Don’t Just Talk About Mission-Act With Passion!

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Congregations waste precious time forming mission statements that fail to inspire action. Writing a mission statement produces clarity, but rarely generates energy. It’s time to move beyond mission and start focusing on the passion that compels us to make a specific difference.

We often think of an individual as having a vocation and an organization as having a mission. Religious organizations have both a mission and a vocational calling. They are related to one another but they are not the same thing. A mission explains, but a vocation inspires.

Mission vs. Vocation

The mission of an organization defines the work undertaken by the organization. It describes why we do what we do. Our mission is our reason for existence.

Most religious organizations derive their mission from Scripture. This may sound blunt, but the mission of any Christian congregation boils down to some version of “Bring them in, transform them through the Gospel, and send them out to change the world.” Does every congregation really need to craft their own clever spin on this?

Alternatively, an organization’s vocation is its path of authentic service to the world. A manifestation of the divine spark within. An awakening of the God-given gift of the institution. The fundamental yes from which everything else in the organization flows. Perhaps theologian, Frederick Buechner, said it best, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When you ask a struggling congregation about their vocational identity you are likely to get a response like this, “We are just one big family. We are a group of people that love being together. We are here to serve the world.” Struggling congregations are rarely able to describe their specific work. Sadly, the warm and loving feelings they ascribe to themselves rarely extend to anyone beyond a core group of insiders.

When you ask a thriving congregation about its vocation you are likely to hear something like this, “We have a heart for walking with people as they deal with their addictions. Our pastor has a professional background in addiction recovery and many in our congregations are themselves in recovery. We find ourselves particularly drawn to serving the homeless within our community, many of whom are struggling with issues related to substance abuse and addiction.”

Thriving congregations understand their broad part in spreading the Good News and in loving and serving others. At the same time, they are clear about the specific ways they are called to engage those broad mandates in their local context.

The Heart of Vocation

In Holy Conversations, consultants Alice Mann and Gil Rendle pose three questions that lie at the heart of identity. A congregation has vocational clarity when it answers these three questions: Who are we? Who do we serve? What are we called to do or become next?

Who are we (the identity question)?

Congregations, like people, bear unique fingerprints. Who we are is a function of our unique demographic; education level, affluence level, racial and ethnic profile, beliefs, core values, giftedness, limitations and passions.

Who we are is also formed by where we have been, by our history. Understanding the trajectory of our past clarifies our present. Our identity is shaped by our success, failings and shortcomings. Our limitations are as unique as our strengths and they help to clarify the work that may not be ours to do.

Who do we serve (the context question)?

We live in time and space. This season in ministry is unique. Clarifying vocation requires an understanding of how our context is changing.

There are many ways to think about the constituencies that we serve. Certainly, we serve the people who show up and include themselves in what we do. We can also include the neighbors in the places where our people live and work. And, we might include those we serve with our mission and outreach efforts. These geographies may overlap but they may also be quite distinct.

Of all the constituencies we serve, which constituency group(s) are we called to make a difference among in this season? Where is the greatest unmet need that we are uniquely situated to address?

What are we called to do or become next (the purpose question)?

The discernment of vocation requires an act of faith; a declaration of what God is doing in our midst here and now.

Our vocational calling emerges at the intersection of three circles represented by identity, context and purpose. Our identity has many components, but one piece of our identity has significance in this season because of our unique context. Similarly, we may serve diverse constituencies, but a subgroup is more relevant in this season because of who we are and how we feel called. When clarifying vocation, our task is to articulate what lies at the intersection of the three questions.

Three Oaks Community Church feels called to reach the unchurched thirty-five-year-old male who thinks that religion is irrelevant, and to transform that individual into a fully devoted follower of Christ.

First Church feels drawn to serve the families of children with special developmental needs. The congregation has embraced all abilities inclusion in worship and education. This is their gift to the community.

Cherry Hill Church is in a predominantly Muslim community. The congregation regularly hosts interfaith dialogue in the city, helping the community embrace its multi-cultural identity.

