In strategic planning work with both conferences and congregations it is common practice to focus first on “who we are, why we’re here, and what we need to do” before moving on to “how.”  Getting to “how” to do things is the bane of successful planning — too often we start strategizing tactics before we really understand what our real work needs to be.  However, there are five key “how” questions that must be answered, reflected on, and evaluated for question-markscongregational effectiveness.  They are:

  1. How do we set priorities?
  2. How do we cultivate leaders?
  3. How do we make decisions?
  4. How do we communicate?
  5. How do we evaluate?

Unless we understand the answers to these “how” questions, we have very little real chance of success of improvement.  They offer a snapshot of our current reality, and provide vital information for ways we can improve the processes within the local church.

How do we set priorities?  — Most congregations and conferences do a wide variety of good ministries and programs.  When you ask about priorities, many leaders will name at least a dozen different projects, programs, and ministries that do good work for the congregation or conference.  The problem is, if you have a dozen priorities, you have NO priorities.  Just because something is good or valuable doesn’t mean it is the “right” or “best” thing to do.  The most effective organizations — including churches — identify two or three essential things that must be done and done well.  Then, resources of time, energy, attention, money, and expertise are allocated accordingly.  Doing many things moderately well has less transformative power than doing a few things exceptionally well.

Setting priorities is visionary work.  As the mission and vision of an organization clarify, key leadership must analyze and discern the best use of resources and talent for effectiveness and success.  Some helpful questions for priority-setting are:

  • if we could only do one thing, what would it be?
  • if we were forced to make a choice between two ministries or programs, which would we choose?
  • of all that we do, what is most foundational and non-negotiable?
  • of all that we do, what produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people?
  • what do we understand God’s will to be for our community of faith?  how do our ministries and programs reflect this understanding?
  • what would the impact and result be if we stopped doing this program or ministry? (ask of each priority on the list)

How do we cultivate leaders? — Are leaders born or made?  Wrong question.  Every single person on this planet has something to offer to enhance good leadership.  Don’t think of leadership as what leaders do; think of leadership as the intricate and dynamic interplay of the gifts, talents, skills, experience, energy, time, money, and passion of people entrusted to make things happen.  This blows open our understanding of leadership, a brings a whole new host of people to the party.  To contribute to effective leadership a person doesn’t have to be a dynamic speaker, a charismatic charmer, a world-class expert, or a decisive decision-maker.  Good leadership requires a blending of gifts and talents — and those who work behind the scenes, covering details, supporting the front lines, and cleaning up in the wake of our best efforts are essential “leaders” as well as those in the spotlight.  So, leaders are born and most need help being made into effective teams.

It is a rare (and truly wonderful thing) when effective leadership happens by accident.  There are a few truly exceptional individuals who possess a plethora of powerful and excellent leadership skills and abilities.  They end up writing books that frustrate the devil out of ordinary mortals like you and me.  For most of us, leadership talent is like musical talent — to unleash its true potential and power we need to learn, practice, sweat, ache, practice, perform, evaluate, practice, and perform again to get good with it.  And to really excel, we need teachers and coaches and mentors and trainers who can guide us and work with us to hone our talents.  Really good leadership happens by design, not by accident.  For churches, that means we can never just “fill slots” on a roster of committees, councils, boards, teams, and work areas.  A key work of existing leadership is to match the skills, gifts, and passions of emerging leaders with the work that needs to be done.  Thus, the priorities must be in place in order to identify the kinds of leadership needed to be effective.

How do we make decisions? — This isn’t a passionate plea to abandon Robert’s Rules of Order — though in most places Robert would hardly recognize what we do as having anything to do with what he thought he was creating.  This is an appeal to analyze the way decisions get made (and unmade) in your setting.  The key to effective decision-making is not power, but ownership — and too many of our congregations and conferences get the two confused.  Power decision-making is “do what I/we say” decision-making, usually requiring a vote so that the majority can make the minority do what it wants them to.  This often leads to animosity, endless debate, and hurt feelings and resentment.  It also means that many of the “losers” won’t really support the decision, nor will those who merely voted with the majority, nor will those who don’t have any real investment in outcomes.  The evidence of power decision-making is that the decision rarely gets carried out successfully.  Lots of things get decided, but nothing ever seems to get done.

Ownership decision-making requires that we give both responsibility and authority to those who must carry out a decision.  The people with the power and responsibility to make something happen MUST be a part of the decision-making process.  This is why, for example, so many visioning processes fall apart.  Decision-makers assign the work of visioning to a “team” that has no authority to implement anything.  Instead, they are charged with casting a vision for the congregation and to bring it back for “adoption” by the decision-making body.  The decision-making body has no ownership or deep understanding of the vision — it certainly isn’t their vision — so it gets approved, put in a binder or framed and put up on the wall, and is generally forgotten or ignored until the next vision team is formed.  This isn’t rocket science: if I decide something, I am much more likely to follow through.  If you decided something for me, I may not be nearly as motivated to make it happen.  The method of making decisions is not nearly as important as the tight alignment of responsibility, authority, and accountability between decision-making and implementation.

question-markHow do we communicate?— Here’s another very simple principle that we overlook and ignore way too often: real communication is dialogical.  There is a simple definition of communication that I find extremely helpful — there are five key components to communication: creation of a message, transmission of a message, reception of a message, interpretation of a message, response to a message.  For example; a teacher has a problem student who she thinks is “slow” (creation of a message), she tells the parents that the child “isn’t trying,” (transmission of a message), the parents hear a criticism of their precious angel (reception of a message), they feel insulted and protective of junior (interpretation of a message), and respond by telling the teacher she “isn’t qualified” to make such a judgment (response).  Here’s the problem.  In our information rich age, we cut corners and in many cases all we care about is creating and transmitting our messages.  We really don’t know who is receiving them, what they understand of them, and what response they are making.  We engage in one way, truncated communication and then ASSUME our message is being received, appropriately understood, and acted upon.  Bad assumption.

