The Launch

Use these five steps to launch a successful ministry.

As a whole, ministers are rarely accused of not working hard. But I want to make sure I'm also working smart.

When I look at the marketplace, which I often do as a strategist, I see leaders who are forced to work smart because there's a bottom line telling them if their strategies are working. But in the ministry, the bottom line remains more intangible. It's difficult to evaluate how well we're doing, so we tend to work hard and pray hard and trust God that the "bottom line" will turn out to his liking.

I try to work hard, pray diligently, and trust God. But I don't want to spin my wheels using unproductive strategies. So I've learned to be specific about what it is we're trying to accomplish.

The following five steps, we've found, are central to successfully launching a ministry.

1. Build on leadership, not need

Ask most leaders, "On what basis do you start a ministry?" and the reply is, "We see a need, and we try to meet it."

According to our experience, that's a good answer, but not the best. We've found need is an insufficient foundation. We start with leadership. Any endeavor that works seems to require a leader.

Traditionally, as pastors we feel we have three options when confronted with a need. Let's say there's rumbling about the lack of a junior high program. What can we do?

First, the pastor can run a program personally. In most cases, that adds an eleventh hat to a person struggling under the weight of ten. And maybe the pastor has few qualifications or little interest in junior high ministry.

Second, some pastors can ask a staff member to take on the ministry. But often the CE director ends up doing children's ministry, junior high, high school, college, and singles, and none of them well. Why? Because it's not humanly possible to do a great job in five different ministries.

A third option is to turn to some well-intentioned parents. That creates problems of capability and continuity. Are the parents trained? Well-intentioned parents often just don't know how to direct a program that builds the kids' Christian maturity, and I've found a poor youth program is often worse than none. Also, when their kids graduate, it's amazing how suddenly parents' motivation is gone!

Since none of these traditional options looked promising, we searched for a different approach. In one sense, everything does start with a need, because we wouldn't look for leadership if there weren't a need. But we've made the difficult decision of putting any need on hold until we find qualified leaders who can make that ministry their specialty.

At Willow Creek we went four years without a junior high ministry—no youth meetings, no Sunday school, nothing. Parents came to us asking what we were doing for junior high kids, and we had to gulp and say, "Right now we can't meet your needs, although we're working on it."

We took a lot of heat from parents when there was nothing for their kids, but to do something first-rate takes specialized leaders.

2. Settle on one purpose

Once we've found the key leader, we assemble a think tank—five or six individuals who begin to brainstorm about the ministry. The group typically consists of the person who will lead the ministry, two or three other people who have a passion and a corresponding giftedness for that ministry, and one or two staff members or strategic-thinking elders. We aim for a mix of people, though each should be adept at thinking analytically about purpose and philosophy.

This think tank may gather once for a day or regularly for several months. As we planned Willow Creek's missions ministry, eight or nine of us met several hours a month for a year, and between meetings participants pursued intensive research.

Our first consideration is determining the primary purpose of the ministry. Just as we like to give our leaders only one responsibility, every program or meeting needs to have only one declared purpose. If we accomplish anything else, we consider it whipped cream. We want each ministry to do one thing well, to meet one need through the leadership of one key person.

We've noticed that when we meet one need thoroughly, we attract the people and resources that enable us to move on and meet another need. A single focus also benefits the workers, because it allows them to gauge their effectiveness.

3. Determine a philosophy of ministry

The next job for the think tank is to establish a philosophy of ministry. And that's a tough task.

People nearly always want to skip the "why" questions and go on to the "how-to's". But here's where working smart comes in. We first must decide why we choose to accomplish our single task in a particular way. We start with two questions: What do we know about the target group? What do we know about doing this ministry effectively?

In thinking through evangelism for Willow Creek Community Church, we began by asking, "What do we know about 'Nonchurched Harry'?" Those in the think tank started writing on the board: "Probably will not change his life and worldview in an hour; doesn't know who God is; thinks God is out of it, a rule maker, a killjoy, no fun; is fully occupied without church" and so on.

Then we asked ourselves, "What do we know about effective evangelism?" We decided it doesn't put pressure on people to change quickly, because that's unrealistic. It usually isn't as effective in a single event as through a continuing process. Effective evangelism helps people systematically process the truth over time, so that they can make a rational decision to which they will want to stay committed. And so on.

So as we brainstormed our philosophy of evangelism, we realized we had to design something to change people's concept of God, because if we change their understanding of him, chances are we'll change their response to him. Therefore, in everything we do as a church, every statement we make—whether through a clean, well-designed building or through the music we use on Sunday or the written material we make available—we want to state that God and his followers are not backward or second-rate or dull.

All that came from thinking through a philosophy of ministry. People don't do that naturally. We have to sit down and talk through the right questions: What's true about the people we want to reach? What motivates them? What turns them off? What works? What doesn't work? Are we arranging our ministry to be most effective?

If we come out of that think tank with a clear picture of our target audience and an understanding of what works in ministering to that group, we've accomplished our purpose.

4. Establish a strategy

When we've determined the philosophy of ministry, often we have a long list of ideas and concepts. The next step is to synthesize them into a strategic plan, to set priorities, to think how we're going to make this work.

Again using our evangelism example, we gathered the information we'd brainstormed and came up with four groups of people—two groups of unbelievers and two of believers. If we want to involve all of these people in evangelism, how do we do it? Obviously it will require four different responses. So we began to formulate a purpose and outline a philosophy for each group. Once we knew what these groups needed, we had to find a way to divide the task into manageable parts.

As we considered our overall strategy, however, one question dominated: Where can we make the greatest impact with what we can invest initially? We had to set priorities, because we couldn't attack on all fronts simultaneously.

5. Direct the resources

From this point on, it's a matter of allocating the finances, setting the times, and deploying the people. This is the fun part—actually making ministry happen.

One of the groups we unleashed is called "the Defenders." This group contains the hard-core apologists, men and women who have a heart for the intellectual issues and tough questions of faith. They like nothing better than researching thorny issues such as the problem of pain or creation versus evolution. With the mental stimulation of fellow Defenders, the synergism in this group is tremendous.

So now when anyone gets stuck on a difficult question, there is someone to turn to. Our staff directs both questions and questioners to them. People witnessing to their friends have someone to help them with challenging arguments. In fact, the Defenders not only research a problem, they're also quite happy to meet with the questioners.

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