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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.
Would it be appropriate to:
Close the church to youth programming if they tagged the bathroom two times?
Ask students to leave the youth ministry if the teens were smoking weed in the cemetery across the street?
Forbid a pregnant church teen from attending the youth group?
What if teens are using callousness and indifference to simply veil the real adolescent behind the mask? Research indicates many adults are scared to relate to teens. I wonder if our rules are more for our protection and not for the good of the people we serve. We are prone to think that the teen we see is actually the whole teen. We fail to recognize that there is a veil the teen is hiding behind.
I have worked with churches that have done all these things listed above. Let me tell you a story why I think they were missing the point.
My parent’s church never had an official youth program. We had some denominational retreats and a few BBQs, but it was sparse. Yet my childhood church had a youth ministry.
I remember one poignant model of Christlikeness from my teen years. My church was along a popular cruising strip. The community was in an uproar, laws were passed, police patrolled and businesses put up fences around their parking lots to keep teens out. Not my church. Several elders went to the bakery, bought tons of doughnuts, and spent hours on the parking lot every Friday and Saturday night.
Here’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in ministry: programs cannot make disciples.
Think about natural reproduction. What makes a tree? Only trees. What makes a giraffe? Only other giraffes. Following this logic (and the very definition of disciple), what makes disciples? Disciples make more disciples. Programs? In my experience programs breed more programs.
Jesus’ life and ministry teaches us an important lesson. His method flung disciples into every city in Galilee and eventually every region of the world. Many programs tend to be Centripetal: inward moving and focused on the core. They attempt to draw into the center.
The difficulty lies in that we try to form and fit hurting teens and families into the mold of the program. We want them to come but they have to play by our rules and not spill sprite on the library carpet. Then we ask them to leave if it gets a little scary.
There is a place for centripetal ministry yet Jesus’ ministry was distinctly centrifugal. The core was a training ground for the purpose of launching a disciplemaking movement out into the world: Into the parking lot with donuts.
My elders when I was a teen taught me that ministry is using the overflow of your life to impact other people.
Are We Following Culture or Mission?
Ministry Fads and Super Snarks
Once as a young teen I went sailing with my younger brother on our father’s Super Snark. The Snark is a one-and-a-half man, aluminum and foam boat with a six-foot mast. We launched into the Puget Sound in Washington State and navigated with the wind at our backs until we were some way out enjoying our adventure. As with every good sailing story, the wind and the rain came and tossed our little vessel. We turned for shore and soon realized our inadequacy in understanding the principles that guide a sailboat against the wind. The second leg of our journey took ten times longer that the first. Most importantly we could not steer straight back to the point of departure. We had to angle our boat and sails to catch the wind. Because we did not understand the principles of tacking, when we finally grounded our skiff we were hundreds of yards down the beach. Tired, cold and wet, we had to drag our Snark and ourselves back to the family.
Within the youth ministry world there is a subtle pressure to be “cutting edge” – to have a ministry that is deemed relevant in its methodology to the contemporary generation of youth. New trends emerge continuously, and with them come the latest ministry fad. One youth pastor I spoke with captured well the pressure that many of us feel to have programs and methodologies that reflect the most current “innovations” in ministry:
“I’ve read a lot of the books and you just get in this mode of whatever is the latest fad, whatever is new, whatever is different: that’s what we have to do.”
Regular restructuring of the program and methods based on the most recent idea to hit the youth ministry landscape leads to a busyness rooted in constant reinventing of ministry. The ministry may often lack the kind of philosophical reflection necessary to link methods with vision. Dissatisfaction with one methodology may simply lead to the adoption of a new one, and thus repeat the problem in due time. As one youth pastor commented,
“We can kind of compete programmatically with the world on some level… all those techniques to create all the latest things but, at the base, I have to ask the question where’s Jesus in all of this and he can’t just be in the afterthought, he has to be the one that’s pushing this through.”
Duffy Robbins, long-time youth ministry educator writes, “Ministries in which techniques and methodologies are precious are seldom guided by vision.” Many ministries choose methods separate from goals and in many instances the method replaces the goal. Methods reflect implicit values and may produce results far different from those stated as actual ministry goals. Christian Schwarz, a researcher, explains, “the problem is that their methods are insufficient because they are inconsistent with God’s plan.” He goes on to make clear that “some models parade as universally valid principles” when in actuality they are just that, models, methods or programs.
This is a serious problem facing our ministries. Methods cannot be employed as independent agents, working by themselves, outside of context and without connections and intentionality to the entirety of the ministry philosophy. Methods that are culture driven will inevitably subvert the purposes they were employed to accomplish and replace the explicit philosophy with a different and potentially contrary implicit philosophy.
