Programs, Programs & More Programs

Are people simply too busy to attend your marvelous programs?


Perhaps we need to get smarter about the programs we offer, reducing the scope of our offerings and more clearly targeting the real needs of our constituents. What our people really need is help making life choices that align with their beliefs and values, not more options for how to spend their time.

How do we reign in the program madness?  We begin by more intentionally naming the conditions we seek to address with each program, clarifying desired program outcomes and evaluating whether each program is having a desired impact.  Programs without mission impact should not appear on our church calendars.

Stop and Evaluate

Yoga, book clubs, movie nights; these are just a few of the many programming options that large congregations list on their weekly calendars.  There is nothing wrong with these activities, except that organizations down the street and around the corner offer the same programs and do them better. Sometimes, there is nothing in the way we are offering these activities that make them distinctively faith-based.  Nor are we clear that they directly support our mission and purpose.

Too often we add activity to the program calendar because someone expresses mild interest and is willing to take the lead.  Any program offered through the congregation uses resources of the congregation. Most of us have no clarity about what resources our programs actually consume, and whether they really have impact. The fact that a lot of people show up for something is not impact.  High participation suggests impact of some kind, but we need more clarity.

An excellent tool for engaging in program evaluation is the Program Logic Model.  A logic model is a simplified road map of a program that illustrates the relationship between the resources invested, the activities taking place, and the impact produced.

Building a Program Logic Model

The beauty and the challenge in the logic model is naming the distinctions between inputs (what we invest), outputs (what we do and who we reach) and outcomes (the impact we produce.)

Pick a program, any program in the life of your congregation. See if you can articulate the following key elements associated with that program.

Condition: Any project or program in a faith-based organization is meant to respond to a set of conditions.  What condition is this program or ministry meant to address? Why are these conditions a problem? For whom are these conditions a problem? Who has a stake in this situation? What do we already know about this condition?

Intervention: A program or activity meant to bring about a change in the condition.

Inputs: What the organization needs to invest by way of staff, volunteers, time, money, research, materials, equipment, technology and partnerships for this program or project to be completed.

Outputs: The direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs are typically described in terms of the size and scope of the services and products delivered or produced by the program. They indicate if a program was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged the program, etc.

Outcomes (Impact): Specific learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning. Outcomes may be expressed at individual or community levels. Distinctions should be made between short-term, intermediate, and long-term outcomes.

Indicators: The measurable, visible, discernible signs that the program or ministry produced the desired impact. Indicators must go well beyond counting our inputs and outputs. They must focus on observing or measuring changes in attitude, behavior, knowledge or skill.

But Somebody Loves This Program

Every congregation has a program or two that has been on the calendar well beyond its point of vibrancy.  We are fearful of eliminating the program because it is important in the life of some small but committed constituency. We convince ourselves that it doesn’t take many resources to run and wouldn’t be worth the hassle of elimination.

Every program carries a cost, even if it carries a minimal operating budget investment. It may consume the valuable time of a staff member or volunteer. The cost may be hidden; like the opportunity cost of tying up a much-needed room in the building, or the cost of communicating a message about our congregation that is at cross purposes with our core mission, or the premier space it occupies on the weekly bulletin that could be dedicated to a ministry with more impact.

If a program has outlived its usefulness, consumes resources out of proportion to its impact, or has nothing to do with our stated mission, we shouldn’t be offering it.

Invite those who are invested in the program into the experience of completing the logic model with you, but also make certain that others are in the room who can offer a realistic assessment of both cost and impact. Oftentimes, the simple completion of the exercise is enough to help those who love the activity realize that the program has outlived its effectiveness.

You are always free to decide whether a program should be revitalized (at what cost and for what purpose), redeveloped to produce a different kind of impact, or retired.  No program is meant to live on indefinitely in the life of a congregation.  Let’s celebrate the long and productive life of a program and then allow the resources it consumes to be redeployed for ministry more relevant to this chapter of congregational life.