Is ministry really all about programs? Is that all there is to life in a faith community, one program after another? In one sense, ministry is all about programs. In another sense, it has nothing to do with programs. On the one hand, program infrastructures are things that lack any inherent agenda or power unto themselves. On the other hand, programs can either further a faith community’s vision or fail to do so. For example, when leaders in a religiously based food program transform an informal vegetable-garden swap into a funded, formal outreach initiative, the swap program can grow and improve. By adding structure and resources, the swap program may further the faith community’s vision, but it also creates the need for planning, oversight, and continued attention.  

There is much truth in the aphorism, “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” However, leaders who press the importance of planning run three risks:  

  1. Their constituents cast them as controlling and uncaring about the role of the Holy Spirit. Not every member of a faith community thinks like a planner. Some people truly prefer to live in the moment and are confused when their leader wants to look too far ahead. I have learned—often the hard way—that as a leader I must not brush past people who feel this way, for they often have great wisdom to offer about the way the Holy Spirit is available to us only in the present moment.  
  2. They can miss out on new opportunities by over structuring the organization’s plan. People tend to move in and out of ministry programs. When leaders nail down too much of a program’s plan, without leaving room for those who might enter the scene with new ideas—or leave the scene, taking their ideas with them—they limit their own effectiveness. I believe a simple long-term plan designed to be adapted midcourse, coupled with ongoing evaluation, is the best level of structure for a program’s plan. 
  3. Constituents in religious organizations can be quick to accuse their leaders of being too corporate-minded. I once served a church whose membership rolls were out of date. The church paid denominational membership dues in an amount based on its number of active members, so the board of deacons formed a small task force to address the issue. The group was able to eliminate about twenty families easily, knowing that members had moved away or died, but after that point it became stuck. One member of the task force suggested writing a letter to inactive members, seeking information about their plans to continue as participants. Some thought this approach seemed impersonal and cold, not unlike sending an eviction notice, whereas others thought it would be an efficient and face-saving method to enable families no longer involved to move on. The group never got through this impasse, and to this day the membership rolls have not been culled beyond those who have died or moved away.  

These three objections raised by constituents about the structure that comes with planning are worthy of the leader’s consideration. On one hand, leaders should not be deterred from their efforts to help congregations live out their missions simply because some fear the control that comes with structure. On the other hand, leaders are wise to remember that not everything has to be planned and structured. As a natural-born planner, I find it difficult to admit, but I do believe that we can over structure programs to their detriment. In my own mind, I have to discipline myself to recognize when I am planning in order to improve a program and when I am planning merely to feed my own illusion of control. The great irony is that the best way for leaders to address these concerns is not to cease planning efforts, but literally to plan “letting go” into program structures.  

Control is not the goal of program planning and evaluation. We seek through planning to coordinate our activities around a vision, rather than engaging in a haphazard frenzy of activities. Leaders must invite the Holy Spirit into their program plans—a step that means letting go of control and allowing new life to be infused into programs without the leaders’ moderating or mediating every change and new idea. What does this letting go look like? How can leaders provide room in program plans for the Holy Spirit to enter and for the program to take on a life of its own?  

In my experience, five attributes of program initiatives can enable us to remain open to the work of the Spirit, rather than creating programs that are over structured and leader controlled. These attributes help distinguish ministry programs from programs in a secular setting, as they both make programs transformative and create space for God to work through the program. When leaders take these attributes into consideration, they can serve as life-giving catalysts for programs in religious organizations: 

  • Programs That Make Use of the Arts: When those participating in programs have the opportunity to use the arts in their worship, study, outreach, and daily lives beyond formal programs, they are enriched in ways that are difficult to predict but almost always life-giving. 
  • Deep Communication and Personal Transformation: Ministry programs that provide opportunities for personal faith exploration and communication have the capacity to bring new life to individuals and to retain the program’s connection to the holy. 
  • Engagement with Those Who Are Different: When we build into programs opportunities to engage those who are different, we make a bold statement that this program is not about one community but is concerned with the whole of the human community.  
  • Retrieval of the Tradition: By digging deeply into the rich resources of the Christian tradition, leaders who plan ministry programs can build upon centuries of thought, prayer, and process rather than over relying on their own resources 
  • Willingness to Risk Everything: It is my conviction that leaders of ministry programs who state clearly that they are open to allowing a program to die are the leaders most open to the will of the Holy Spirit.  


Sometimes constituents in religious organizations express discomfort with planning, because they fear it will lead to closed, over-structured programs. This concern is legitimate, but rather than avoid planning to ensure that we remain open to change, we can build into programs disciplines that help us remain open to the Holy Spirit’s work. By including the arts, structuring opportunities for deep sharing, providing engagement with those who are different from us, critically and creatively retrieving wisdom from the faith tradition, and clearly stating that programs are meant to continue only so long as they serve a missional purpose, we build openness into programs. Leading with this sort of intentionality helps us avoid both the trap of failing to plan so as to seem open and the trap of creating programs that are structured to the point that they fail to invite the Spirit in. 

Comments welcome 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.   



Holy Clarty: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation AL387_SM
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. Calahan

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.  

AL364_SM Creating 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.    

AL276_SM Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations  
by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann cast planning as a “holy conversation,” a congregational discernment process about three critical questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do or be? Who is our neighbor? Rendle and Mann equip congregational leaders with a broad and creative range of ideas, pathways, processes, and tools for planning. By choosing the resources that best suit their needs and context, congregations will shape their own strengthening, transforming, holy conversation.  


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