Vocation is a journey of discovery. We cannot manufacture it. It is a gift, given and discerned. When we gain clarity about our vocation we unleash energy and excitement in the life of the congregation.

Have We Failed?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

635944741686261514734284120_success_failure_directBarb shared her decision to end the day trip ministry. “I simply can’t organize these trips anymore. We began this ministry to address the loneliness and isolation of older adults. It’s been wildly successful in terms of participation. People love going on these day outings and enrollment fills up immediately. But our funding source is drying up. I can’t find anyone to succeed me in leadership, or even to help with the organization of the outings. I’m tired of carrying the load alone. I guess the ministry is going to end when I step down. If I had been a better leader, I would have found more money and a successor.”

Barb’s comments reflect an unstated assumption at work in many faith-based institutions. A successful ministry is a sustainable ministry, one that goes on indefinitely. To sustain something is to keep it in existence, to supply the necessities that ensure continuity, to uphold or defend an ongoing practice. There is inherent value and worth in sustainability. If we value something we must do everything within our power to see that it is sustained. When something is not sustainable, it has failed or is failing. Right?

Wrong. This assumption invites us to tell a troubled story about any ministry that ends. We talk about the parts of the ministry that don’t work in order to justify the ending. The ending is announced and the ministry slips quietly off into the sunset. The leader of the final chapter bears a silent shame. “I wasn’t good enough to keep it afloat.”

We are living in an era where many things we have done in the name of Church are no longer sustainable. Does this mean we have failed? In an era of institutional decline, linking sustainability with success and unsustainability with failure is problematic in three ways:

  • We avoid sunsetting programs. To pull the plug is to label the thing a failure—or even worthless—when it is still important to some. So, we don’t evaluate or ask hard questions of the ministries that we do sustain. Is this the best use of our resources right now? Does this ministry still align with our mission, core purpose, and values?
  • We don’t learn from our experience. Failure feels painful. In order to avoid the pain, we dismiss the experience as quickly as possible. We miss a tremendous opportunity when we don’t carefully consider why a program is ending, or what we have to learn about the changing conditions around the program.
  • We stop innovating. Innovation happens best in environments where experimentation and failure are normalized. It has to be okay to fail. When sustainability becomes a core criterion for success, we avoid starting new things.

What Makes a Ministry Sustainable?

On some level, every organization must be sustainable. If we cannot afford to cover our overhead expenses over time, we will cease to exist and won’t be able to support any ministry.

However, under the umbrella of a sustainable organization we should be free to experiment with programs that may or may not be individually sustainable. We need to be able to innovate, reflect, learn and adapt. We can’t do these things without some better language about sustainability. There are at least four types of sustainability that we ought to regularly consider:

  • Economic sustainability: This approach to sustainability seems to get the most attention, maybe the only attention, when we are talking about the viability of a program or ministry. Will the program eventually pay for itself? If not, will we have the funds to sustain it on an ongoing basis? These are important questions, but not the only questions related to sustainability.
  • Leadership sustainability: What kind of leadership presence will this program require? How many staff and volunteer hours will be devoted to its sustenance? What kind of leadership succession plan do we have for this program? Is more than one generation of leadership likely to support this ministry with time and talent?
  • Social sustainability: What difference will this ministry make in the world? What environmental condition does this ministry seek to resolve or improve? How will it improve lives and which lives will it improve?
  • Mission sustainability: How does this ministry promote the unique mission of our organization? Does it draw upon our unique strengths and passions? Does it meet the needs of a constituency that we are meant to serve? Is this what God is calling us to do or become in this season?

When a program satisfies all four types of sustainability we should certainly include it in our portfolio of ministries. When a program fails to satisfy any of the four types it should clearly be discontinued. The tricky landscape to negotiate is when a program satisfies several categories but fails to satisfy others. Then we need to have thoughtful conversations about whether the program should end.

Learning from our Endings

When the decision is made to end a program or project, we need to learn all we can from the ending. Rather than letting the program quietly disappear in the hope that no one will be upset, we need to stop, reflect, learn and adapt. This is how healthy organizations grow and thrive.

