What Do You Evaluate—and Why?

TMC Digging A Deeper Well

(Following last week’s post, this is the second of three pieces on church boards and evaluation.)

Ask a church board how it knows whether its ministry is succeeding, and you will likely hear two or three of the following data points.

Total pledges

Number of pledges

Total members

Number of new members

Kids in Sunday School and youth in youth group (if there is Sunday School or youth group)

Number of people in the choir (if there is a choir)

Number of volunteers

These pieces of information may or may not be helpful.  Pledges, Members, Sunday School, Youth Group, Volunteers—all are fixed and even fading points in a rapidly changing church landscape.  They do not necessarily mean what they did 5 or 10 years ago.

Instead of regurgitating the same data points, how about thinking intentionally about why we do evaluation in the first place, followed closely by thinking afresh about what information your own group should be tracking?  For this, a church board needs a good process of evaluation.  And a good process of evaluation begins with imagination.

Years ago, Susan Wisely, a gifted and experienced evaluator, compiled some whimsical but oh-so-true “rules” for evaluation.

What is the information for?

Evaluation should be ‘the loyal opposition’ in an organization.

An evaluation that is not worth doing at all is not worth doing well.

Evaluation usually leads to more work, not less.

Who is the information for?

Those who have a keen grasp on certainty are unlikely prospects for evaluative learning.

Always start by asking yourself what information is already available.

Things sometimes go according to plan.

How do you communicate results?

Brevity is the soul of evaluation. Great evaluators know what to leave out.

Evaluation should have the ring of truth yet be provocative. Stakeholders need to be able to recognize their own hopes and values in the evaluation, even as they learn something new.

Opening the topic in this spirit gets church boards beyond the “report card grade” notion of evaluation and turns the conversation toward what can be learned.  You might start by asking each board member to imagine what vital ministry would actually look like three or five years from now—and out of those imaginings create a collective ‘portrait of hopes’ for the congregation you are leading.

What would be happening in our building that would tell us that our ministry is succeeding?

What would be happening in our neighborhood or city?

What would be happening for those who now worship with us?

What would be happening for those who do not now worship with us?

What would be happening for _____?

(Even defining the “for” in that last question will help you to learn who matters to your ministry and start talking as a board about why they matter.)

The rich, thick picture of success that emerges from these questions will in turn contain clues to information the church could start tracking and reporting.

How could we learn whether these things we hope for are happening?

What information would help us find out?

And how could we start collecting that information now?

Some of that information may already be available in data you have been collecting (and in data you have been neglecting).  But some of that information may help you as a board to redirect your attention to surprising new places, inside your congregation and beyond.

Next week:  what could you do with the new information you are collecting?



We are evaluated a lot in other parts of our lives and work.  How do you think church evaluation is similar to and different from evaluation you experience in those other places?


What do you think is meant by “Evaluation should be ‘the loyal opposition’ in an organization”?


Which of Wisely’s bon mots is most important for your church board to consider?


What ‘signs of success’ do you customarily rely on to evaluate your church’s ministry?


What would a rich portrait of hopes for your church’s ministry look like—and how might that lead you into new conversations?

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