Years ago, I was tasked with strengthening the relationship between a large Christian ministry and pastors in that region. It seemed pretty straightforward. Our team created a survey and incentivized responses. It worked, and we got back interesting data about what the pastors might want from our ministry.
I went a step further and held a few interviews with pastors one-on-one and in small groups. These were people I knew well, and I had the benefit of getting more information than the survey offered. Pastors said they were busy but interested in the idea of gathering with other pastors to learn together. This was great—we were getting somewhere and learning things we could do to support the pastors.
I designed “Pastors Day” based on real data points backed up with in-depth interviews. Pastors would come, find it refreshing to be together, be encouraged by a speaker they selected via survey, and want to come back every year. Voila! Relationships between regional pastors and the large ministry strengthened! Or so I thought.
We launched the first Pastors Day a few months later. It was . . . attended. But I can’t say it was well attended. I remember having the distinct impression the pastors who were there had come more out of duty rather than a real sense of hopeful expectation. Duty wasn’t what we were after. If this didn’t truly refresh pastors, it was off mission for us. The investment of money, time, and social capital didn’t pay off, and the “first annual” became the “last ever.”
What happened? Did the survey data steer us wrong? With the keen perspective of hindsight, I see now what we could have done differently.
I made a common mistake. Many of us are used to coming up with a solution to a challenge and going all in. We launch entire ministry programs without testing to see if our individual design assumptions are correct.
Don’t Just Make Assumptions, Test Them
I bet you’ve seen a Rube Goldberg machine. Picture a clock arm that ticks forward and sets a small marble in motion. The marble rolls and bumps a toy car, which moves forward. The car hits a row of dominoes, which fall and ring a little bell, and so on.
Now, the point of Rube Goldberg machines isn’t usually to make things easier. But they do offer us a valuable lesson. One way to build them is to test out each little part of the sequence. Once you know each part works, you can set up the whole thing with confidence.
We launch entire ministry programs without testing to see if our individual design assumptions are correct.
Whatever ministry you’re designing, I guarantee there’s more than one assumption in your design. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine with multiple parts that must be tested before you can know if the whole thing will work. I didn’t do that with Pastors Day. While the domino “machines” are built for the fun and challenge of it, the stakes in ministry design are much higher.
Several months ago, I worked with a ministry that serves children and orphans in Liberia. While the ministry workers had excellent relationships with the children, the ministry wanted to develop better relationships with the families of the children. They felt that if families could be more economically stable, children would be safer and have the opportunity to thrive.
One of their early and small tests was to visit two different families and have conversations about those families’ hopes and assets. Such conversations were one part of their larger ministry design. The team was surprised and sad when one mother said their family had no skills or assets. “We have nothing,” she said, looking at the ground. A second later, the woman’s daughter said, “I can make iron soap.”
How beautiful. Not only did the small test allow the team to build relationships with a new stakeholder and test out one part of their overall ministry design, but that one family also started to realize that together they did have God-given hopes and skills. This is the power of inexpensive and early tests.
Cheap and Easy
You’ve heard this before, but children are naturally more creative and innovative than adults. Kids know less and so they test things more. If a team of children and a team of adults are given the same materials to build a small model of a tower or bridge, the team of children starts to prototype and test almost instantly. They try things, they fail, and they try something else. Adults spend most of their time talking.
The first stage of ministry design should always be listening to the people for whom you’re designing. But this listening and relationship building should never stop. As soon as you have an idea, you should create a prototype and test it.
An early prototype can be a simple stick figure drawing, a small model made out of cardboard or building blocks, or a role-play of the idea. When we make ideas visual, we start learning while we’re drawing or building.
For example, say we needed to change a lecture-style youth meeting to something more intimate. I might draw the youth group doing a Bible study. As I drew, I’d quickly realize the room setup would need to change from a lecture style with chairs facing the speaker to something different. I might draw the new setup as a circle of chairs with stick figures in the lecture room or build a model of the room with Legos.
Next, I show my drawing or model to the youth staff. They point out we’d need multiple groups meeting at once and we don’t have the space. Maybe we need to think how to get more space or how to make bigger groups. The staff might also wonder how to split the groups up. They may realize they’re going to have to create a process for that, and they start brainstorming.
Now it’s time to show it to the main stakeholders—the teens. They look at the drawing and say a circle of chairs is too intense and formal. They’d rather sit on the floor or in the back of a pick-up truck or outside around a firepit. You ask what would make them want to go to an event like this, and they start brainstorming ideas and adding to the drawing.
The first stage of ministry design should always be listening to the people for whom you’re designing. But this listening and relationship building should never stop.
When you use prototypes, you can learn so much, so quickly while every part of your ministry design is still cheap and easy to change. And not only are you getting consistent and actionable feedback from your stakeholders and improving your design, but you’re also building buy-in and momentum for the ministry.
As with all parts of ministry design, it’s important to communicate clearly with everyone involved. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Rather than saying “We’re going to fix this community problem,” ask for people’s help in understanding the community better. Keep reminding yourself and others that you’re not launching, you’re learning. This will go a long way in managing expectations and building honest relationships.
Looking back, I wish I had made early prototypes and smaller tests of Pastors Day before trying to launch the whole ministry. If I’d started small, it might have grown into something beautiful.
When we create new or improved ministries, we can save time, money, and social capital by identifying and testing the assumptions in our program design. By spending more time early running short and low-cost tests, we can be more confident we’re launching a ministry that will truly serve people.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin” (Zech. 4:10, NLT).