Ask yourself these questions: When the program was first begun, what condition in the world was it was meant to address? How has the original condition changed? What impact has the program had on this condition over time? How have resource requirements shifted over time? What outcomes did we experience then and now? Which forms of sustainability are no longer viable for this program? How can we celebrate the success we had? How can we honor the leaders who have served? How might we talk about the legacy created? How does the end of this program ensure other new beginnings for this organization?

It’s time to examine the assumptions that you and your organization carry about sustainability, success, and failure. A program is not a failure because it ends. It is only a failure when we ignore the powerful invitation to reflect, learn, adapt, and innovate.

Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?

Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.


Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.


Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Acting on on Our Plans

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

In the world of congregations we are good at planning and doing. We enjoy thinking great thoughts and crafting lofty ministry ideals. We are fair at experimenting with our ideas, and taking tentative steps in the direction of our plans. We are great at running programs, running programs, and running more programs.

However, we are not good at learning from our mistakes, making course corrections, and fully implementing our intentions. We avoid evaluation and accountability. Consequently, we fail in our intentional change efforts and fall back into the status quo.

We could learn something from the discipline of Management, which has long embraced the plan-do-check-act process (also known as the Deming cycle), as a way of managing change and promoting continuous improvement. The four phases in the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle involve:

  • Plan: Identifying and analyzing the situation. Setting a goal for the future.
  • Do: Developing and testing potential approaches.
  • Check: Measuring how effective the approach was, and analyzing whether it could be improved in any way
  • Act: Implementing the improved approach fully.PDCA-250

Congregations feel most comfortable on the top half of the cycle. We are allergic to the reflection, evaluation and accountability required to improve and complete implementation. We attribute our difficulties in completing the cycle to a variety of issues including: lack of clarity about priorities, short attention spans, conflict avoidance, uncommitted volunteers, inadequate resources, and frequent leadership turnover.

The net result is an endless treadmill of plan-do-plan-do-plan-do that exhausts church leaders and fails to produce meaningful change. It does not have to be this way. Here are five intentional things that you can do to quit being “that” church, and to start being a church that learns from its mistakes and acts on its plans.

Five Things You Can Do

  1. Limit your Plans.

Every congregation is limited in energy and resources. You need to focus your efforts on the one or two big plans that will make the biggest difference in the right direction for your congregation.

If you establish more than one or two areas of growth, you are basically telling your staff and volunteers that they can work on whatever feels good in the moment, without impact. You need to be clear about a few priorities if you want to get better at learning and implementation.

  1. Name the Metrics (or Observable Behaviors).

How will you know when you have arrived? What new behaviors will you witness, or what old behaviors will disappear?

We improve our odds of learning and acting when we know how to evaluate our efforts: changes in attendance patterns, giving, participation, service touch points, new members, new disciples, an increase in the use of personal spiritual disciplines, more people sharing their faith stories, etc.

  1. Clarify the Work of the Board vs. the Work of the Staff.

Generally speaking, the governing board is responsible for naming the larger priorities and outcomes that you are pursuing as a congregation, naming the metrics of evaluation, and allocating resources. The board also establishes policies that determine who is authorized to do what and with what limitations.

The staff team leads the day-to-day efforts related to experimentation and implementation, with the support and involvement of appropriate ministry teams and committees.

The board and staff work together to check in, evaluate progress and establish course corrections.

When we are clear about who does what, there is a better chance that we will engage the plan.

  1. Create a Calendar of Check-in and Evaluation

Intentionality is everything when it comes to learning and acting. Unfortunately, most congregations prepare meeting agendas in a very reactive manner. The work of the day is based on the felt needs of the moment, or the problems that seem most pressing.

Alternatively, why not create an annual calendar of meetings, (for both board and staff) that covers the full plan-do-check-act cycle. Determine when the new strategic priorities of the congregation must be named by the board each year. Schedule the date by which staff must set their performance goals with their supervisors, in accordance with the new priorities. Name the month in which the board will allocate resources in accordance with the plan. Schedule an annual performance review process (with board and staff coming together to evaluate ministry areas, and supervisors evaluating the performance of staff members.)

