Reader Request: Resources for Preaching a Series

A reader wrote to ask, “Have you discovered any resources to help design message series since that post [Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #1 The Series]?”

Ideas for Preaching a Series

  1. Read Rebuilding Your MessageIt’s an easy read, full of practical tips.
  2. Watch the Rebuilding Your Message webinar produced by Ave Maria Press with co-author Tom Corcoran.
  3. Watch or listen to series preached at Catholic parishes, for example:
  4. Adam Hamilton (Methodist pastor)’s book Leading Beyond the Walls has a section on series, read more here…
  5. Try it. Just do it. 🙂 But, before you start the series, recruit a group to provide feedback–folks in your parish with experience in communication, sharing the faith, offering critique, etc.–and during your “experiment,” meet with them weekly. This will help you gauge what’s working and what’s not and make week-by-week improvements. At the end of the series, solicit feedback from your parish using an anonymous web form or a printed card.


Church Culture: How to Assess it and Keep it Moving in the Right Direction

Culture is the social norms found in any group. You might think, “nah, my church is normal…we don’t have any special culture”–but you’d be wrong. Like it or not, there are norms of behavior that predominate in any group. The real question is, is your culture helping or hurting the mission and vision you understand your local church serving in the world? 

Peter Drucker famously quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning that culture isn’t just a side issue or one-time initiative, but something so important to success that it must be cultivated continuously to ensure a healthy and flourishing organization.

Source: Twitter, Divine Renovation (@DivReno) January 15, 2018


How Do We Know How We’re Doing on Culture?

As the adage goes, “never accept a story without data, nor data without a story.” In church world, we lean a bit more toward accepting stories without data, so it’s important for us to seek out metrics for keeping a continuous pulse on how we’re doing on growing a healthy culture in our churches.

How to do this will vary from church to church, but a “scoreboard” or “scorecard” is a must-have. Whatever you call this, it’s something that’s concise–can be read/understood in 1-4 minutes, usually 1 page or smaller–that provides a “snapshot” of indicators of culture at the present moment. When teams of leaders at various levels review this regularly, it helps unite everyone around the common goal, see how different initiatives that each might be working on interconnect, and collaborate to make changes on the fly, for the sake of continuous improvement. Worrisome indicators can be addressed before they become huge “implosions” of negative culture (and really 🙂 everyone wants a more peaceful and relaxed life, right?).

What to Include on a “Scorecard” or “Scoreboard”?

Brainstorm about…

  • physical environment, aesthetics, and facilities
  • customs and habits
  • values and attitudes
  • structure/organization
  • resource use
  • process/program outcomes
  • leaders

…and see if there are quantitative or qualitative indicators related to any of these. Commit to a mix of both–50/50 discipline if this is a challenge for you! (And it is for most ministries). Keep a special mental “eye” out for leading indicators, meaning, indicators that give you a “heads up” on some larger, future goal, rather than the “lag” indicator that’s available, say, only after that big Christmas outreach has passed, for example.

Sample Church Scoreboards / Scorecards

There’s no one right format for any church. Here’s a very basic example of something that’s 1 page, can be read in <5 minutes, and incorporates both qualitative/subjective assessments of specific actions that are in-progress and quantitative lead indicators.

Sample Scorecard

A scorecard/scoreboard like this should be updated every time it’s viewed, and the Actions should change once completed. The lead indicators, if well chosen, should be relevant for many months (and even years), though as situational understanding evolves, you’re likely to discover that new ones emerge and some become less relevant.

Additional resources I recommend taking a look at:

Amazing Parish Thematic Goals — While the examples given are not about organizational culture specifically, they do show how to break down the goal of a healthy organizational culture into sub-goals. Why I wouldn’t recommend copying this example precisely, is the lack of quantitative measures. Assessing indicators as red/amber/green based on progress can be highly subjective, vague, and thus reduce the effectiveness of a scorecard/board as a tool for spurring collaborative action. [Note: some organizations do assign specific quantifiable metrics to red/amber/green, however, it can be a bit more confusing as it forces readers to reference a “key” to explain the colors.]

First West Church Scoreboards — These examples show various “scoreboards” for different areas within a church, in a form that includes plenty of quantitative leading indicators.

Now time for you to share! Do you have a great example of an assessment tool for culture? Tell us about it in the Comment Box. 





