Mission first, then program

A pastor surprised me recently with the deep insight he got while designing a review of his church’s youth ministry. I taught a group of pastors (including this pastor) a year ago how to do program evaluations, and he did a good job at his first attempt. This year, on his own he went far deeper, because as he laid out his assumptions and thought through their rationale, he questioned why a church has a youth program at all. If parents really fulfilled their roles, would there be any place for a church youth program? Could the goals of the youth program be better obtained if the church worked with parents rather than with youth? I’m sure the youth program will continue (if only for those youth without Christian parents), but I congratulate him for digging deep enough to ask such a foundational question!

Challenging Assumptions

What I am thrilled by is that he is challenging his assumptions. Many people never do that because they aren’t even aware what their assumptions are. They confuse the way they see the world with reality, a monumental assumption! If you don’t challenge your assumptions, then the status quo reigns and the most a program review will do is help you tinker with it to make  it just a little more efficient or a little more effective. Without challenging the way you think, you likely will never question the program’s existence or do anything radical with it.

Start with the program’s purpose

Tinkering with a program to modify it for better performance is a legitimate outcome of a program evaluation, but there are actually three possible outcomes:

  1. Keep the program as is,
  2. Modify the program, or
  3. Kill the program and do something else.

This pastor was starting from a good place – what is the purpose of the program? From that he built a logic model. And then he started to really think:

  • What are my assumptions and how do I test them?
  • What other ways could the church fulfill the purpose of youth ministry?
  • What are the criteria that would indicate a successful program?

As you reflect on the mission of the ministry you lead, think as broadly as possible by starting with the basic premise behind your existence. Then think about broad initiatives to fulfill the mission. You don’t want to get bogged down or hemmed in by existing programs until you have the big picture in focus.

Here’s the simple way I always explain it: I am committed to my ministry’s mission, not its programs and not its plans. Otherwise programs and plans take on a life of their own and become sacred cows (or worse, leeches sucking the life out of the ministry’s energy and creativity).

Mission takes priority over program

Remember, you were called for a  purpose, to engage in a mission. Mission always comes first and how you do it comes second. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions like this pastor is. You just might end up with a far better way of pursuing your mission!

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