for those people who say no. But I wouldn't investigate any further than a yes or no answer here.