A comprehensive strategy for realigning your church’s ministries, activities, and programs for fall
By Tom Harper
For many, August marks the beginning of a new school year and, with it, a new church year as well. Most of us now face a plethora of programs, classes, small groups, events, and holidays that stand looming like a line of horses ready to burst out of the starting gate. No matter that the pastor and his staff were supposed to enjoy a summer of rest.
Dutifully, you’ll jump back in the saddle, like you always do. But before you put your feet in the stirrups, now may be the perfect time to assess the year ahead. What programs need to change, merge, or stop? What activities have run their course?
Rather than relying on people’s predictable opinions, why not consider a more objective approach?
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, had no idea one-third of his readers were nonbusiness people. So, in 2005, he followed up that best-selling business book with a shorter piece called Good to Great and the Social Sectors, a must-read for pastors.
Let’s explore some of the key concepts in his work, combined with biblical principles that I believe round out a comprehensive strategy for realigning your church’s ministries, activities, and programs for the fall.
BEGIN WITH DISCIPLINE
First, Collins asserts, “A culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatness.” While we don’t desire for the church to be great in a worldly sense, the Great Commission sets our standard.
Would you say your church has a culture of discipline? If that raised an eyebrow, consider that the Bible exhorts us to discipline our children, develop spiritual disciplines, and even make disciplined people (disciples). When the Lord disciplines us, we are to consider his correction a blessing (Psalm 94:12).
Corrective discipline is an expression of love (Proverbs 3:12). It is how our Father trains us and produces peace and righteousness in us (Hebrews 12:11). Additionally, correction is a constant in the church because the flocks are full of sinners (as are the pulpits and choir lofts!).
Discipline, then, is a way of thinking, of leading, and of life. It is God’s way. If we’re going to make disciples who make more disciples, we have an obligation to seek out and diligently pursue what the Lord wants our churches to be and do.
SORT THE INPUTS FROM THE OUTPUTS
Collins writes that nonprofits must shift from focusing on resource inputs to outputs, such as delivering on the mission and making a lasting impact.
To illustrate this concept, he tells the story of former New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who inverted the department’s focus from arrests made, reports taken, cases closed, and budgets met to simply reducing crime. The central question was this: Does the city care about the inputs and activities, or does it really want less crime?
Doesn’t God look at his churches the same way? He wants us to focus more on the result of making disciples than the activities of the church itself. The business as opposed to the busyness.
Compare home groups during the week alongside weekend groups in the church building. Which is better? Do you know how many people are in both, how long or how often they meet, what’s being taught, how well the leaders are trained?
Those questions are good, but they’re focused on inputs. You may want to improve some of those things (who wouldn’t?), but the bigger question is this: What’s the purpose of the groups? Their main outputs, or outcomes, should be spiritual in nature.
Whenever focus shifts to the activities of the groups—their size, frequency, teaching style, or demographics—a single strategic question should immediately emerge: How does that make a difference in growing disciples of Jesus?
Think like the former police commissioner, who concentrated on reducing crime rather than worrying about all of the “performance” indicators. Our churches need to discipline themselves to focus on the singular goal of making disciples.
With this mission in view, how do we practically approach the measurement question so we can make sense of our “churchified” chaos?
BOLDLY ASSEMBLE EVIDENCE
Collins offers helpful guidance: “It doesn’t really matter whether you can quantify your results,” he writes. “What matters is that you rigorously assemble evidence—quantitative or qualitative—to track your progress. If the evidence is primarily qualitative, think like a trial lawyer assembling the combined body of evidence. If the evidence is primarily quantitative, then think of yourself as a laboratory scientist assembling and assessing the data.”
Churches typically gauge success by counting people and dollars. But rarely do we seek honest answers to more subjective questions about initiatives and ministries. We can penetrate the surface and get at the heart with a more direct line of inquiry:
• How do people really feel about the new program?
• Is our VBS teaching kids what they need to learn in order to grow, or is it just fun?