  1. Celebrate Success

The busyness of congregational life often precludes real clarity about when something is finished. Take time to notice and celebrate when a plan has actually been accomplished (regardless of its overall success). This will help to create a culture in which people learn to finish what has been planned.

Imagine for a moment the impact that your congregation could have in the world, if it actually learned from its mistakes and implemented the plans it made. With a few intentional practices, you could become that congregation.



Metrics vs. Evidence

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

“When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get [measurable] results with.”-Parker Palmer (on Effectiveness vs. Faithfulness)

I worked this week with a group of 75 United Methodist leaders in Kansas. At one point our conversation turned towards goal setting, and particularly to the importance of naming outcomes and metrics. I argued that we must name what we are seeking to do or become, and we must name appropriate metrics to evaluate our progress. Otherwise, we won’t see much change or the right kind of change.

This has always been a tricky conversation to have with clergy leaders, but it is an especially hot button topic these days. So many congregations are experiencing numerical plateaus, or they are in free fall around membership, attendance and giving patterns. Denominational leaders (or congregants) are demanding measurable growth goals in response, and many congregational leaders feel powerless to meet what feel like artificial and misplaced expectations.

The response from clergy leaders is advocacy for other forms of growth that they see as more important than numerical growth. These leaders posture that we ought to be more concerned with goals around faith formation, biblical knowledge, deepening spiritual practices, fostering faith sharing and growing social justice awareness. These agendas, they argue, are not necessarily measurable and they may not result in church growth, but they are more indicative of congregational vitality.

I am rather suspicious about both sides of the debate. I agree that healthy congregations are generally growing congregations, by some measurable objective. Many who appear to resist metrics strike me as change resistant and fearful of accountability. On the other hand, I am among the first to argue that attendance and budgets are not our best indicators of congregational health and vitality. They are much too limited in scope and don’t take into account the cultural shifts we are seeing around how people participate in the life of their congregations. So, where are we to go with this debate?

This week a wise leader in our midst told us that he and his congregation have dropped the language of metrics from their vocabulary all together. Instead, they are investing themselves in naming the evidence that will indicate success in their change efforts. They are working to describe the observable behaviors that will signal success in their “softer” growth initiatives. They are not fearful of accountability, they embrace it, but they are committed to talking about and measuring evidence that matters to their mission.

This week I also ran across a video of Parker Palmer discussing the difference between effectiveness and faithfulness. It seems to be circulating the web in honor of his 75th birthday. Palmer says, “When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get results with.”

We are living in a chapter of Church history that requires bold and audacious leadership. We can’t afford to waste our energy on small and insignificant work that is constrained by a misplaced interest in measuring the wrong results.

Watch the video and then weigh in on this question: How would a shift away from measuring effectiveness, and a shift towards measuring faithfulness, change the current conversation around congregational metrics?

Leadership Systems in Motion

Monday, October 31st, 2011

The large church is managed through five interdependent leadership systems. When change occurs in one system, it tends to produce
change in the others. These systems include:

  1. Clergy Leadership Roles
  2. Staff Team Design and Function
  3. Governance and Board Function
  4. Acculturation and the Role of the Laity
  5. The Formation and Execution of Strategy

As daily changes occur in the life of the congregation, these systems adjust but remain relatively stable. Leaders come and go, policies are formed and adapted, groups form and dissolve, but the basic interaction of the five systems remains constant.

However, every leadership system has a capacity limit, a point beyond which it can no longer effectively function. When the activity
level of the congregation significantly increases or decreases, leadership systems hit their limits. A senior clergyperson assumes a particular leadership role that is highly effective in a church with weekend worship attendance of 700. The clergyperson is surprised to discover that the leadership role begins losing its effectiveness when the church adds an additional worship service and  now hosts 850 in weekend worship. Or, a staff team that was humming along eliminates a few part-time staff members due to a budget decrease, and suddenly the overall department structure of the church no longer works. The staff team maintains  momentum but notices how much more energy it suddenly takes to function well across departments.

