By Rev. Vincent Howell
Projects are a part of the work of ministry in any local congregation. They range from updating the parsonage when a new pastor is assigned to developing a new ministry to grow youth programs, hosting a holiday meal for the community and planning programs during the Advent season.
Yet, many times, we do not call this work a “project,” and as a result, how it is managed varies within the congregational setting.
A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique ministry to the community and God’s people, with a definite beginning and end, that seeks to be a different ministry as compared to other ministries. For example, a church might put on a dinner in support of veterans, as compared to a fundraising project to provide scholarships to community youth going off to college. If these ministry efforts are viewed as a project, then the church work will closely align with the concept of project management. Viewed this way — whether we call them programs, events, or activities — if they are planned, organized, and executed as a project, the church organization is in a much better position to achieve its objective, make use to of its people’s gifts, and manage fruitful ministries with its limited resources.
Most church projects have a goal, a timeline, a budget and require a team of people to do the work. As such, applying the concept of project management in the local church has the potential to provide some important benefits. Project management practitioners frequently cite a number of benefits to using this concept in the church. Examples include:
- Reducing the chance of a project failing
- Ensuring project quality and that results meet requirements and expectations
- Allowing church volunteers to serve in various areas of ministry and increasing efficiency both with the project and within the church
- Making things simpler and easier for the church staff with a single point of contact running the overall project
- Encouraging consistent communications among church staff and the project team
- Keeping costs, time of completion and resources on a budget
Theologically, there are two imperatives for applying project management in the Church
First, scripture teaches us that there are projects that are done for the Lord. The classic example from Genesis is when God gave Noah the project to build the ark. It had time restraints, requirements and a plan. We also know that the project was managed successfully in that Genesis 7:24 specified that the ship withstood the floods for more than 150 days, and God commented that, “Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him.” (Genesis 6:22)
The second reason is that scripture requires that we, as church leaders, must equip God’s people for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). The economic challenges from the past few years have placed strain on resources in local churches. As such, local churches must be good stewards of the resources they are committed to managing. It is imperative that we use all available tools that will help result in effective leadership in the church. Project management tools can help church leaders do their work more efficiently.
In short, even in the church, we must learn to execute work effectively as we implement ministries that serve the people of God. Applying project management in the context of the church is one way to achieve that result.
So, how can churches start using project management?
Each church project has four phases:
- Initiation: In the initiation phase, the scope of the ministry work is defined. It is at this phase where the project manager begins to recruit a project team.
- Planning: The planning phase is critical and involves outlining the activities, tasks, dependencies, resources, budget and timeline required to execute the project. In addition, risks are identified, and contingency plans are agreed upon.
- Execution: The execution phase is where most of the work on the project gets done by the project team. During this phase, the project manager and team meet, monitor and control project tasks to assure that expected outcomes are achieved. Once the ministry event is complete, the project team is ready to move to the closure and evaluation phase.
- Closure and Evaluation: This is where the project manager, team, congregational leadership and pastor review how well the project was done. In a project closure and evaluation meeting, the team considers what went well, what should be done differently in the future, and what lessons they learned for future application or sharing with other project teams in the organization. A colleague who spent more than 30 years in pastoral ministry and served as a seminary professor highlighted that one of the things the church does not do well is conducting an evaluation after a project or event is completed. This could be helped by providing structure in managing projects.
A project management example
This example highlights how project management can be used in planning a ministry with a tight timeline.
During the summer of 2014, our congregation was working on our revitalization strategy, and the idea of presenting a “family fun festival” for the community was suggested. The idea was to reach out to the community as we prepared to kick off children’s Sunday school in September. The project proposal was discussed and approved by the administrative board. One of our leaders — who indicated she had project management experience from her work — volunteered to be the project manager. Other members volunteered to be on the team.
Then, the first project meetings were scheduled and the objective was agreed upon with the initial project team. Subtasks were developed, documented and assigned to subtask leaders. For example, subtask leaders were assigned equipment setup, food, communication and outreach, Bible stories, game planning, etc.
The project manager, along with the subtask leaders, then documented the final project plan and schedule, and began weekly meetings based on a seven-week planning and execution phase. These meetings, each beginning with prayer, defined the schedule and a list of project action items for follow-up. The project was executed successfully, even though there was a limited timeframe.
When there’s a limited time frame for planning, the work of the project manager is critical. For example, when the vendor for a particular game we needed to rent was not available, the team quickly developed a contingency plan. This is one of the benefits of the structured approach to project management. By meeting at scheduled times and with a plan of execution, issues that arose were made visible quickly so that project team members could react quickly.
For this church project, the plan was to hold the festival on a Saturday. Community attendance and feedback was positive, and the congregation was energized to repeat the project. A celebration of the work that the Lord had done in our midst was scheduled for the following Tuesday. We were blessed that almost 40 percent of the congregation attended to share their ideas for doing the project the following year.
The essence of church project management is that it helps us live the Word — God gave different roles, responsibilities and functions in the church “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12) As such, church project management can be viewed as a set of tools that can be used by both congregants and pastoral leaders in managing God’s work in ministerial related projects.
The Rev. Vincent Howell, D.Min. is the pastor at the Centenary United Methodist Church in Clemmons, North Carolina.