• How is this event impacting the congregation’s walk with Christ?
• Is this activity tied to a church tradition more than to a relevant spiritual purpose?
All church programs and activities should be subject to tough questions like these. But too often we’re afraid to ask them because we don’t want to offend or cause conflict.
If we don’t ask, how will we know our weak points? Gut instinct and opinion will get us part of the way, but we must go further to assemble evidence and “face the brutal facts,” as Collins puts it.
The ideal leader, he says, makes sure “the right decisions happen—no matter how difficult or painful—for the long-term greatness of the institution and the achievement of its mission, independent of consensus or popularity.”
So, what exactly do we measure if we’re trying to track spiritual growth?
Collins advises, “What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor.”
One way to intelligently assemble evidence and begin your church’s realignment strategy is to consult with a few key leaders about the goals of various programs. Asking a basic question like, “Why does this program exist?” might shine enough light to begin the realignment process.
Once you’ve agreed on worthy goals—whether it’s more people in Bible studies, more meaningful community outreach, or better-trained preschool teachers—you can prioritize them based on their potential to affect the congregation’s overall spiritual growth.
For example, you might determine community outreach is the bedrock of the church and what your church is known for. You have plenty of volunteers, and requests for assistance from the community are increasing. But you wonder, How can we improve this program so it helps us more effectively accomplish the Great Commission?
The answer lies in the outputs. What specific outcomes would indicate congregational spiritual development in the context of community service? Rather than limiting yourself to counting volunteers and water bottles and the like, you could measure the number of:
• evangelistic tracts handed out
• invitations made to attend church
• spiritual conversations
• social media posts your volunteers hashtag.
I realize social media posts may seem a tad unspiritual, but why not measure the “engagement” level of the younger volunteers? If they get into serving, their friends will hear about it.
The point is to decide on metrics that tie your church’s activities to its spiritual goals. Then, as you measure them over time, you can establish trends that prove progress or indicate areas of needed improvement.
And in the case of a program or activity with few spiritual outputs, your best option may be to “disengage.”
MEASURE THE WORK OF THE HEART
Kurt Sauder (coauthor with Eric Schansberg of Thoroughly Equipped: Disciple-Making Curriculum) is a student of the art of disciple-making. He said, “What we measure becomes increasingly important; what’s not being measured becomes less important. We typically measure bodies, bucks, and buildings, but those aren’t important outputs. We need to measure the work of the heart.”
Sauder said as we teach and preach the Word and let the Holy Spirit work in believers’ lives, the results should be increased love, biblical knowledge, and ministry zeal.
When hearts are fully given to the Lord, he said, we’ll see more missionaries, pastors, church planters, and Christian entrepreneurs. “We should look at how many people are getting launched into kingdom work, even if it’s shining their faith in the marketplace.”
It’s not hard to measure that kind of output, is it? The hardest part may be letting them go do this work outside your church!
IN THE END, BE DILIGENT
In the closing pages of Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Collins returns to his theme of diligent, rigorous discipline. Anything great, he contends, requires consistent effort, as if we’re turning a giant flywheel with an endless succession of nudges until it achieves unrelenting momentum.
Such steady exertion asks much of the pastor, but ultimately visible spiritual growth is a powerful motivator.
“Consistency distinguishes the truly great—consistent intensity of effort . . . consistency with core values, consistency over time,” Collins writes. “Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”
We know the true source of greatness. But for some reason, the Lord chose us feeble humans to execute his Great Commission. “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3).
As you shake off the vestiges of summer’s slower pace, I pray you will take advantage of your fresh perspective and zealously shepherd the church God has put under your care. May he embolden you to ask tough questions and critically analyze results.
I’ll leave you with Paul’s words to Timothy, who struggled as a young pastor: “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15).
Click “Spiritual Growth Inventory” for an example of the kinds of questions a church might ask to help assess outputs.
Tom Harper is CEO of Networld Media Group, publisher of ChurchCentral.com, author of Leading from the Lions’ Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible, and a deacon at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.