The Impossibility of Proving a Negative; Why Metrics Don’t Work As Evaluative Tools

The Taunt

“Scaredy cat, scaredy cat!”

“Am not!”

“Prove it!”

The classic playground exchange: one child makes a pejorative accusation of another, the second denies the charge, and the first one says, “Prove what I just said isn’t true.”

And child number two is now put in the impossible situation.  For there is no way to prove to the first child’s satisfaction that he or she is indeed not a “scaredy cat.”

Let’s try another example, and I write this knowing the illustration can be called “sexist.” However, since I’m a woman, and it reflects poorly on womankind, I’ll take the risk:.

Many wives have said to their husbands (to their husband’s despair), “You don’t love me!”

What they are really saying, of course, is that “You are not doing what I want you to do so I feel good about myself so therefore you must not love me.”  By the way, this is why many people don’t think God loves them either–God just doesn’t always dance well to our imperative tunes.

Anyway, when the husband responds, “Of course I love you,” he plays the same losing game as the schoolyard children above.  As long as his wife is convinced that he doesn’t love her, there is no way he can prove otherwise.  He can’t prove the negative.

The Accusations of Racism

Right now, there are charges of racism being floated against members of the North Texas Conference and the South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee that evaluated Bishop Bledsoe’s leadership and effectiveness.  With those charges now coming from several places, the chances of a reconciling and healthy resolution to this situation grow increasingly unlikely.

Why?  Because we can’t prove a negative.

What would the North Texas Conference have to do to prove this negative?  This question needs to be asked.  What would it take to prove decisively to those who have floated such accusations that they are untrue?  Those who have made such charges need to answer the question: What would bring them satisfaction?

The Problem with Numbers

This situation has made glaringly clear the problem with making numbers (“metrics” is the more sophisticated term) as the basis for determining effectiveness.  A tiny gain in the number of people attending worship and 16 church plants has been given as proof that Bishop Bledsoe is effective in leadership.

Yes, those 16 church plants have helped very much bring an increase in worship numbers.  But here’s the problem:  most of the church plants started, or were at least in the planning stages, long before Bishop Bledsoe took office.  I know–my church is considered one of them–not as a brand new plant, but as a relocation and restart.

I started working on this in 2007–but I also can’t take credit because I was building on the good work of the people of this church and of my clergy predecessors, who began to dream about this in the early 1990’s.  It’s all part of a long term system, and I am just a part of that system, not the sole driving force.

Bishop Bledsoe began his term as Bishop on September 1, 2008.  Most if not all of those church plants that are showing good numbers have been doing ground floor work for far longer that Bishop Bledsoe’s years in leadership in the North Texas Conference.

All of us in leadership roles need to recognize that we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.  Our results are highly dependent on systems and plans in place years before. Numbers reflect an extremely small part of leadership effectiveness, particularly when being evaluated over a short term time period–and four years is a very short time frame for a complex organization saddled with ponderous change challenges.

“Isms” Must Stop

I personally ache with compassion for Bishop Bledsoe as a fellow human being.  He’s in a very, very tough spot right now, with minefields all around him. It will take enormous wisdom and grace to work through this. But it can be done, and can be done redemptively, even if painfully.

I also say that all “isms” are contrary to the Gospel of grace and reconciliation offered to us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the one who ate with sinners, touched the unclean, and offered the first news of his glory of his resurrection to the least believable of witnesses–a group of uneducated women.

No “isms” have a place in kingdom of heaven living.  Nonetheless, issues of call, character and competence do have a place.  We must not move someone from a leadership position on the basis of an “ism” but we can and should move someone on other grounds with sufficient reasons.  If a person, by reason of any “ism,” is no longer subject to evaluation of call, character and competence, then what we have is a whole new and disturbing paradigm of unaccountable leadership, itself based on an “ism.”

Monday Morning Quarterbacks

I recently noticed in an online conversation where some people with no first hand knowledge of this situation, little second-hand knowledge, and only a surface look at the headlines have decided that there is “something rotten in Texas.”

They display Monday morning quarterbacking at its best.  The observer at the game, never having considered what it is like to face a line of well-trained giants who are out to slam him to the ground, who has to get an awkward ball to an invisible receiver who is also surrounded by highly motivated giants prepared to outmaneuver him by any means necessary, readily berates the quarterback for having missed a perfect opportunity to score.  Amazing.

We do this all the time in the church and pretty well every other place.  We set up committees or task forces to take care of necessary work or shoulder an important responsibility, elect or nominate competent people to serve on them, wait for the results of their work, and then call them a bunch of idiots who ignored the facts so very obvious to those who sat on the sidelines.

I remember one time watching a car chase that took place over several hours on Dallas freeways, with multiple law enforcement officers giving chase, trying to pull the driver over without harming other drivers on the road.  I watched it via helicopter cameras, and could indeed see some things the pursuing officers could not see.  Later, I happened to turn on a talk-radio program where I heard callers expound on the incompetence of the police. Each caller was insistent that he/she would have pulled over the miscreant so much better, so much quicker, and so much easier.  Right.

