4 Tools for Better Ministry Decisions

Leadership is about making decisions.

I love the feeling of making a great decision, knowing that given the options, I did my homework and my decision moved the ministry forward. Things are better than they were because I made the right call. If you’ve ever been there, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a great feeling.

And, then there’s the other feeling. The one where you know you blew it. It’s not like you’re a bad person but you just made the wrong call and unfortunately, it set the ministry back and made life difficult for the people around you. I hate that feeling.

Leadership is hard because leadership requires making decisions and it never feels like there is enough time or information and yet we must make the judgement calls.

So, here’s the question?

How do we consistently make good decisions?

We won’t get it right every time but how do we get it right most of the time? I’d like to share four tools that haven’t helped me make better decisions. But, you should know that none of these tools are original to me. I learned most of them through the Paterson Center.

1. FOUR HELPFUL LISTS

The first tool is an evaluation tool called 4 Helpful Lists. We use this tool to evaluate events, programs, ministries and even the church as a whole. The lists are actually answers to 4 questions:

1. What was right?
2. What was wrong?
3. What was confusing?
4. What was missing?

This tool works best with a team, group or staff as a review exercise. Taking the time to fully engage this tool at key moments during the ministry season can help identify stress points in the ministry, possibly creating new initiatives and simple solutions to complex problems. Our senior level staff uses this tool four times a year to evaluate where we are as a church and where we need to go.

When it comes to making good decisions, I highly recommend 4 Helpful Lists.

2. SWOT

So, SWOT analysis is not new. I’m sure you’ve probably heard of the process or participated in one yourself. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s what SWOT stands for:

Strengths (what are the pros of this idea?)
Weaknesses (what are the cons of this idea?)
Opportunities (what new opportunities would come out of this idea?)
Threats (what bad outcomes could result from implementing this idea?)

This tool is a lot like 4 Helpful lists in that it is simply a listing of observations around 4 categories. The difference is that we use 4 Helpful Lists as a post-op exercise while a SWOT analysis is helpful before launching a new initiative.

For example, this past year we very nearly launched a new ministry for 5th and 6th grade students. We have a lot of great reasons for making this ministry happen. However, when we took the time to carefully engage a SWOT analysis, we came to see that we just aren’t ready to pull it off right now. We have significant challenges that we don’t have good solutions for right now. In this case, a SWOT analysis protected us from making a good decision at the wrong time, which of course, is better described as a bad decision.

3. RISK/OPPORTUNITY MATRIX

Sometimes there are multiple good ideas on the table and the issue is that we can really only run after one or two good ideas. There just aren’t resources, time or people to implement more. So, in scenarios like this, how do you choose which ideas to implement?

We often use a Risk/Opportunity matrix to help us decide.

First, draw the Risk/Opportunity matrix. Then, plot each idea or possible initiative on the matrix. The only rules are that each idea or matrix must be plotted on one of the lines. This usually takes a while and leads to debate among the team. The process of arguing whether an idea is high or low risk can be quite valuable.

Once every idea is plotted, label the four zones of the matrix. You’ll notice that the bottom left is not a zone because it’s low opportunity and low risk…as in pointless.

Here’s a quick description of the zones:

Danger: Ideas plotted here are high risk and low reward. In other words, you’d have to be crazy.
Ho-Hum: These ideas won’t impact your organization much. They are probably not worth investing in.
Entrepreneurial: High opportunity and high risk. These are often great ideas that must be managed well. To give you context, when we are considering launching a new campus, this is where they are plotted because if we manage a new campus launch poorly it’s real bad. If it’s plotted here, don’t wing it!
Gold: Low risk and High opportunity. Why aren’t you already doing this? Get on it!
Often, leadership involves choosing one of ten good ideas to focus on for now. The Risk/Opportunity Matrix can help us choose the right one.

4. SCOREBOARDS

My boss always says, “Facts are our friends. We don’t have to like them but they are our friends.”

He’s right.

You can’t argue with data and good data is often essential for making good decisions.

When I look back at my time in ministry, I’m amazed (in a bad way) at how often I made decisions based on intuition or feeling. It worked most of the time, except for when it didn’t.

What I’ve learned is to never make important decisions without data.

Now, I always create a scoreboard and track the data in question.

For example, last year we made a major shift in our student ministry. For years we had employed a strategy of meeting in homes every other week. In some ways it was amazing and in others it was a logistical nightmare. Instead of making the decision on whether to continue this strategy based on intuition, we tracked attendance between the nights where we met all together and the nights where we met in homes. What we found, was that over three years, our attendance was down between 10-15% on the nights where we met in homes. That’s solid data. I didn’t like it but it gave me the clarity needed to make a good decision.

If you have a big decision to make, create a scoreboard. Instead of saying, “I think this is what’s going on here,” figure out what data you need to know and create a scoreboard around that data point. This practice will also help you pitch your idea with more credibility with key stakeholders. Trust me, board members love good data.

Wrap Up

So much of leadership is decision making. Quite simply, good leaders consistently make good decisions and poor leaders consistently make poor decisions. My hope is that these 4 tools help you make better decisions. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this post in the comments below. Also, feel free to share any tools that you use to make good decisions.

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