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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.
Let’s face it: college students are not the most dependable volunteer pool on the face of the planet.
The problem goes both ways. Sometimes, college students only show up at youth group for a semester before moving on. And as a result, sometimes youth leaders come to expect that, so they don’t bother investing much time in equipping or training their college students. And, as a result, college students often don’t feel very connected to the ministry. And, as a result….
You get the idea. Vicious cycle. I understand that there’s really no simple way to solve this. College students are in a time where they’re figuring out what God wants them to do with their lives. They’re often busy, distracted, and, well, a little immature (I completely put myself in all of those categories, by the way). They might have overcommitted and genuinely need to cut back, or maybe practical concerns like study abroad get in the way.
So, what’s a youth pastor to do? Well, you could rely on guilt-inducing speeches, or force volunteers to sign a four-year contract. If that’s not your style, here are three simple resources you can provide to encourage college student leaders to get more involved in their students’ lives on a regular basis.
It meant a lot when I showed up at various theater, music, or sports events that my girls participated in. But I know a lot of leaders who only found out about an event a week after it was over when it came up in the “praise” time of prayer requests and felt bad that they hadn’t been there. (“Oh, you won the district soccer tournament? That…cool. Wow. I didn’t even know you played soccer.”) Sometimes, it just doesn’t come up.
That’s why it’s a great idea have school calendars for the leaders and tell them to ask the students in their group at the beginning of every month if there’s a concert or game coming up for them. This is also helpful so leaders know, for example, when the students have a day off school so they can plan a party or hang-out time.
Some school websites have a link to their calendar, but for others, you might need to contact the school to get one, then make photocopies. Make sure you get calendars from all the schools that are represented, even the one that two kids go to, so no one feels left out. (And mention to leaders to check with the homeschoolers and write down anything they might be involved in. Poor homeschoolers sometimes get left out.)
If you have college student leaders, they probably have a ton of things going on. I get that. I was involved in at least three other activities, had a full course load and a campus job, and didn’t own a car. That meant that I only went to a few events per year. But I did what I could. Make sure you emphasize to your leaders that this is not meant to put pressure on them to do everything. It just gives them options for connecting with their students outside of youth group.
List of Names
No matter how often people told me how important it was to pray for the students in my group every day, I would forget. Let’s face it: I am a disorganized, scatterbrained person who does not work well with consistent routine, until I actually wrote down the girls’ names and put the list somewhere where I saw it frequently. That triggered my brain to say, “Oh! You’re supposed to be praying for these girls. Do it now, before you forget.”
For visual people like me, it can help if you print out a list of student names for your leaders and ask them to use it as a prayer reminder. They can highlight the names of students in their groups and just pray for them, if they want. Or, chances are, you’ll have at least a few super-motivated prayer warriors whose spiritual gift is lifting people before the Lord, and they’ll tackle the whole list. Whatever the case, sometimes it’s nice to have a simple reminder.
On a totally non-spiritual note, it helps to have a list of first and last names so you can find students on Facebook. Just sayin’.
Parallel Teaching Schedule
I really had no idea what to call this, but let me explain what I mean. Something that’s really good for college leaders (probably any leaders) to know is what the students are learning in Sunday School, in Wednesday night Bible study, in any programming where they aren’t present.
That might just mean sending an email to leaders with a sentence or two saying, “Hey, just FYI, Sunday mornings the high schoolers are working their way through the miracles of Jesus and talking about whether it makes sense to believe in miracles when we have modern science. If you get a chance, ask them what they think about this.”
If you want honest feedback from your students, this is a good way to get it (they’ll tell their college student leader things that they wouldn’t tell you). It also just helps youth group workers make connections to other things the students are learning.
Because I knew the Bible quizzing team (half my group participated) was studying the epistles, I knew they loved it when I used examples from those books, because they were really familiar with the context. Because I knew that several of my group members were in the weekday morning evangelism training, I could ask how they were feeling about talking to their unsaved friends. It’s great to have that cross-over knowledge.
Chances are, not all of your leaders will make full use out of all three of these resources. But they’re easy to provide, and I think they challenge college students to take their role in the ministry seriously. If you let them know that you expect them to do more than just show up and play dodgeball, maybe they’ll actually exceed your expectations.
Amy Green is an amazing “all-in” volunteer, just graduated from Taylor University and has worked with one group of Junior-high students her whole career in college. You can check out Amy’s blog here: http://justthefiction.blogspot.com/
I was once in a room with several hundred youth pastors and someone asked “How many of you have lost money on a fundraiser.” About half of the hands went up. Failure in fundraising is like a badge of pride in youth ministry. However it does not get teens to camp or pay for their mission trip.
There are some significant challenges in youth ministry fundraising that must be addressed.
Nickel and Dime Approaches
Many carwashes make a few hundred dollars. If you get 10 cars an hour (6 minutes apiece) for 6 hours that is only 60 cars. You will need a team of 10 to 20 people (in 2-3 shifts), lots of water, hoses, signs and sunscreen. If each car gives $5, you only make $300 (minus expenses). This small amount requires 60-100 hours of labor and an individual can make about $15-30 for the Saturday of work. Your students would be far better off getting a job or cutting lawns. Even more depressing is selling things that take a significant portion of the profit as their cut (flowers, cards, lawn ornaments). I suggest dropping the nickel and dime approaches to fundraising and go with approaches that engage students yet don’t waste time or money.
The teens should earn it!
One of my personal hurdles in fundraising was that the church believed all student trips should be funded by the student working. We once had an elder insist I hold car washes to pay for a 3 week mission trip (18 participants X $1,800 = 108 car washes). I believe that the congregation can and should buy into the mission of the youth ministry. Those who support in money often support in prayer. My first Church was across the street from a housing project in Urban Portland, OR. Most of my teens could not pay $2 to go bowling let alone raise $200 for a summer camp. A new strategy based on a new philosophy had to be developed.
Special funds versus general fund
Don’t be oblivious to the fact that raising thousands of dollars will impact the general fund giving of the church. This is especially true if you are writing letters, in a medium sized church (200 or smaller), or a small community.
Doing too much
I know a youth pastor that does 18-25 fundraisers a year. Stop it. Your job is to make disciples. Cut your program and stop going to Six Flags.
Community support or community fleecing
Work through your philosophy of engaging the community. There is nothing wrong with selling items or asking support from the community. However, there is a hidden cost to using non-Christians while trying to serve non-Christians. Many Churches and ministries do ask for money, a lot. Just remember that your primary task is to give to the community. Make your outside efforts rare and effective.
I prefer to offer carwashes for free. Because they don’t make much money anyway, why not just serve and refuse the cash?
Next Week: The Best Fundraiser Ever!
If you can’t wait, check out this one.