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Ask the right questions to make the right ministry investments

By Eric Seiberling

"Shark Tank" is a reality television show that features aspiring entrepreneurs who pitch their product or service to a panel of potential investors. These investors, also known as "sharks," ask questions to understand the business idea, analyze potential strengths or weaknesses and, ultimately, decide whether to provide funding to the entrepreneur.

While this show entertains, it also illustrates the value of asking the right questions and the need to be disciplined when considering the investment of money and resources to support a new idea. Carefully assessing proposed new programs and pruning existing programs to grow even more is critical to the long-term health and success of a company.

The same is true for churches. However, when a "Shark Tank" or similar process is suggested for assessing proposed programs or ministries, some will argue against it saying that the church is not a business. While it is true that a church cannot measure the effectiveness of its ministries only in dollars and cents, some churches fund programs based solely on history or the individuals advocating them.

Every church must operate within constraints that include the availability of time, money, space and attention. Just as every Christian is called to be a good steward of the resources that God provides, so is every congregation.

Scripture supports the concept of planning (Luke 14:28-32), discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) and pruning (John 15:1-17). The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) shows the principle of assessment and allocation of resources based on their effectiveness. How can churches bring a Christ-centered way of assessing potential opportunities to support the Great Commission and the Great Commandment?

Multiple perspectives, including theological, organizational, financial and emotional viewpoints, must be considered when assessing new program and ministry ideas. Here are a few ways both the leaders seeking funding and the people reviewing different proposals can assess them.

1. How does this idea FIT with the specific mission and calling of your church?

Every United Methodist congregation is called to love God, love neighbor and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Each should be able to articulate that mission in a way that reflects its specific calling by God in its local community. New programs should be assessed against the articulated mission, values and culture of the congregation to determine if they are consistent with the overall direction of the church.

2. How FEASIBLE is it for your church to execute the idea successfully?

While many great ideas for ministry may be offered, the church should focus on those it can execute. What resources do you need? Do you have people with the right skills? Must you train people? How much money do you need? Should the church seek partners to assist in this program? While churches should dream with God and have faith that ideas will work, they must also realistically assess each proposed program's feasibility.

3. What are the expected OUTCOMES of the project?

Those seeking funding should be able to articulate expected tangible and intangible results of implementing the proposed program or ministry. For example, if someone proposed that the church hold a parenting conference, he or she should be able to state the expected number of parents to attend (both members and people not connected with the church), the projected cost and the number of new families who might join the church as a result of the event (given proper follow-up). In addition, leaders should state how they expect the event to affect the lives of those attending the event. What will change in their lives? Why does it matter? The leader proposing the new idea should be able to articulate why it matters and how it will help the church live out its calling and mission.

4. How PASSIONATE are the people who would need to be involved?

A church is made up of people who volunteer their time, talents and resources to carry out its mission. It is important to assess how supportive people will be of this new program or ministry. While multiple programs may have strong FIT, FEASIBILITY and OUTCOMES with the church plan, they will fail without proper support from the people who will do the work. Some congregations are passionate about local schools, while others want to focus on foreign missions. While both are important, choosing the area about which people are more passionate can lead to a better result.

5. What makes this idea stand out to the community?

The church competes for people's time, attention and energy. It is important to ask, "Why is this different?" or "Why will people choose to support this?" over another idea. For example, a leader in the church wants to start a church-based soccer league to reach the children of the community. Is there already a community-based soccer league? Are there children that league does not serve? Why would parents choose the church soccer league over the community program? Is it cheaper? Will you pick the children up after school? Why would the community be interested in this idea versus the millions of other things that demand their attention? If it appears to be a "me, too" idea, it will likely fail.

These questions can help create a clear pitch for a new idea and allow church leaders to assess its potential. Some churches ask leaders to pitch their idea in 15 minutes and then answer questions from a panel of reviewers. The panel can then rate each idea on a scale of 1 to 10 on each aspect to provide a loose ranking of ideas to guide the funding process. (Note: The panel of reviewers should be a group that represents both programming and administrative bodies as well as a few members-at-large. Perhaps, it can be the church council or administrative board. It should not be the finance committee alone.)

No matter how your church decides to implement the review process, assessment of the fit, feasibility, outcomes, passion and uniqueness of new ministry ideas can improve their effectiveness. Discipline in this process allows you to focus your resources on what is most important for your church to do to fulfill God's call for your community.