One of the remarkable things about leadership systems is that they tend to reach the outer limits of their effectiveness at predictable
moments, based on worship attendance or budget size. We often refer to the period of time that a congregations approaches or moves through these limits as a transition zone. Some refer to transition zones as “attendance ceilings,” because they observe that a congregation’s weekend attendance repeatedly climbs to a predictable level and then drops back down. When a congregation hits one of these transition zones, it must intentionally adapt all of the five leadership systems, or the congregation won’t be able to accommodate added complexity. The systems have reached their effectiveness limits and cannot accommodate additional growth without being repurposed.

In the large church there are natural attendance and budget zones where the five leadership systems stabilize and accommodate complexity
and growth without shifting.  Each of  these zones operates with a basic organizing principle and with predictable characteristics
in the five leadership systems.

Congregations occupy a stable size zone when they operate with an annual budget of between $1 MM and $2 MM or when weekly worship attendance remains between 400 and 800. I refer to this size zone as the professional congregation, because most of its behavior is driven by the need to professionalize operations. The congregation realizes that the church’s programming has outgrown the managerial capacity of its lay leaders to both sustain excellence in existing programming and introduce new programming, so the demand for a staff team of specialists emerges. The growth of this size church is related to budget capacity, which limits the ability to add staff. The pastor is learning to let go of a purely relational style of leadership and adopt a more managerial focus. The staff team is moving away from a generalist orientation and toward a specialist orientation. The board is learning how to govern by setting policy and creating systems of performance management.

The strategic congregation emerges as the stabilizing zone once a congregation is operating with a budget between $2 MM and $4 MM or maintaining average weekly attendance between 800 and 1,200. This congregation requires a more intentional orientation towards strategy,
growth, and alignment. In this size congregation there are so many decision-making groups at work that it is easy for the church to drift out of alignment and for tremendous energies to be wasted. The pastor is learning to maintain strategic focus.  The staff team is learning to function in aligned departmental structures, with the oversight of an executive team.  The board is growing smaller in size and is learning to delegate daily management of the church to the staff, so that it can focus more clearly on strategy formation and oversight.

The church that worships with an average weekend community of 1,200-1,800, or with a budget of more than $4MM, is known as a matrix congregation. The presenting organizational challenge of this size category is decentralization. The careful work that was done to align church structures in the previous size category suddenly gets in the way of the more organic leadership style needed to function in this very large category. The matrix size church takes its name from the shape of the organizational chart that often characterizes this size zone. Growth in the
matrix-sized church emerges and is managed everywhere, all at the same time.  The senior clergy leader focuses primarily on the overall strategy of the congregation, teaching, preaching, and fund-raising. She has fully delegated the management of the staff team to one or more executive ministers.  The staff is learning new ways to coordinate its decentralized decision making.

A congregation approaching the upper or lower limits of any one of these stabilizing zones will experience leadership stress. Rightsizing the
systems requires a fundamental paradigm shift in how the church functions. The congregation that tries to avoid the difficult work of adapting its leadership systems risks stagnation in growth and/or the ineffective use of congregationa lresources.

Program Evaluation

Monday, December 6th, 2010

The large church never met a program that it didn’t like.  The leadership default position in the large congregation is to add programming every time someone wants to enhance impact or pursue excellence. Every new strategic planning process results in the layering on of new programs without winnowing out the old. The hint that any small group of individuals in a congregation is still attached to a program is enough to warrant keeping a program around for years, even after the program has outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, our staff teams are becoming increasingly exhausted as they struggle to keep pace; attending a vast array of choices that are no longer meaningful to the mission of the congregation. It’s time to stop the madness!  