In a similar way to the sailing story, the longer a method that does not match the rest of the philosophy is employed, the greater the variation in results will be from those originally and specifically desired. A single degree off on our heading can cause us to miss our destination by hundreds of miles on a long flight or voyag–if no corrections are made. In ministry the same is true: small discrepancies in degree of heading will cause a smaller scale of variation from our destination while large differences in heading can cause immediate and visible contrary results from where we actually wish to go. Either way, the longer a program outcome is subjected to the unnatural method the greater the difference in actual outcome from desired outcome and thus the greater the frustration and desire to rewrite the program. All of this can happen in a cycle outside of the goals and beliefs of the ministry philosophy. Duffy Robins sums it up for us, “The first question we need to ask is not ‘Will it work?’ or ‘Can we do it?’ but ‘How does it help us reach our goal?’ and ‘Does it fit our vision?’ This is the mark of an excellent ministry.”
One last time.
As I held my toddler for the 90 minutes of her nap, I could not figure out why I was practically crying the whole time. Suddenly I realized it was likely the last time. I had no way of knowing, but that there will be a last time is certain. That the last time was coming soon I had no doubt.
What gifts do I give to my daughter in this moment? Her snuggling with me is a gift to me: from her, from God. My spending ninety minutes holding her was not a role I would play for very long. She would move on. These times would never return. In one sense she did not need me at those moments. In a very real sense I needed her, but how often am I convinced to give a little or the minimum?
It was my last chance to invest in her life in this way. Just as there is a long series of firsts, there would be a series of lasts in our life together: The last bubble bath, the last dance, the last time teaching her how to ride her bike. These “lasts” appropriately bring new first and freedoms and independence.
The nap was not easy. She fidgeted and cried when I tried to adjust the 40 pound sweaty ball. It was not even pleasant. First my right arm, then my left arm and then my right leg fell asleep.
I had much to do. Ministry stuff to do.
In a very real sense, adolescence is the time of the last dance. We are often preoccupied, don’t like the music or are unable to dance at all. Many of us and our churches are wounded and wounding teens. For me and my ballerina daughter there are many dances left. But there is a time of the last dance. A send off.
There is a limited window in which we are given chances and many of us are not dancing at all.
Maybe we offer programs, or keep our teens busy because we are scared. Dread of failure, of being hypocritical, of being rejected again drive us to make decisions based, not on our priorities, but on fear. We even withdraw because we are afraid we will damage what little relationship we have.
The very real reality of the western world is that we have abandoned our children.
My fellow youth pastors have told me they use relationships in order to attract students to a program or event. Relationships are offered for some other end than relationship itself. When it satisfies us. When it suits us. When we need a snuggle.
I consulted with a large church after an abusive firing of their youth pastor. The head elder told me, “We can get all the programs and activities going to make this thing successful. What we need is a face. Youth ministry needs a face.” This was stated as if 30 adolescents had not just walked away from the church.
As a society, we allow teens to be marketed towards in the most despicable fashion. We believe them when they say they don’t want us around. We place teens, almost exclusively, in situations where there is little adult interaction and relationship from school to church. We could also mention Christian who are 65+ watch 205 hours of television a month.
One college student recently told me “Churches have failed teens for years because they feel that by using these great programs they are showing the youth how much they mean to them, but instead those very programs just add to the isolation that they are feeling.”
I was recently in an online discussion with church leaders about involving parents in the church’s ministry to children and youth. I suggested sitting down with each family in order to regularly model and teach parents to disciple their children. The idea was quickly dismissed, as nice and impractical. Maybe the efficiency of programs that solve our problems has actually created the problems in the first place.
All that is to say we are often not doing ministry with teens in mind. There are other forces at play that cause us to do things out of guilt and fear. Instead of guilt money (money given to teens because we do not spend time with them), we offer guilt programs and guilt relationships for abandoned kids.
What if adolescence was an opportunity and not a terminal illness to survive? What if we allowed teens to lead the dance, and instead of placating we partnered with them?
The point is that we have tried to form our children into the image of our activity because we are afraid. We are afraid of failure, we are afraid that they won’t join us in our projects, we are afraid that their dreams will be bigger than ours.
I pondered all this as I ached in my heart (and my body) while holding my daughter. Today, she will be a teen under 10 years. I wondered, “Will the church be ready for her?”
Then she woke up. She smiled. She gave me that smile I am convinced only a two or three people have ever seen and then only a handful of times. As if I had not spent the last 90 minutes in agonizing physical discomfort, she said “oh look daddy we should clean up Hi-ho Cherry-O.” Then she looked at me and said “I love you daddy” and she was gone. Off and running, asking me now to participate in an activity of her choice that changed the world and ordered it for the Kingdom in her way. Not in mine.