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Helping Your Ministry Fulfill Its Purpose
Have you ever stopped and really looked around your ministry? There is so much activity and so much of it very good. Some programs seem to have the direct blessing of God while others are, well, not so blessed. I have always been reticent to call an end to something, even when it looked like a failure. It’s often hard to determine what God may be using in the moment, in the flurry of activity we call ministry. In discipleship, common wisdom says, “fruit often comes over time.” Yet people and resources are always limited. I have often wondered to myself “How do I know what we are doing is producing the fruit we want to see? Are these activities the most effective use of God’s people and resources at this church?”
Many pastors and ministry leaders perceive that God’s work is invisible and thus we should leave “success” or “effectiveness” to God. I have heard many claim “I will be faithful and God will work out the details.” While this is certainly true, the problem is how do we know we are being faithful in what God has called us to do? The answer is that God calls us to evaluate and discern, in both our ministries and our lives.
God calls us to discern
Many elements in ministry resist easy measurement and are impossible to quantify. Difficulty in making judgments does not negate the need for pastoral judgments. We make judgments constantly. Whether subconscious or careful, everyone evaluates. The Bible implies the need for judgment in its qualifications for leadership; being hospitable, not greedy, able to teach, not quick tempered and many others (1 Pet 5:1-3; Titus 1:6-9; 1 Tim 3:1-12; Acts 20:28-31). Judgment entails a form of evaluation. Job asks, “Where shall wisdom be found?” Judgment, discernment and wisdom are major concerns of Scripture and must be considered by the Christian leader. Paul describes evaluative judgment when he writes, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Cor 13:5). Harold Westing states that we are to “critique the ministry of fellow Christians (Col 1:28), leaders (1 Tim 5:17-19), and our own activities (Col 3:16-17)” Merton Strommen notes that in the New Testament “evaluation of a type seems to be obligatory—an evaluation that wakens concern, points out need, indicates direction, and provides an occasion for joy.”
Several key things to understand about evaluation:
Evaluation is pervasive: The question is not whether we should do evaluation. Everyone performs evaluation constantly, whether we acknowledge it or not. The question is whether that evaluation is recognized and can thus be guided. Evaluation that is ignored or denied gains powerful and harmful control over our ministry.
Evaluation in numbers must be understood: Rating a sermon, a program or a camping trip a 4.2 based on a composite scoring of an evaluation sheet can be misleading. The number points to underlying qualities but does not describe them.
Evaluation directs decisions: Many people perceive evaluation as a rear view mirror, only looking backward and only half-useful. However, whatever we use to judge effectiveness in our ministries will steer programs and actions. The way we verify the completion of goals controls our path. Evaluation is much more like a steering wheel. It has the actual power to guide, change and even determine our decisions.
Evaluation improves our ministry: The pastor seeks to understand and improve, to foster growth in discipleship and relationship. Thus, the real purpose of evaluation is not simply greater understanding, but transformation. Evaluation is vital if we want to improve our ministry and effectiveness.
Evaluation frames what we see: Evaluation is actually an integral part of our philosophy, whether we acknowledge it or not. It frames what we see thus altering what we perceive as reality.
Casting many nets in ministry
Elliot Eisner emphasizes the importance and “desirability of weaving many types of nets.” Evaluation must deliberately use many methods to gather evidence. If you want to see what is going on in your ministry, then you must cast multiple nets.
Casting multiple nets means that when we evaluate our ministries, we are looking for more than we are expecting. The nets we cast must be much wider than a single objective or measurement. If our conception of evaluation is limited we will not know what is going on, and our response to the needs of the ministry will be anemic. Many types of nets are desirable for ministry evaluation. If your objective is to catch bass, but the net is for salmon, you will produce a salmon catch. If your objective is spiritual growth, but you only quantify bodies in attendance, attendance will be what you aim at and produce irrespective of your philosophy of ministry. In essence, whatever intentional or unintentional method used to judge ministry will drive the ministry irrespective of theology.
The following is a list of best practices for ministry:
- Form communities to use the hard data and intuitive knowledge available. Communities can take the form of a network or a mentor with whom a pastor discusses what is happening in his ministry.
- Consider sources of information. Has the pastor talked to parents, volunteers, elders, other pastors and the children? Have they observed, discussed and asked? Each source may be biased, perceive only one piece, or be plain wrong but that’s why each is needed: The minister has the same failings.
- Consider the questions asked, not just the information gathered. Every question has an assumption. Multiple questions are often needed in order to seek evidence of what is going on.
- Look below the surface for underlying causes. What is seen is only the tip of the iceberg. Qualities of a ministry as well as biblical and philosophical issues must be searched out and made explicit.
- Seek “depth perception.” Pursue methodologies and sources of information that use both lenses of data that are qualitative and quantitative in nature.
- Gather evidence over time. Many of the most valuable efforts will bear fruit in the future or slowly.
- Compile evidence continuously. Many of the most valuable efforts will bear fruit incrementally. The minister must be diligent in knowing what is happening as it changes. Evaluation helps the pastor steer as he drives.
- Evaluation can be done at the end of an event or program but is best when it is ongoing or continuous.
- Compile evidence with rigor. Simple implicit judgments that do not consider bias, reliability or other viewpoints lack the qualifications for true discernment.
- Create a culture of evaluation. A single evaluation is not powerful enough to stand against the prevailing system. The above practices are directed toward creating a culture of continuous improvement within the church.
As we consider our programs we must know that the questions we ask form the answers we receive. Snap judgments could not escape our own limited perception and bias. We are going to make decisions. Ministries will have to be supported, changed, cut back or eliminated. The growth of our people depend, in part, on our ability to see with clarity. We must see the real picture of the ministry God had entrusted to us. It is time to do some evaluation.