Programs are Programs

Programs are just programs. They’re a way to organize people and help them go where God has already called them to go and [do] what God has already called them to do.

I love this statement from Allison Vesterfelt’s post on the StoryLine blog.

I think when we look at our church (the one we are regularly attending) in North America, we tend to see its ministry in terms of the programs that it runs.  We have a view on ministry that says ministry = programs and programs = ministry.  That is, with more words, if some kind of ministry is important, we create a program to do it, and by default any ministry that doesn’t have a program wrapped around it isn’t that important. Continue reading “Programs are Programs”

Program Event Repetition

Does your organization have some special events or programs that happen on a regular cycle but infrequently (i.e annual, semi-annual or quarterly)? Does it always seem like these are thrown together, or disruptive (taking time away from more frequent programming)? Are they hard to recruit volunteers for, and hard to plan?

Perhaps treat them all like one big program, so that there is some common coordination, and process accross them. Find what works for each aspect of each program and carefully document that so that knowledge is shared. Figure out common roles and responsibilities that can be shared across events or programs. Establish a common rhythm for these events – planning, meetings, schedules. Continue reading “Program Event Repetition”

Ministry Staffing Model

It is very common to organize ministry programs to align with demographic groups. Men’s ministry, Women’s ministry, Youth Ministry, Single’s ministry, etc. I believe that the theory behind this is that demographics drive similar ministry needs, similar interests. I think that often, the alignment of common emotional, physical or spiritual needs among demographic groups is a compelling argument to align ministries this way.

I submit that there are actually two types of demographically aligned ministries:


  • Internally Staffed – Ministries that (primarily) recruit volunteers from within the demographic group being targeted.
  • Externally Staffed – Ministries that (primarily) recruit volunteers from outside the demographic group being targeted.

I think that this is interesting only because internally staffed ministry programs can become self-sustaining if they are multi-faceted. Self-sustaining programs not only provide opportunities for outreach, but also grow ministry participants sufficiently for them to become volunteers, and eventually equip them to become leaders. In my opinion, a program is not self-sustaining because this happens organically, but only when it happens intentionally.

Externally staffed ministries must rely on some external function, organization, or entity to grow a pool of participants from which volunteers can be recruited, and likely to grow a pool of leaders to replenish the team when burnout or transitions occurr.

As a ministry leader, understanding where your volunteers are going to come from is very important. When designing ministry programs, the staffing model is perhaps the most important indicator of sustainability.

Vocational ministers and church leaders need to pay attention to their portfolio of ministry programs to manage the supply and demand of ministry volunteers, and manage the growing of new volunteers to supply the needs of externally staffed programs. This is especially true for demographics that cannot minister to themselves – Children, elderly, special needs. For other demographics, those within the demographic community are perhaps best suited to serve within the community.

Ministry Staffing Decisions

So how does a ministry (church) decide which ministry leadership positions should be paid and which should be volunteer? What criteria should we apply to this decision? How do we decide which leadership positions require what gifts and talents? How do your paid staff positions align with ministry programs?

Let’s talk about the problems first:


  • Ministry program lead by volunteers only not self-sustaining. Leader burns out and ministry falls over.
  • Ministry program no longer producing fruit, but with one or more paid leadership staff. RIFing ministers stinks. Congregation splits or divides.
  • Congregation has reduced size and/or budget, but not paid staff. Staff salaries are preventing investment in fruitful ministry.
  • Program leadership transitions, and new leader is gifted differently than prior leaders. Some aspects of ministry suffer.

I have watched in churches as ministries founded by non-paid staff evaporate when the leader who had the original vision burns out, or moves away. I have also watched as the paid leader of a ministry program retires, and the replacement is differently gifted, and rather than taking the ministry in a new direction, tries to keep the vision the same as the prior leader. I have seen churches that invest in staffing specific ministry programs, and seen that the programs take the shape of the leaders giftedness. I have also seen churches that invest in giftedness, by hiring pastors who complement each other, but are not directly accountable for ministry programs. With no way for their gifts to bleed into the ministry programs, the hiring strategy comes up empty, as the program leaders are different.

All ministry programs need certain gifts:


  • Evangelism – the ability to relate the gospel message of hope and salvation to those without hope and who don’t understand their need for salvation.
  • Teaching – the ability to communicate the truth of God’s word, with a view towards application in the life of the believer.
  • Administration – the ability to plan activities, coordinate resources, measure fruit, build systems that allow others to focus on expressing their gifts.
  • Works or Helps – the ability to do any physical or menial work required to keep the ministry happening with joy and love.
  • Hospitality – the ability to make people feel welcome and loved and cared for.

None of these gifts alone are sufficient to run a ministry program. Every ministry program requires each of them in certain portions, and when they are missing, it can show in the fruit.

So how are your ministry programs equipped with these gifts through leadership? In a small paid staff organization, you need to rely on volunteer leadership, but paid staff can be used to “speak” some of these gifts into the programs. This can be done by having paid staff (pastors, especially) participate directly in mentoring relationships with volunteer program leaders. This can also be done, by having paid staff “equip” through regular seminars that help volunteer program leaders grow in understanding in areas of weakness. Even smaller organizations can have gifted volunteers “equip” each other, or participate in denominational or other equipping events.

Ministry Programs

Why do churches have trouble dropping or changing ministry programs? Often I think it is because people forget or misunderstand why we started the program in the first place. In essence, because they forget the plan. The ministry was started to produce certain fruit. When it is no longer producing that fruit, it needs to be changed or replaced with something that will produce that fruit.

Here is an example:

Our ministry plan needed an outreach ministry. We needed to attract unbelievers from our community to our congregation so that they can hear the Gospel message. We targeted youth, hoping that we will not only get youth, but parents as well. We started a youth basketball program. We had the church members invite their neighbors to the program. In the first year, we got 10 unchurched kids and from this five new families come to hear the message, and were saved. That is some fruit. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being about outreach and became about basketball. We soon had teams and kids from other churches coming to play, but not very many neighborhood kids and very few families continued to invite their neighbors. We went from 8 teams to 24, and the program took 10 volunteers to keep running, and went from 3 hours on a Saturday morning, to all day each Saturday. The program felt successful because it had grown large, and it had a very committed team of volunteers who believed strongly in the program. During the last two years, however, only one family came to know Christ as a result of the program.

Here is the worst part. Most of the boys and girls in the church look forward to when they are old enough to be in the basketball program. The church families see the program benefits to them and their kids, not the outreach. So when the elder board recommended that the ministry be changed or replaced, there was tremendous resistance and friction within the body. There was dissatisfaction and divison. Several families left the church, including some of the leaders of the program, because they felt that the church was no longer meeting their needs.

The purpose of the program changed, and we didn’t recognize it. It went from an outreach to an inreach without our recognizing the change, and we did nothing about it.

We ended up spending lots of resources maintaining the program, and it displaced other ministries that could have used the facility during that time. We produced very little fruit. So were we good stewards of God’s resources? No – we became selfish and inwardly focused. The program became a club to serve our needs, rather than the community.

I think that this is a story that is repeated over and over in churches and ministries. Without consistent focus on the reason we are doing ministry programs, and an consistent measurement of the fruitfulness of each program, without keeping both the volunteers (resources) and the participants aware of the purpose and effectiveness of the ministry, through initiation and celebration, programs tend to lose some fruitfulness over time. If we are good stewards, we will make necessary adjustments before the program totally stops producing, and can evolve a program over time to keep it productive. When a program stops being productive, and adjustments are not possible or effective, replacing the program is the right thing to do, but unless your volunteers and participants are aware of the purpose of the program, they may react poorly.