Sermons are one way communications (monological, not dialogical).  Newsletters are one way communications.  Websites are essentially one way communications (at least, most church websites).  E-mails can be either one, but the vast majority (over 80%, by most estimates) are one way communications.  Broadcasts and podcasts are one way communications.  See the problem?  A lot of info going out, but what do we actually know about who is hearing it, what they think about it, how they interpret it, and what they then do with it?  Dialogue is the solution and the key.  Following through on the whole process of communication requires that we TALK TO people, not AT them.  Effective leaders cannot assume that because they craft an excellent message and transmit it in beautiful and high quality ways that they have communicated anything.  Yes, people today are dazzled by flashing lights and pretty music and all the bells, whistles, and whoopie we can generate.  But you can mesmerize cats and infants with such hoopla — it doesn’t mean you have communicated anything.  Fancy websites may look great, but that doesn’t make them effective.  The more two way communication that exists within an organization, the healthier and more effective it is likely to be.

How do we evaluate?  — What difference are we making?  What good do we do?  How are lives changed by our efforts?  How well are we “making” disciples and “transforming” the world?  The ability to answer such questions rests at the heart of our most effective congregations.  They are “impact aware.”  They know what people experience at their worship services, how it is affecting their beliefs and actions, and their relationship to God and the community of faith.  They are clear about the impact of education and formation on individual’s lives as well as the overall growth of the community of faith.  They help individuals create clear spiritual goals and objectives for faith development, and they can assess fairly well how effectively they are helping people reach their goals (think physical trainer, only spiritual instead…).  They see in explicit and graphic ways how people’s behaviors change in their daily lives.  They can explain how the works of piety and works of mercy of the congregation have changed, developed, and improved based on their best efforts as church leaders.  They can do this for one simple reason: they understand that you cannot improve what you can’t measure.

Measurement in spiritual formation is qualitative, not quantitative.  No church can say they are effectively making disciples because last year 5 people came to Bible study and this year 8 people are coming.  Discipleship is measured by changes in belief, level of engagement, outward behaviors, and depth of passion.  There are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual growth.  Perceiving, interpreting, assessing, and understanding these signs is the critical type of evaluation for effective churches.  Fannies in the pew and pennies in the plate are indeed easier to count, but they are less reliable as indicators of growth in discipleship.  To evaluate discipleship, leaders need to be in intentional dialogue and discussion with people, asking such questions as:

  • And how is it with your soul?
  • What changes are you making in your own practice of the spiritual disciplines and the means of grace?
  • As you grow in your faith, what new actions are you motivated to take?
  • How would you describe your relationship with God?  With Jesus Christ?  What role does the Holy Spirit play in your faith development?
  • How are you growing in relationship to others, particularly others in your community of faith?

Without evaluation, it is almost impossible to do effective planning for the future.  If you do not understand the impact of what you are doing today — what works well and what doesn’t — how will you decide what to do tomorrow?

These are five simple, but incredibly important, “how” questions that position us for quantum improvement in our local churches and annual conferences.  Our Christian organizations that engage in discussion and reflection on these questions report significant value.  They also lay the groundwork for a sixth vitally important “how” question.

“How well do we represent the incarnate body of Christ for our community and world?” 

5 replies

  1. This is brilliant. It’s simple. It’s concise. It’s practical. And it’s essential. For these reasons United Methodist churches will probably ignore them. I hope every pastor in the denomination reads and uses this post.

  2. I have received three emails this week asking for “reprint” rights for this article (How?). Let this be a blanket approval. If you would like to use “How?” with another audience, please feel free to reproduce it. I would appreciate credit, but it is most important that the information get used where it will do some good.

  3. Great information. I forwarded this along to the chairperson of our Nurture Ministry Group as we’re meeting in August to set “goals” for 2010. I have yet to hear back from her… not unusual unfortunately.

  4. Thank you for this excellent plan! We are in the middle of a church redevelopment, merging two pretty different congregations in the same geographic area, and I think these are important steps as we move toward nominating leaders (our interim nominations team meets tonight). I will share this with them, as well as others I talk with. One of our pastors has been working with the “hedgehog” principle — at what can we be the best? If we can’t be the best, why do it? (There are other parts, too, like how does a particular ministry fit with who we are.) It’s clear to me from your writing (and others) that churches and other organizations can only accomplish great things when they are focused on their mission, their vision, and do not let themselves be distracted by the annoyances that crop up along the way. Becky in Mpls.

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