All of us do this, and I’m included in that “all of us.”  I/we are so quick to criticize and assume we could do better than those actually in the battle, on the field, driving the pursuit car, or charged with evaluating the performance.

It doesn’t help when we start lashing out with highly emotionally laden words and accusations that are impossible to prove untrue. Remember, you can’t prove a negative.

Perhaps we’d all be better off to remove phrases like this from our verbal repertoires:

  • “You don’t love me.”
  • “You are a racist.”
  • “You are an ignorant redneck.”
  • “You are untrustworthy.”
  • “You are a bad person.”
  • “You are a coward.”
  • “You are stupid.”
  • “You are a heretic.”

Now, every day, we probably do face unloving, prejudiced, ignorant, deceitful, evil, cowardly, stupid, heretical people.  But I doubt that a single one of them (or us) is going to hear a statement like one of those above and say in return, “Oh my gosh–you are right!  I should have seen this all along!”

We offer light by being light, not by being agents of darkness ourselves.  Yes, racism and all other “isms” must be addressed.  But they must be addressed in kingdom of heaven fashion.  Remember these words:

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill. This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.  (Matthew 5:21-24, The Message Translation)

4 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Proving a Negative; Why Metrics Don’t Work As Evaluative Tools

  1. Good post. However, people like metrics because they provide the appearance of objectivity. As you say, there is a need for thoughtful, prayerful evaluation of call character, and competence and it will be done on some basis. What you present is one of several arguments for not using metrics. The problem is that it, like the other arguments, does not provide any real insight into what tools should be used for such evaluations. This can very easily make us into Monday morning quarterbacks, telling the evaluators that they should not have used metrics but not suggesting anything better. My own understanding is that the quality of the evaluators is far far more important than the quality of the evaluation method. People making prayerful, careful evaluations, recognizing that none of us can be truly objective despite our best efforts, and that all of us are, at best, redeemed sinners, can get to good results with metrics or any other structured method. People who are pridefully unaware of their biases and their need for divine guidance can get the wrong answer with the best of evaluation tools. The South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy has presented a structured approach that they state was used in the case of Bishop Bledsoe. I know nothing abut the details of the situation, but I know the member of the Committee from our Annual Conference and have great respect for her. If the other members are like her, they will make the right decision. Given the polarization and pain that appear to be inherent in the situation, whatever they decide will not be popular with everyone. Quite possibility, their decision will appear wrong to me. Nonetheless, I have confidence that it will be right.


    1. I think you’ve really touched on it here: those who are pridefully unaware of their biases and their need for divine guidance will indeed be problematic in the evaluation processes. We’ve got to be aware of our limited ability to see fully, yet we must step courageously to the plate to make difficult decisions that many will disagree with. I personally stay in prayer for the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy, that they may operate with holy wisdom, grounded in their redemption by the grace of God. No answer will satisfy everyone–but we’re going to have to trust them.


  2. Aha!

    This press release is using the emotional minefield of the “ism” to plump up the campaign pot:

    Top Obama Donor Maher Smears Allen West, Calls GOP the ‘Party of the Apes’

    Dear Patriot,

    Bill Maher and liberals like him are gravely threatened by a black conservative willing to stand up to their reckless agenda.

    This week, Obama’s million-dollar Super PAC donor and “comedian” Bill Maher leveled racial smears against Allen West and the “Party of the Apes.”

    Maher went on to say that when fellow Republican representatives greet Allen in Washington, they probably say, “‘Word, Allen. Word.’ Because that’s how they think black people talk.”

    Help fight these racially charged smears with a contribution of $250, $100, $50 or $25!

    Of course, this isn’t the first time Bill Maher has made racist and sexist remarks. He has a history of offensive, misogynistic attacks on women as well.

    In one 11-day period in 2011, Maher repeatedly assaulted Sarah Palin, calling her a “bimbo” and hurling two sexist epithets during his stand-up “comedy routine.”
    He has repeatedly leveled insults at Bristol Palin as well, saying just this past May that Bristol would “name her next kid Colt 45 after what she’s drinking when she gets pregnant.”
    And in April, Maher attacked Ann Romney saying she has “never gotten her ass out of the house to work.”
    President Obama and Allen’s left-wing opponent won’t speak out against these racist and sexist attacks. In fact, they’ll likely circle the wagons. Help us fight back by donating today! Help ensure we keep Allen West in Washington to restore honor and integrity to government.

    Liberal policies have failed. They are cornered and desperate. Clearly, the liberal left will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power. Help ensure they don’t with a contribution of $250, $100, $50 or $25.


    Tim Edson

    Campaign Manager

    Allen West for Congress

    P.S. Help Allen fight back against Obama SuperPAC donor Bill Maher’s racially-charged comments. Click here to donate.


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