Beyond “Bad Communication”

an approach to bad communication (Image: Epien, CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Quite a few ministries, organizations, and even large nonprofits or businesses would quickly say (with a sigh!), “ugh, our communication is bad…we need to communicate better around here.”

The problem is, that’s hard to take action to improve, because it’s so vague. Bad. Communication. That’s it. A short phrase that can become an apologetic substitute for improving organizational health and effectiveness.

Here’s a list (certainly not exhaustive, but a start!) to help us as ministry leaders think beyond “bad communication.”

How’s Your Communication?

Is there an abundance of two-way communication between leaders and their teams? Is this communication building two-way trust? If not, consider why. Is it the frequency? Content? Medium? Interpersonal relationships? Etc.

Are two-way communication and dialogue present during planning, preparation, implementation, and assessment? Some organizations have a temptation to only dialogue during planning, or wait until implementation for dialogue. The reality is that two-way communication should be present in all stages of running a program, process, event, etc.

Does dialogue with teams and subordinates actually help senior leaders increase their understanding of the situation/environment of ministry, resolve potential misunderstandings, or assess how things are going? If not, senior leaders need to change their questions and style of communication so that two-way communication isn’t a “box to check,” but actually impacts the organization.

Are leaders and team members learning from one another when they have two-way communication? [If not, what looks like a true dialogue is really still “one-way” communication where the leader imparts information to the subordinate.]

Does two-way communication create new solutions or ideas that are jointly developed by different members of an organization? Because that’s the point 😉 right? Not just talk, but talk that yields better solutions/ideas than would have existed without dialogue.

Is dialogue, collaboration, and two-way communication (vertically and horizontally) part of the culture? Is it something people sense and “breathe in” when they enter your organization? Is it rewarded and encouraged?

Does two-way communication lead to consensus and resolution of conflicts? If not, why?

Do communications lead to new understanding/awareness? Or, is it simply transmitting information.  

Do communications create shared ownership or issues and solutions? If not, why?

Do leaders themselves know the mission and broader messages? Do they share information that provides greater context, sense of purpose, and reasons behind decisions? Or, do leaders simply share the minimal details of what a team member “needs” to do their job at the moment?

Does increasing communication reduce anxiety and rumors within your organization? If not, why?

Is communication timely enough so that both leaders and team members can adapt to changing situations? Or, is it often shared too late to be of value or impact? 

Does two-way communication leave team members feeling more motivated to support the organization’s plans and mission? Appreciated for their input? Or, is it just “occupying time” in their day to go listen to “the boss.” 

Here’s a test: is the person in your organization who’d be your replacement communicated with enough that they’d be prepared to step in, if needed? Are they close? Or, are they so under-communicated with that it’s laughable that he/she could smoothly step in, in an emergency? 

Are leaders out and about, frequently, to listen, coach, and clarify–even beyond those they “formally” supervise? Do leaders share what they hear and see while “out and about” with other key leaders as a part of decisionmaking? Or, are leaders rarely seen/heard by ordinary members of the organization? 

Does communication within the organization lead to people feeling more cared for, on a daily or weekly basis? If not, why? 

Can team members share honest opinions with leaders, without fear of negative consequences? Or, do leaders hold grudges or subtly penalize those who provide feedback? 

Do leaders actively listen to all perspectives when seeking information on a topic or concern? Or, do they avoid “difficult” information that doesn’t fit the mold? 

Do leaders communicate the why, most important tasks of the organization, and the desired outcome of current efforts? Or, is everyone seemingly working on a different sense of priorities, without a shared understanding of purpose?

Do communications from leaders express not merely tasks, but the realm of what’s possible for a subordinate, how far a team member can/should take the initiative, in a way that still supports the central vision for the organization?

Do leaders check to make sure subordinates, team members, and everyone understands the mission, vision, and top priorities for the present? Or do they assume, “if I said it” or “if I communicated it once,” it’s been received and clearly understood by all?

Do leaders provide guidance and tasks to subordinates in a way that tells them the results to be achieved, but not how to do it–maximizing individual freedom and initiative? Or, do leaders micromanage in dictating exactly how a task should be approached.

Is the information and content communicated within an organization actually linked to decisions, and decisions then to actions? Or, is it just “talk.”

