Ministerial leaders often rely as much on the Holy Spirit as they do on a strategic plan. In even more cases, they rely on intuition and gut feelings when putting a new program on the ground. Leaders have a hunch that there is a need to reach out to a population, to serve a community, or to try something new. So they make a foray into new territory to give something a try. If that foray goes well, they must backtrack to answer crucial questions about leadership, resources, and sustainability. Program planning models can help them do this, just as they help in the creation of new initiatives or the re-creation of lapsed initiatives. Even programs that appear to be working well “on their own” cannot continue over time without effort, intentionality, and structure.

Leaders tend most often to build upon and strengthen programs that are already up and running than to create new programs. A junior-high youth group emerges from a gaggle of sixth graders playing air hockey after church. A men’s fellowship grows out of an annual fishing trip. A food pantry morphs into a soup kitchen. It is leaders’ responsibility to create infrastructures that uphold such initiatives and that anchor programs in the life of a community, connecting them to the resources they will need to sustain life beyond the happenstance and haphazard phase. The theoretical resources that have been most helpful to me in midcourse, whereby a free-flowing activity becomes a structured program offering, have come from the world of institutional change theory. The more we understand about change as leaders, the better equipped we are to guide the change toward fulfilling our organization’s mission as effectively and faithfully as possible.

New programs in a community—even a historic community like a long-established church or university—are like teabags in a cup of hot water. Over time, they change the color and nature of their setting, even if just a little. Change leadership theory can help a person responsible for leading or creating a program to consider what must go into such a program and the institutional change it will, by nature, create.

Harvard Business School’s John Kotter proposes eight steps toward program planning in an institutional setting to create a program or change initiative that is bound to succeed. Each of Kotter’s steps has something special to say to a leader in a religious organization, but there are three in particular to highlight here: urgency, communication of the change vision, and short-term wins. I single out these because, in my experience, they are the steps religious organizations skip most frequently, at the peril of their programs’ success.

First, urgency: I once heard that a pastor telling a church to change when it sees no reason to do so is like a doctor prescribing chemotherapy to someone who comes in complaining of a headache. A leader who urges change without first helping participants to see why change is necessary is bound to fail. Conversely, to frighten participants into willingness to change is both unethical and manipulative. It is common in religious organizations for leaders to cry wolf, scaring stakeholders with “the sky is falling” warnings to promote a particular agenda. Leaders might, without ill intent, frighten each other and parishioners with dramatic presentations on declines in membership or giving. Yet I have never heard of a church membership drive that succeeded when the motivation of those doing the evangelism was fear. Finding the right level of urgency is an art in leadership.

Second, communicating the change vision: We all know that participants in religious organizations tend to be busy people, often “joiners” who participate in numerous other communities. Although this is not always true, it is true often enough that leaders must consider how to communicate change to over-stimulated people. In the case of many change initiatives in religious organizations, communications are designed for the deeply involved and over-conscientious. The very involved are precious members of faith communities, but communications about change should not aim for them. They should aim toward the middle—the attention span and engagement of the typical person, rather than the especially invested member. If we communicate clearly and often, the very attentive participants in the faith community may be puzzled by the frequency, but the word will get out.

Third, generating quick wins: Change tends to move slowly in religious organizations. When change happens slowly, it is hard to see. Think of the proverbial activity of “watching grass grow.” Leaders need to be mindful that the energy that moves a change effort ahead comes from enthusiastic participants who want to see change; if those participants cannot see change, energy is bound to flag. Kotter suggests that leaders must build in short-term successes that make a visible splash in order to keep energy for change running high.

Of these three, the nature of visioning in religious organizations has a special consequence. In faith-related institutions such as churches, participants might hold a variety of images about the true mission of the organization. In a business setting, one can assume that all hope the business will be profitable. In a religious organization, however, some might see a successful ministry program as one that brings in new disciples, while others want to take better care of current members. Some might see individual spirituality as most important, while others believe that communal togetherness is the ideal. In such a context, where it is not uncommon to find a pew of ten people, no two of whom agree on what the organization is truly “for,” talking and thinking about vision are crucial.

