Theory of Change: A Step-By-Step Guide to Developing a Customized Plan For Your Ministry

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theory of change  a step by step guide to developing a customized plan for your ministry
Used with permission. PD: a conveyor belt goes through a machine with dials, levers, and gadgets. A red arrow shows where raw material enters and a green arrow shows where the finished product leaves the machine.
This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Faithful Strategy Development.

Every Christian ministry wants to change something, such as a person’s spiritual condition or a problem in the community. A Theory of Change defines what sorts of activities your ministry should engage in to make those changes and it documents why you think the activities will work.

The theory of change I guide you through in this post was developed based upon what I learned at Harvard Business School in their Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management course (worth every penny! GO!!) and the one book I could find on developing a theory of change titled Purposeful Program Theory: Effective Use of Theories of Change and Logic Models.

Developing a Theory of Change is a process of examining what you need to do from the perspective of your beneficiary, pinpointing the activities that will get your vision fulfilled. The model’s outputs are the positive steps that will bring about the desired external change, which is your impact on the world around you.

For a really good theological discussion of how a theory of change applies to churches, please watch this video by a Cambridge University theology professor who has a good sense of humour. He may well change your approach to evangelism.

Process for Developing a Theory of Change

There is no single model for what a Theory of Change should look like. For example, a traditional logic model is a Theory of Change that shows how inputs are converted into impacts. Here is a guide for creating a Theory of Change based on a logic model.

The version described in this post is the one that CCCC has used with great success. Its focus is not inputs but rather the conditions for mission impact that we want our ministry to create or improve, coupled with identifying and overcoming the obstacles that have prevented us (so far) from achieving the full impact our ministry wants to make. The process described below does not have a specific name; it is just known as a Theory of Change.

Note: The Bridgespan Group has a guide to develop a more detailed theory of change than the one CCCC uses.


The process for developing a Theory of Change is as follows:

  1. Identify your ministry’s desired impact. Clearly identify why your ministry exists by describing the impact you want to make. This is your Impact Statement (which you might be calling a vision, mission, or end statement). An end statement is basically a vision statement used in policy governance situations. I recommend everybody use it because it is so powerful. The traditional mission statement can be used if it is the only statement, but I recommend you do the work to create a vision or an end statement. These are true impact statements while mission statements are more process or activity related.
  2. List the conditions needed to make the desired impact. Identify the key Conditions that must be in place for your beneficiaries so your ministry can make its impact. The scan of the external environments is most helpful at this stage of the strategy development process. It will identify the factors you must consider that affect how successful the desired change will be. The way CCCC did its theory of change, Conditions column has a positive focus – the conditions that must be in place for your ministry to achieve what it wants to achieve. The column could also be called Problems to be Overcome, which is a negative way to address the ministry’s mission goal. This is the way I learned it at Harvard Business School, and CCCC’s first version of a theory of change took this traditional perspective. However, I thought the result was a document that had a fairly negative view of our members. We were much happier using this column for a positive description of what we want our work to achieve. An example given in a book 1 is that the negative problem addressed by an anti-graffiti program could be recast as a positive opportunity to support creative street artwork.
  3. Identify the obstacles your beneficiaries face. Identify all Obstacles that could prevent your beneficiaries from having the Conditions in place. You can also include contributing factors and opportunities in this section.
  4. Determine what solutions your ministry can offer to overcome the obstacles. Determine high-level strategies to overcome the Obstacles. This column could also be called “Corrections.”
  5. Identify the assets your beneficiaries need. Identify the assets that those who wish to use your services will need to have to benefit from your services.
  6. Identify any other general needs your beneficiaries have. While not necessary for making an impact, your ministry might be able to help your beneficiaries by filling their other needs as you are able to.
  7. Determine the initiatives your ministry will undertake. Determine the actions your ministry will take in the way of programs based on this Theory of Change. This column is titled “Initiatives” to keep the at the list at the level of strategy. Specific programs will be designed as part of the initiatives. Think of this column as a number of baskets, each holding one or more programs within it.
  8. Decide the outcomes you wish to see. The outputs of your programs should result in a change outside of your ministry. For example, you provide education (an output) and the graduate gets a job (an outcome). Outcomes can be short or long-term. The short term might be the example just given – the graduate gets a job. The long term outcome could be the graduate escapes poverty.
  9. Check that the logic of your theory of change leads to fulfillment of your impact statement. You should be confident that by addressing all the items identified in the Theory of Change, your Desired Impact will be made

Using the CCCC Theory of Change Template

This section will walk you through the above process in detail and show you how to complete the Theory of Change template provided. Have both the CCCC’s Theory of Change Template and the CCCC’s Theory of Change open while you read the detailed instructions that follow. These two documents will make each step much clearer.

