In the history of church board work, two persistent obstacles to moving forward are (1) “I think” and (2) “what they are saying.”
There is nothing wrong with an individual board member thinking (glad we could affirm that). However, no one person can see the whole of ministry in a congregation.
And then there is “what they are saying.” We are pretty sure that, whatever they are saying, it is not affirmative. Usually, “what they are saying” introduces criticism untethered from identification, and that is toxic.
Boards need to reach beyond opinion and hearsay and evaluate what is actually happening. Evaluation is different from sending out a survey. Surveys are used by people who are already engaged to express happiness or displeasure with whatever they are already engaged with. Surveys cannot adequately ask, “Who is not here and what do they need?”
In many ways, evaluation should enlighten – and, at least in some respects, offer surprise.
For 84 years, CBC Radio in Canada broadcast – at exactly 1:00 PM Toronto time – several short beeps followed by one long dash, in order to orient listeners to the precise time. This tradition was welcomed by generations of clock-setting Canadians and relied on by businesses and transportation companies to synchronize their own schedules. But now, everyone gets the precise time with a glance at their phone. And, since the radio broadcast is not only aired but also streamed, one might hear that signal at 1:04 PM Toronto time—or, if by podcast, at 8:45 PM. Based on feedback from listeners, the long dash tradition ended two weeks ago.
For nearly sixty years, the Eddie Bauer clothing company had a logo that looked like this:
Beginning in 2024, the logo will look like this:
Why the change? The company did evaluation and learned something it did not know: namely, that schools are no longer teaching cursive writing. Faced with Eddie Bauer’s cursive logo, younger people found it confusing and even illegible.
When Apple Maps was introduced 11 years ago, it was awful to the point of ridicule, with routes that would direct people to drive straight into the ocean, head the wrong direction down one-way streets, or take a road that didn’t exist. More than a decade later, Apple Maps is the industry leader in navigation, to such an extent that Google Maps is now trying to copy many of its features. What happened? Apple’s people evaluated rigorously. They told the truth to each other. They worked on improving … everything. They did not assume that what was working in other areas of Apple would give them cover for deficiency in this area. Crucially, they not only evaluated every part of Apple Maps; they also acted on what the evaluations told them, even though that meant personnel changes, a great deal of money, and, for a time, continued public scorn.
A warm radio tradition ended when the broadcaster learned it was offering more confusion than clarity in an asynchronous world.
A beloved logo was abandoned when evaluations led the company to realize that what it thought was familiar was in fact unreadable to the very people it was trying to attract.
A large enterprise failed spectacularly, but sought feedback, listened to the feedback, acted on the feedback, and improved.
What do these three examples have to do with your church board? Almost everything.
One of the first evaluations that occurs in the gospels is described in Matthew 11:2-5:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus was not what his contemporaries expected. They had ideas about who the Messiah would be and what the Messiah would do. Then Jesus appeared, and they just weren’t sure. John himself sent word from prison, inquiring of Jesus, “Are you the one to come or should we wait for another?” Jesus did not answer, “Well, I think….” He pointed John to the things he was doing – healing, cleansing, raising, offering good news.
Because Jesus was not what people expected, it was easy for them to miss what was actually happening. Evaluation in churches should start from this cue, asking: What are we missing? What is actually happening, and how can we find out?
So, how can church boards reach beyond what people expect, beyond personal opinion, beyond hearsay? We’ll be back next week with some ideas and suggestions.
Looking at the stories of CBN, Eddie Bauer, and Apple Maps, which of the three has the most relevance for your own church board?
Has your church board done any evaluation in the last couple of years? If so, who did you hear from? What did you learn? What were you surprised by? What did you do differently?
What do you, as a church board, wish you knew more about? How could you find out what is actually happening?