Is communication unconstrained and continuous? Or, do people feel as if there are only certain times, places, and occasions when two-way vertical or horizontal communication is relevant for the organization?

Where Next?

If you find yourself answering “no” to any of these prompts, then start probing deeper into how you can change that one, outcome based indicator of communication within your organization. And then 😉 come back and read the list to find another indicator to improve.

Assessing Your Catechesis for Evangelization

Assessing (or “measuring”) how you’re doing when it comes to fostering initial and on-going conversion in a ministry is one of the toughest, yet most necessary, processes a leader must continually work through. It’s tough because it involves loving enough to speak the truth, being willing to change beloved techniques or programs that need to evolve, and it’s just plain hard to even develop good metrics or measures to use in assessment.

7-558-living-as-missionary-disciples-cover-150One of the hidden gems within the recently released Living as Missionary Disciples resource from the USCCB is this set of assessment worksheets  designed for use by individuals or small groups (they start around pg. 14 of the .pdf download, aka “pg. 1” of the internal numbering).

Unleashing all of these at once on a team of leaders would likely not be a good strategy. But the potential here is great! These tools could be used to assess existing programs or strategies over a multi-year period, coach and develop catechists, unite staff and key leaders around a vision, or design new initiatives.

They key is to actually use them as a tool, not an end. Assessment is a means to improve what you’re already doing, not an administrative burden that bears little fruit. Assessment without reflection, processing, personal coaching/development of leaders/catechists, and connection to implementation isn’t going to bear fruit. And, it might even be a waste of time. But 🙂 by making the commitment to leverage a great resource like this from the USCCB within your leadership development pipeline and continual planning processes? Now that’s a way to stay grounded and aligned to Jesus’ central mission for us, to go and make disciples (Mt 28:19).


How long should Mass be?

 In Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, Fr. James Mallon offers these insights and reflections for figuring out what’s right for your parish community when it comes to Sunday Mass:

Worrying about Mass as a production is the wrong concern. He writes, “to the accusation that everything is a production, I am tempted to say, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you noticed.'” While Mass isn’t a “production” in the literal sense of the term, it should be treated with the utmost planning and concern for quality and transformation of those present.

Remember the 80/20 rule. In most parishes, “the only time we see 80% of our people is on the weekend,” yet what proportion of time goes into preparing for this crucial weekly moment?

“The Church is, of course, not a mere business, it is mystery, but grace still builds on nature and there is an essential truth here. The priority of any parish, and any priest, ought to be about preparing for and celebrating the Sunday Eucharist to make it the best possible experience for the maximum number of people.”

Mass might need to be longer than you think. Or like. Or are comfortable with. Fr. Mallon observes, “The days of the 50-minute get-it-over-and-done-with Mass must end…if the weekend celebrations are to be a priority, then we must have sufficient time on Sunday mornings to gather, celebrate and connect afterwards…We need to honestly look at our Mass schedules, and ask what we truly value. Do we value meaningful and transformative celebrations of the Eucharist, or is our primary value convenient and static Mass times?”

In the end, it is not really a question of how long the Mass ought to be or could be, but whether this value leads us to health. I believe it does not. It contributes to a “get it over and done with” mentality that turns our Eucharistic celebrations into something to be endured rather than something that endures.

What values does your Mass schedule, length, and culture project? Fr. Mallon asserts:

Minimalism and convenience cannot be the primary values of a healthy church. Minimalism and convenience have no place in the life of the disciple who is called to save his or her life by losing it. Someone once said that Jesus doesn’t ask for much – he asks for everything. If our liturgies are to be meaningful and transformative “productions,” they need to be able to breathe and not be constrained by a rigid one-hour rule. Likewise, there needs to be enough time between Masses so that those who are hungry for God are able to linger with one another after Mass to encourage and support one another.

In summary, I think a key is moving from the question how long should Mass be? or how long should a homily be? to addressing the intended outcomes. What is Mass to do? What is the outcome of the homily? Then, work backwards to determine how much time this takes in your setting and context. At the same time, begin to consider how to assess if these desired outcomes, effects, and fruits are happening among those present to worship. Challenging, but worth it to unleash the full power and fruits of the Eucharist amid our worshiping assemblies! 😀

Want to read more? Check out these longer excerpts from Fr. Andrew Carrozza, read Divine Renovation yourself, or listen to Fr. James Mallon’s podcasts on topics related to this great ministry book!