Download CCCC Theory of Change Template to use as a working document
Download CCCC Theory of Change 2023 to refer to as an example

The template is colour-coded:

  • The green columns identify the impact your ministry wants to make.
  • The blue columns are items that your ministry has control over.
  • The red columns are the obstacles your beneficiaries face that could prevent your ministry from making an impact.
  • The yellow column contains items that are internal to your beneficiaries.
  • The purple column relates to outcomes your beneficiaries will experience.

Here are the detailed steps:

  1. Desired Impact (First green column of the template)
    • In the first green box, enter a crystal-clear statement of why your ministry exists. This is a statement of the impact you desire to make. Your Impact Statement could be called a Statement Zero, Vision statement, End Statement, or Social Value Proposition.
      • Your Mission Statement can be suitable, but only if it either does not include how you are going to accomplish the mission or you leave that part out while doing this exercise. For example, “Our mission is to evangelize our city” would be acceptable, but not “Our mission is to evangelize our city by…,” because whatever follows “by…” presupposes what the Theory of Change is intended to discover.
      • The goal is to clearly identify the actual impact you intend to make “out there” in the real world. It is not about how hard your ministry works or how much it produces. It is about how you affect the world beyond your own organization.
    • In the green box below your Impact Statement, you may add additional comments about your Impact Statement, as CCCC did in its Theory of Change. It can be helpful to have a description of what fulfillment of your Impact Statement will look like both to guide your thoughts as you develop your Theory of Change and to facilitate a shared understanding among your staff and board of the impact your ministry will make.
  2. Conditions for Desired Impact (First blue column of the template)
    • In the blue boxes, enter the Conditions you identify that your beneficiaries must have in place for you to achieve your Desired Impact.
      • For example, the CCCC Impact Statement is that its members will be exemplary, healthy, and effective Christian ministries. We assume they will be all those things if they have the required knowledge, resources, attitudes, corporate culture, and ability to integrate faith into practice. They also need to be in an environment conducive for ministry.
      • Note that in the CCCC Theory of Change, each Condition has a few descriptive words to illustrate the scope of the Condition. Those words will help you brainstorm in Step 3 below.
      • The Conditions are only assumptions if they haven’t been tested. Testing will lead to more confident planning and could be done in various ways, such as through a literature review, focus groups with your beneficiaries, program evaluations, etc.
  3. Obstacles Confronting Your Beneficiaries (Red section of the template)
    • Enter the Conditions that you identified in the blue column as column headings in the red section of the template. You might wish to follow the example in CCCC’s Theory of Change by bolding the keywords in your blue Conditions column that will become the heading names in your red Obstacles section.Brainstorm as many plausible reasons as you can think of as to why the Condition in each column heading might not be in place yet. These are the Obstacles your beneficiaries might be up against that will prevent you from having the impact you want.
      • For example, when CCCC did this process, we came up with a list of many reasons why a member might not yet have the necessary knowledge, resources, etc. The obstacles were identified based on the empathy maps we developed, consultations with stakeholders and others, our own knowledge from questions our members ask us, and some small surveys. We do not believe that all our members face all these barriers, but that if they are struggling to be exemplary, healthy, and effective Christian ministries, the reason for the struggle would likely be one of the barriers we identified. We then sorted the Obstacles under each Condition into like categories and named each category to make it easier to analyze the results. The names of these categories are the Requirements needed for the Conditions to exist. For example, to have the necessary knowledge to be an exemplary, healthy, and effective Christian ministry, the staff and volunteers need to have the resources, education, focus, learning posture, and strategy it takes to have the knowledge. The Obstacles were the reasons why they might not have the necessary resources, education, focus, learning posture, or strategy.
    • Now you can complete the red Obstacles section. In each red box, enter a Requirement for that column’s Condition. In bullet form for each Requirement, list the Obstacles that would prevent that Requirement from being in place.
    • The Obstacles might or might not be the actual ones your beneficiaries are facing, so it is a good idea to test your assumptions for accuracy.
  4. Solutions (Second blue column of the template)