A particularly effective tool for evaluating programs is the Program Logic Model. You can use this model to evaluate a standalone program, an entire ministry area, or to engage a more comprehensive evaluation of all the programs in your congregation. Here’s how it works. The model invites you to describe the logical linkages among the situation a program is meant to address, the inputs required, the outputs generated and the outcomes sustained. When you invite leaders to define each component you surface unstated assumptions about the program and its intentions. This allows leadership to more objectively define critical performance measures and to evaluate whether the outcomes of a program justify the investment of time, resources and energy required.  The creation of a logic model can facilitate meaningful dialogue among your leaders about what you are seeking to accomplish, and how effectively you are achieving those outcomes. Here’s the model.

Situation: What is the condition to which this program is a response? How is this program/ministry an appropriate response to the condition?


Inputs:  What we Invest

  • Time
  • Money
  • Volunteers
  • Partners
  • Facilities
  • Supplies
  • Equipment
Outputs:What We Do & Who We Reach

  • Classes
  • Services
  • Publications
  • Meetings
  • Meals served
  • People served
  • Participants engaged
  • Members reached
Outcomes: (Short, Medium and Long-Term)Changes We Observe In:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills 
  • Attitudes 
  • Motivation 
  • Awareness 
  • Behaviors 
  • Practices 
  • Policies and procedures 
  • Environment 
  • Social and economic conditions 


It works well to engage the model with a group of leaders who are relevant to the ministry. Invite the gathered group to define the situation, the inputs, the outputs and the outcomes. Then set them loose evaluating how effectively this program is serving the situation it was originally defined to address? How well does the program serve the congregation’s mission (however we currently understand that mission)?

If you’d like to learn more about how to apply the logic model in a congregational context, I’d recommend “Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation” by Sara Drummond.

Who is in Charge of Growth?

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Most congregations like to pin overall responsibility for growth on the senior clergy leader. Fundamentally, most of us still believe that outstanding preaching and worship is what draws people into the large congregation. These two areas of congregational life are under the direct oversight of the senior pastor; therefore, the senior pastor is the “one” most responsible for growth.

Recently I read an article posted by the Leadership Network entitled, Diverse DNA: Varying Factors in Church Cultures Lead to Rapid Growth. I found the overall article rather confusing, but my interest was piqued by these quotes from church growth consultant, Dr. Samuel Chand.

“Most senior pastors have a gift of gathering, but there is a ceiling built into that,” Samuel says. “And most staff members have the mentality of ‘you bring it in, you make it happen, and we’ll do our best to take care of it.’ But that’s a management mentality, not a growth mentality.”

“Instead, Samuel says, each department should have its own growth goals—with measurements and accountability.”

“Churches do not grow exponentially through Sunday morning,” he adds. “They grow exponentially when every department head takes responsibility for growth.”

I have found that the place where growth is managed in a congregation is largely dependent upon the size of the congregation. All churches grow when members invite others to join them in worship, learning and service. All churches grow by adding programs, educational opportunities, service opportunities and worship venues. But different sized congregations manage the growth process from different places.

Congregations with worshiping communities that number 150-400 primarily manage growth at the board level, with strong input from the staff team. Congregations with 400-800 in worship manage their growth through a centralized staff team that collectively coordinates and manages the life of the congregation. The board may provide oversight, expressing expectations about growth, but the growth itself is managed by staff. Congregations worshiping 800-1,200 manage their growth more strategically. Typically an executive team within the staff team takes overall responsibility for coordinating the growth centers of the congregation. After 1,200 the management of growth becomes decentralized and is managed in multiple places at the same time.

How and where is your congregation managing its growth process?

Photo Credit: jimflix at

Is “BIG” a Core Value?

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

What are the central essential characteristics that make this congregation unique? This is a question that I frequently pose to congregations who engage me as their consultant. Healthy congregations typically provide a concise response to this question and the response is consistent when posed to different leaders in different venues. Healthy congregations know who they are and how they are different from other congregations.  A healthy congregation might respond with something like this, “We are a congregation that values excellence in worship and the arts. We have a progressive theology and are known for our commitment to the pursuit of social justice.” Or, “We are proud of our intergenerational approach to faith formation and development. We excel in offering a strong Sunday school program and a vibrant small group ministry that thrive side by side.”