Measurement, Assessment, and Programs

Measuring the work of the local parish isn’t easy. But, it must be done.

As David E.K. Hunter writes in Working Hard–And Working Well: A Practical Guide to Performance Management:

“Few beyond the occasional Luddite would dispute the assertion that if an organization does not collect key information about operational functioning, it cannot manage its performance effectively, reliably, sustainable, and accountably. The issue for performance management is not whether to collect data; it is which data to collect–and then how to convert performance data into actionable information to support both tactical and strategic decision making.” (p. 31)

Popular, traditional measurements for churches have often been # of attendees at any given service or event, spiritual giving ($), and (for missions/charity) # of people served or hours of service.

Problem is, these give an incomplete picture.

As Ed Bahler and Bill Cochenour write:

We’re not likely to throw away the traditional forms of measurement anytime soon, but increasingly vibrant churches comprised of spiritually maturing individuals are placing a higher priority on metrics that measure commitment and discipleship. They’re driven by how well they’re impacting their communities. They realize that being on mission is more than initiating and participating in mission trips and food drives for the homeless. It means taking ownership for tangible, positive results outside the church, investing in nurturing and growing the trees that ultimately will bear fruit.

This requires some customized, deep thinking at the local level to figure out the best ways to measure and monitor a parish. Remembering that we monitor because we care and want to do whatever God’s calling for us in ministry is with excellence. Measurement is a means, not an end. 

Here are some concrete examples from Bahler and Cochenour:

• The number of families led out of poverty
• The improved literacy rate of school kids tutored by church volunteers
• The number of mentors to teenagers of single parents
• The number of families in the church that have adopted underprivileged kids in the community
• The number of people in the church (not on staff) that see themselves as full-time, everyday life missionaries
• The number of micro loans your church provides
• The number of non-religious community groups using your church facilities
• The number of projects leaders in the community ask your church to be involved in
• The number of former convicted felons your church places in jobs
• The reduction of domestic abuse incidents from the time the church became involved in supporting at-risk families
• The percentage of the church budget allocated for those outside the church
• The ratio of people involved in ministry outside the church compared to people involved in ministry programs within the church

Most of these are probably irrelevant to your parish ministry. But, that’s the point 🙂 Your metrics and measurements need to be customized for what matters most in your parish.

Working Hard–Working Well (BTW, this book is available as a free download) offers the acronym CREAM to get on the right track with indicators for measurement, monitoring, or assessment. Each indicator should be:

Clear – described in concrete language

Relevant – tightly linked to essential variables that drive the outcome you’re looking for

Economical – affordable to measure! 🙂

Adequate – sufficient for the collection of what’s essential

Monitorable – measurable within the capacities of the organization

Now it’s your turn–have you had any positive or disastrous experiences with identifying indicators for assessment in parish life? If so, please help edify our online conversation by sharing!



Measuring Disciples By Fruit

One of the questions we’ll never have a complete answer to (since only God knows the depths of our hearts) is how much are disciples growing in our parishes/ministries? Yet even though there’s no empirical formula for this, we shouldn’t shy from some ways of measuring aspects of discipleship. Assessment (or measuring) helps us evaluate initiatives and programs, it helps us identify where to place finite resources, and it helps us re-imagine what’s clearly not working for our typical parishioners. If we care about souls, we should care enough to assess our actions in ministry.

Here’s a concrete follow up to a previous post on measuring discipleship growth from Cary Nieuwhof. Nieuwhof offers a Biblically-centered approach to looking for fruit, centered on Paul’s descriptions in his Letter to the Galatians 5:19-24. How to probe for this fruit? Interviews. Anonymous surveys. Opportunities for testimony. In various combinations, these could help give you a sense of if there’s movement within those you serve. Using combinations is important–if you simply ask for volunteers, you’ll likely capture affirmations–but not those on the margins.

Think about your parish or ministry. How is the “fruit” measurement among:

  • those initiated or received into full communion through RCIA (year after year…)
  • those on your “registered parishioner” list who rarely attend Mass
  • those who attend adult faith formation
  • those involved in liturgical service (i.e. musicians, lectors, etc.)
  • and so forth…

Start probing. You’ll probably find unexpected blessings and encouragement, as well as areas ripe for improvement!