    • In these blue boxes, enter the high-level strategies you’ve determined will help correct or remove the Obstacles for your beneficiaries and bring about the Conditions needed to achieve your ministry’s Desired Impact.
      • For CCCC, the Solutions column is a high-level list of what we think would help ministries overcome their obstacles. This includes education, consulting, and facilitating peer-to-peer sharing.
  5. Assets (Top half of the yellow column of the template)
    • In the yellow boxes under Assets (the top half of the column), enter the assets you assume your beneficiaries have so they can use your ministry’s services. These are likely to be unstated assumptions you’ve made; assets you take for granted that everyone has but that aren’t necessarily available to all potential beneficiaries. For instance, if you work in English only, you need to realize that part of the population will not be reached by your ministry.
      • You may go deeper in this column by adding thoughts about what your beneficiaries could do if they do not have the Assets needed. What could you do to help them? Are there alternative ways to design your programs so the Assets are not needed? Could your ministry somehow provide its beneficiaries with the Assets or find a way to accommodate them?
  6. Other Needs (Bottom half of the yellow column of the template)
    • In the yellow boxes under Other Needs (the bottom half of the column), enter general needs your beneficiaries might have that don’t necessarily relate to your ministry’s services. This information could come from empathy maps, your knowledge from personal interactions with beneficiaries, or surveys.
      • For example, CCCC identified that people working in ministry need to be affirmed and appreciated for the sacrificial way they serve, something they do not always experience. That need aligns well with one of our brand pillars, to be a caring organization. They are also likely to have work-life balance issues, something to keep in mind as we design how we will engage with them.
  7. Initiatives (Third blue column of the template)
    • In the language used in Theory of Change models, an Initiative is an action your ministry takes to implement the Solutions and make the Desired Impact. In Christian ministry, initiatives are programs and services. Be creative and, using the research you have already done to create a Theory of Change, list the programs that your Theory of Change indicates are needed and enter them into the blue boxes. In the CCCC Theory of Change, the Initiatives column is a very high level ‘basket’ that will hold all the specific programs we offer. For example, shared learning includes:
      • members learning from us,
      • us learning from our members,
      • members learning from each other.
      • The shared learning basket also holds most of our current programs:
        • the knowledge base
        • the Bulletin
        • the Member Service Team
        • the Green
        • This blog, and so on
  8. Short-Term Outcomes and Long-Term Outcomes (Purple column of the template)
    • In the purple boxes under Short-Term Outcomes, enter the outcomes you expect your beneficiaries to experience in their immediate future.
      • This column is significant because it forms the basis for measuring your mission success on your journey towards mission fulfilment. It is also evidence you can give to your donors that assures them their gifts are being well used.
    • In the purple boxes under Long-Term Outcomes, enter the outcomes you expect your beneficiaries will experience over time as they use your services.
      • As with the Short-Term Outcomes, the Long-Term Outcomes will be used eventually to measure mission success and to give evidence of success to your donors.
  9. Check that the logic of your Theory of Change leads to fulfillment of your Impact Statement (Second green column of the template)
    • In the green boxes of this final column, copy over from the first green column both your Impact Statement and any commentary regarding it Review the entire Theory of Change and ensure there is a logical flow to it that leads to your Desired Impact. Is it comprehensive? Has anything been left out?
      • The final column is a repeat of the first column because if everything in between is done, the mission from the first column will be fulfilled.


Developing a Theory of Change is invaluable, as it will provide a clear understanding of the obstacles and corrections your programs must address to accomplish your ministry’s mission and guide your program development work. Being able to reference your ministry’s Theory of Change will make a significant difference in efficient stewardship of your ministry and will provide the perfect tool on which to base future strategic reviews. CCCC has enjoyed great success by using its Theory of Change, and I pray that this will be your experience too.

Key Takeaway: Developing your Theory of Change is really about providing a clear, customized plan for how your ministry will move forward in accomplishing its mission, as well as a way to evaluate your ministry to ensure that it does.

  1. Sue Funnell and Patricia Rogers, Purposeful Program Theory: Effective use of theories of change and logic models, 2011. pp. 155-56.
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