During a visit to a large local primary school to collect gifts for a charity, I spent some time talking with the newly appointed Head Teacher. I was most impressed with his initial evaluation of the school and his plans for the future. This conversation evoked the great excitement and job satisfaction of my work as a Quality Improvement Officer, the highlight of the final years of my career in education. With others, my remit entailed working in partnership with the schools across Argyll & Bute to secure better outcomes for their pupils. In practical terms, this meant challenging and supporting these schools to self-evaluate and plan to improve their performance in all aspects of their provision.
In Scotland, all schools are committed to the principles and the processes of continuous improvement. This means that in each school, staff, pupils, parents and the community work together to identify priorities, take action and evaluate the impact of these actions on a continuous cyclical basis. According to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, “at the heart of self-evaluation are three questions:
- How are we doing?
- How do we know?
- What are we going to do now?
Excellent schools focus these questions on learning. Learning is at the heart of an excellent school. Learning is its core business.”
As a Quality Improvement Officer, I used a document called ‘How Good is our School’ developed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate as ‘the Bible’ for school improvement.
‘How Good is our School’ (HGIOS) identifies the key areas of a school’s operation from the curriculum to assessment, pupil support, leadership etc. In each area there is a series of quality indicators which are used to evaluate performance using a six point scale. This scale ranges from the lowest of ‘unsatisfactory’ to the highest which is ‘excellent’. According to HGIOS, “an evaluation of ‘unsatisfactory’ applies when there are major weaknesses in provision requiring immediate remedial action” whereas, “an evaluation of excellent represents an outstanding standard of provision which exemplifies very best practice and is worth disseminating beyond the school. It implies that very high levels of performance are sustainable and will be maintained.”
As a born again Christian, I have often wondered why Scotland’s evangelical churches and fellowships shy away from self-evaluation and rarely plan for change, never mind improvement. Indeed I often wonder whether our churches and fellowships have a clear Biblical understanding of their ‘core business’?
It was in this context that I was both surprised but delighted to read an article entitled, ‘Every Church Is a Revitalization Project’ by Erik Raymond in the online journal ‘Church leaders’ (www.churchleaders.com). Referring to the long forgotten core principle of the Reformation, ‘semper reformanda’ or ‘always reforming’, Eric Raymond contends that……. ‘ this work of ongoing revitalization is not fundamentally different from major revitalization. At its core, there is the challenge to keep shaping the church by the gospel. And this work never stops. Ironically, when the work of ongoing revitalization stops, a church is soon to be a candidate for major revitalization’.
What Erik Raymond is advocating for a church/fellowship, is a commitment to continuous improvement underpinned by a rigorous self-evaluation and improvement planning. Perhaps Scotland’s evangelicals could develop their own self-evaluation tool which could be entitled ‘How Good is our Church’.
Pastor Raymond has even provided a ‘starter for ten’ in his article. It contains a series of questions that all members of a fellowship meeting together (NB all members must be involved not just the pastor and elders/deacons) can prayerfully discuss together, then plan for improvement. Imagine the difference that such a process would make to the turgid and largely meaningless twice yearly church ‘business meetings’…..more people would attend; engagement levels with the mission of the church would increase; ordinary Christians would feel they have real ownership of the church’s mission, rather than being asked to slavishly approve decisions reached elsewhere by their so-called leaders.
Here are some sample starter questions that could be used in the development of a ‘How Good is our Church’ self-evaluation tool:
How good are we at communicating the Word? Do all members have a clear and deep understanding of our church/fellowship’s statement of faith? Is there clear evidence that the word, empowered by the Spirit is having an impact on the lives of believers?
How good are our gatherings? Does the church value the Sunday gatherings? Do people come to church, and when they do, what is their disposition? Do they hunger for the Word preached? Is there a real sense of the presence of God?
How good is our fellowship? Is there a true sense of gospel-shaped community? Some indicators of this include welcome, inclusion, hospitality, conversation, sacrificial service, etc. How good are we at inclusion and making sure that all members are involved in ministry? (not just making tea!)
How good is our pastoral care? Are elders/deacons involved in regular home visitation? Is there real corporate care for the elderly, vulnerable and needy?
How good is our engagement with the local community? Would the local community notice if our church disappeared tomorrow? Does the church/fellowship have credibility with the local community?
How good is our use social media to connect with relevance to the local community? Is the church in tune with and able to provide a rational and relevant Biblical response local/national issues? Is social media used for the advancement of the Gospel in the local community? Does the church have a website or Facebook pages?
How good are we at evangelism/making disciples in our locality? Are all members clear about their responsibility to share the Gospel? Are all members confident and skilled at sharing the Gospel? Does the church train its members in techniques for sharing their faith and contending for the faith? Does the church have a commitment and coherent strategy for the perpetual evangelisation of its locality? What impact is our church's evangelism efforts making?
How good are we at training disciples? Are people being equipped for ministry? Are peoples' gifts identified? What training opportunities are available? What impact is our discipleship programme having?
How good is our leadership at all levels? Is servant leadership evident in all ministry leaders. Do leaders invite feedback about their work? Do leaders speak with humility? Do leaders conduct themselves with joyful humility like the Apostle Paul? Are there effective systems in place to ensure that all leaders are accountable to those they serve? Are future leaders being intentionally developed?
How good is prayer in the church? To what extent is prayer a priority? How and with what frequency does the church come together for focussed prayer? Does the church celebrate answers to prayer?
How good is decision-making in the church? Is there a ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top down’ system? How good are communications? Does the church leadership operate in a transparent or secretive manner?
I suppose that some people will say that activities such as self-evaluation are irrelevant to church life, and that the idea of continuous improvement should have no place in a gospel centred community. Others will simply shy away from such a process because it is perceived to be ‘too difficult’.
However, my experience is that when these practices are adopted, improvement happens. Given that most evangelical churches and fellowships are struggling to make an impact in their own localities, and many are confusing ‘growth’ with ‘sheep shuffling’, perhaps a little honest self-evaluation, accompanied by some fervent, heartfelt prayer, followed by a modest plan and committed, courageous actions might just turn the tide.
To those who set their faces against starting the process of church wide evaluative discussions, I have one question: ‘What are you afraid of?’ The living God always honours those who step out in faith.
The mantra of one my former Pastors, an IBM executive prior to entering the ministry was: ‘if you fail to plan you are planning to fail’. He was absolutely correct…..more of the same in many of Scotland's evangelical churches is not an option!