Measuring Disciple-Making

How do I know if my local church is making disciples?

Whether you’re a person in the pew, volunteer leader, minister, staff, pastor, or parish council member–you should care. Your local church has the unique mission to foster initial and ongoing conversion in every person within the geographic boundaries of your parish. This is at the heart of the New Evangelization.

But how do we know if we’re on the right path?

For most of us, we’d quickly jump to anecdotes, stories of life-change we’ve seen happen, through the grace of God, within our parishes. Teens who’ve come to Bible study because their parents made them, but who leave as fired up, disciples with a mission. Or, many an older gentleman who comes to RCIA and is able to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ that he’s been missing, or experiencing in an incomplete way, his entire life.

But, while stories work well for us as individuals, they are not sufficient if we want to truly assess what’s working and what’s not on a larger scale, like in a parish. David E.K. Hunter writes that in general nonprofit organizations, suffer from “a pervasive case of unjustifiable optimism.”

Now, my parish isn’t just any “nonprofit organization”–we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit! But, we’re still human beings with human tendencies, and I wonder, are we too often unjustifiably optimistic about how well our processes for making disciples are going?

This is a challenging, soul-wrenching question when we really start to think about it. Because, if we recognize a problem with disciple-making in our parish, we know we have to do something about it–regardless of our age, leadership title, etc.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, coming to believe in God’s love is the “fundamental decision” of a person’s life–it gives life a new horizon and direction. Jump-starting and nurturing growth along this pathway of discipleship is the most important thing a local church offers to those in the parish. The liturgical Sacraments, works of charity and justice, Bible studies, etc. are all part of growing as a disciple.

But, in and of themselves, they do not replace discipleship. Even Sacraments–as our disposition matters!

I recently saw a summary of a presentation given by Albert Winseman, author of Growing An Engaged Church, at a nearby parish. Winseman observes that most parishes measure just three things: Mass attendance, registered members, and giving.  And when we think about it, we can see that these types of metrics really don’t tell us much about how we’re doing when it comes to making disciples.

So that’s my challenge to each of you this summer. Start a conversation in your parish about measuring or assessing your discipleship process–not because having numbers to support anecdotes is an end, but because digging deeper into what’s really working, and what’s not allows us to focus our finite resources and energy on processes that truly are fulfilling the Great Commission (Mt 28:19) to go and make disciples. We can’t every truly capture the actions of the Holy Spirit through research or data–but we’re failing to use the full gifts of reason and intelligence God has given us as human beings, if we only rely on our feelings or anecdotal evidence to assess ourselves.

This is not easy–and I say that as someone who’s taking on the same challenge myself! It takes prayer, wisdom from above, and a spirit of charity. But, no matter what our position in our parish is, we must have the courage to ask, are we making disciples?

Note: a similar version of this post originally appeared at

“Teaching Johnny to Preach” by T. David Gordon

I just finished reading T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach: How the Media Have Shaped the Messengers. 

I wouldn’t give the book a strong overall recommendation as a general homiletics text. Gordon’s concerns were a bit specific, and not that widely applicable to a broader Catholic, evangelical, emergent church, or non-denominational context (which wasn’t Gordon’s intent, but I’m just putting that disclaimer out there).

However, the final chapter, entitled, “Teaching Johnny to Preach” did have some good recommendations for congregations:  

For example, the Annual Review:

Gordon rightly notes, “Most ministers will never know how bad their preaching really is without an annual review. They look out on Sunday morning, see a number of people present, and reason to themselves: ‘Well, I must be doing a pretty good job as a preacher because many people come to hear me.'” Gordon notes that this is simply wrong-headed thinking, since many people come out of Christian duty, regardless of the sermon quality (p. 97). I’d say this sense of obligation is even stronger in Catholic contexts. 

Gordon offers two main strategies:

  1. Perform a review by calling several people at random on Tues or Wed and asking them what the sermon was about (it’s best if preacher isn’t one to make the call). If they have vastly different ideas, then the sermon’s clarity and focus was probably off (p. 98)
  2. Do a general assessment of the pastor (and associates) and list ministerial tasks (preaching, counseling, administration, etc.) and have people rank the minister in order of competence (p. 98). This provides a window into preaching quality without the challenges of asking for a 1 to 10 assessment and having widely differing standards among survey participants, since the ratings will have a relativity built-in.