7 more tips for evaluating your spiritual formation program

Last week, I shared some things I’ve learned about soliciting feedback from your program participants – and non-participants. This week, I wanted to talk about some of the hard work of doing a self-evaluation. (I also encourage you to check out this post for some ideas on how to set up your evaluation time so that you can get the most out of it.)

Here are some of my suggestions for getting the most out of a program evaluation you do on yourself.

Internal check

  • Do not be afraid Your internal evaluation is an opportunity, not a slug-fest. It should be non-judgmental, but to the best you can, it should be deeply honest. And let me add this caveat: if your tendency is to be self-critical, then your honesty needs to include, “This is what I did really well.” If your tendency is to let things slide, then your honesty needs to admit where things did not go well – and if you need to take any ownership when they did not. But I know you spiritual formation types. You’re more likely going to blame yourself. I say again, be brutally honest about the times when you were awesome! It’s required.
  • Listen to feedback If you have done an evaluation or feedback form, review what has been said. Be grateful for the people who are willing to offer their critique. Listen with care and an open heart and mind. Sit with it for a bit before reacting. Note especially where more than one person offers the same feedback. Don’t do anything about it yet! Just note that it’s there. You need to do some digging first.
  • Provide your own feedback. If you created one, fill out your own survey or feedback form and see what you say. If you don’t have a form, then come up with a list of questions to answer before you start (or add some that make sense to you as an internal gauge). Here are some suggestions:
    • What worked and why?
    • What didn’t work and why?
    • Who came? Who didn’t come? (consider ages, gender, race)
    • What changed? (consider attendance numbers, up or down; participation level)
    • What evidence do we have that people learned/grew/were changed by this program?
  • Ask yourself “what impact did this program have?” It’s easy to count how many people attend, how many are confirmed, how many classes you have, and how many volunteers participated. What’s trickier is measuring how did this actually change people’s lives? Because, to be deeply honest, if we’ve offered programs that have had no impact on people, the question arises, should we keep doing this? And if we don’t, what should we do instead? On the other hand, the program may have had an impact we didn’t expect and outside our immediate view. As we know, spiritual formation changes the lives people lead day to day, and that may be trickier to see. So think about this carefully, knowing that there are some things we may not immediately see. In fact (as I think of it), be sure to think about programs you offered over a year ago to see what has happened since then.
  • Ask yourself “what are we going to change?” Be sure not to start with this! Do not start with “how it’s going to be better next year” until you’ve done a good bit of reflection and evaluation. But once you have a good sense of what you’ve done in the past, then do ask how you want to change in the future. I repeat: Do not be afraid. Yes, you can tweak things to improve them, but you can also make large changes. For example: Do we really want to offer Sunday School? (Oh, did I say that out loud?) The point being, you can float radical ideas even if you don't plan to implement them right away. If you're basing them on feedback, information, data, and evaluation, don't be afraid to put big changes on the table.
  • Remember the sunk cost fallacy! The sunk cost fallacy is a trick of the mind that tells you, “We’ve already invested so much in this that we’re going to keep on investing in this even though it’s not working.” And always remember that not offering a program is an option! If something fails, that’s not a moral failing. It just didn’t work. You don’t have to tweak it in hopes it will be better. You really can cut things. (If you do, be sure to communicate clearly why you’ve done so!)
  • Follow through If you’ve made plans to change programs or offerings in the coming year, or you’ve seen areas where you want to improve, make sure to actually do the things you’ve decided to do. The summer is a dangerous time where plans are lost in the sands of a long hiatus, so set things up right away to ensure changes can be made when you launch again in the fall. 

I’ll say again, evaluating your program is a great opportunity to celebrate successes that may have been invisible in the day to day tasks, and to acknowledge ways in which things can be better. But I hope you realize that the work of spiritual formation is more than just classes and programs; it’s about transforming lives, opening people to the love of God in their lives and their place in God’s kingdom. 

Part 1

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