When creating a new program or renewing a continuing program, leaders must describe what success would look like. They then must talk together, early and often, about how they will know whether that vision of success is coming to life. Because it is easy to forget to ask these questions during a program planning process, I encourage leaders to ask themselves continually while designing their programs, “How will I know?” How will I know if we are meeting our goals? How will I know if we are making the right kind of progress? When leaders are mentally in “planning mode,” they focus a great deal of their energy on the programs they are planning and what successful programming demands. Yet the program’s success is not meant to stand only on whether participants enjoyed it. Rather, the program is meant to bring about transformation in the lives of individuals and communities. How will we know if this is happening, especially if our attention is consumed
by making the program function?

Leaders in religious organizations must consider process and outcomes simultaneously. If the process associated with a program—the lived experience of a program initiative—goes poorly, the program will fail to attract or retain participants. If participants attend entertaining programs but experience no growth or transformation, the process might be excellent, but the outcome will not live up to its goals. During program planning, leaders must work together to build in both process evaluation and outcomes evaluation. That means they must have a mental, and eventually written, idea about both what a successful initiative might be and do, and what kinds of transformation they would like to encourage.

All life is cyclical in some way, and even historic ministry programs wax and wane over time. If leaders are focused mostly or exclusively on program offerings rather than on the goal toward which those programs strive, they can easily get stuck. The program offering becomes distanced from its original goal and stops achieving that goal, and then the program outlives its purpose. If leaders put purpose first, they are free to change program offerings as time and circumstance dictate. Over time, different means are required to meet the same goal. Leaders who put the program’s goals first do not get too attached to particular means for reaching those goals, providing the opportunity to always keep their ministries focused and fresh.

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog


Adapted from Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation by Sarah B. Drummond, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. 



AL387_SM Holy Clarity:
The Practice of Planning and Evaluation
by Sarah B. Drummond

In Holy Clarity, Sarah Drummond explores the most basic reason leaders of religious organizations conduct evaluations: To find and create God-pleasing clarity regarding the organization’s purpose and the impact of its activities. Leadership and evaluation are not separate disciplines, she argues. Effective leaders evaluate because they need to know what is happening in their organizations and how those activities are effecting change.

AL266_SM Projects That Matter:
Successful Planning and Evaluation for Religious Organizations

by Kathleen A. Cahalan

Projects That Matter is a primer for project leaders and teams about basic project planning and evaluation. Intended for the nonexpert, the book introduces readers to the five basic elements of project design and describes in detail a six-step process for designing and implementing a project evaluation and for disseminating evaluation findings. Project leaders in congregations, colleges and seminaries, camps and other specialized ministries, and other religious settings will find Cahalan’s guidance clear and invaluable.

AL340_SM Shaping Spiritual Leaders:
Supervision and Formation in Congregations

by Abigail Johnson

Recognizing that supervision is important in the formation of lay leaders and in the life of candidates for ordination, Johnson has developed this book to guide all who supervise others in a congregation. She views supervision as a ministry and shows how leaders can use their own innate gifts to enhance their supervision skills. Supervision can become an opportunity for mutual growth and learning that strengthens all other areas of ministry.

AL268_SMCompleting the Circle:
Reviewing Ministries in the Congregation

by David R. McMahill

Based on needs he saw from several congregations looking to evaluate their ministers, McMahill looked for ways to review both leaders and ministries and developed the feedback/reflection process he lays out in this book. Based on sound principles of effective communication, this simple system of asking for descriptive feedback about various aspects of a congregation’s life together takes into account the specific setting and the unique relationship between minister and congreg

AL364_SMCreating the Future Together:
Methods to Inspire Your Whole Faith Community
by Loren B. Mead and Billie T. Alban

Congregations today face a multitude of challenges in trying to adapt to a quickly changing world. Balancing new concerns with core values is a complicated process that can leave too many members feeling that their voices and needs are not being met. Creating the Future Together explains how congregations can use large group methods to navigate these new waters. This book is designed to familiarize leaders with these whole-system approaches and to provide a conceptual framework for evaluating their potential usefulness against any given challenge.


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