Recently, a congregation that I worked with posed this question to their membership, as part of a series of listening circles designed to help leadership listen to membership. A disturbing phenomenon surfaced as we began reviewing the collected data. A significant number of people responded to the question about central essential characteristics by replying with some version of, “Well, I guess what makes us unique is that we are big”.

As we probed the response a little further we discovered that people meant many different things when they named size as an essential characteristic of the congregation.  Some talked about the fact that the size of the congregation generated enough resources to insure that the congregation was impactful in its ministry. For others, size produced a capacity for excellence in worship and education that they valued. For still others the size of the congregation was a measure of prestige. They valued being part of the “biggest and richest” congregation around. (Leadership expressed a collective “ouch” in response to that last interpretation.)

As you can imagine, this data set produced some interesting dialogue among leadership. Can/should our size be one of the core values expressed by our congregation?  Is size an end unto itself, or a means to accomplish something else? If we cease to be a large and resource rich congregation, will we have failed in our mission? If we are not known for being one of the  denomination’s largest financial contributors to mission, what will we be known for?  Has our image of ourselves as the big and resource rich congregation become an anchor or albatross, holding us down?

I suspect that this conversation could (and perhaps should) take place in any number of large mainline Protestant congregations. What value does your membership place on the size of the congregation? Is “big” one of your core values?

Photo Credit: Gabriele at

Can Our Youth Save Us?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Congregations love to advocate on behalf of youth ministry…at least in principle.  At some point in every congregational planning process someone stands and issues the battle cry, “We need to be doing a better job with our youth. They are the future of our church. If we have a thriving youth program, the church will grow.” The notion that a thriving youth ministry will lead to church health and vitality is a long standing assumption in most of our congregations. 

We look at the void of young adults in our congregations today and we aren’t quite sure what to do about that. We see young adulthood as a time when people are not inclined to seek out church participation, and so we convince ourselves that reaching out to young adults is simply too hard. But youth ministry, that’s a different story! We know that the teen years are critical faith formation years, and we know from our own personal experience that parents will attend almost any church to which their adolescent children feel attracted. Many of us also have fond memories of vibrant youth ministry years in glory days gone by, and we’re sure that the way back to those glory days is to tend to our youth and to get that particular vibrancy back.

Over the last several years nearly every congregation that I have worked with on strategic planning has claimed children’s ministry or youth ministry (or both) as one of their 2-3 key strategic initiatives for moving forward. In other words, they recognize that their children and youth ministry programs have lost their impact and they believe that infusing energy and resources into these ministries will make the biggest difference in the right direction for the future health and vitality of the congregation.

However, there may be a problem with our assumptions about the role that youth ministry plays in revitalization.  In 2009 the Hartford Institute for Religion released the findings of a significant research project called American Congregations 2008 . The report states the following:

“Interest in many areas of congregational life cycle up and down over time. Youth ministry is one of these. Right now interest is rising. The reason may be because of increasing worries about flat to declining memberships and the perception that youth programming would stimulate growth. Interestingly, FACT2008 finds that a positive relationship between youth programming and growth (For FACT2008, in worship attendance) only holds for our Evangelical Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox families, and even here it is not very strong. For Oldline Protestantism the relationship is actually negative, although again not very strong.”

What are we to do with this piece of information? It’s startling and it feels counter-intuitive. Certainly no one is suggesting that we eliminate an emphasis on youth ministry. But, if your congregation has limited resources to invest in revitalization efforts (and what congregation doesn’t have limited resources), is youth ministry the best thing in which to invest those limited resources?

Here is one of my favorite mantras as I work with large congregations in the midst of planning. The large church has the capacity to do just about anything it chooses to do with excellence, but no church has the capacity to do all things with excellence. No congregation has unlimited resources. Choices must be made. Realistically, a congregation can only focus on two-three key strategic initiatives at any one point in time.  Should youth ministry be showing up on every congregation’s list right now?  Are we investing ourselves in an area of ministry that feels safe and familiar when a riskier approach, with greater potential for impact, remains unexplored?

Photo Source: poptart prince