Using project management in the church
March 7, 2016 / By the 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 homeless, and planning programs during the Advent season. Yet, many times, we do not call this work a “project,” and as a result, how they are 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 – hence temporary – that seeks to be a different ministry as compared to other ministries – for example, a church puts on a dinner to feed the homeless as compared to a fundraising project to provide scholarships to community youth. If ministry is viewed as a project, then 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, according to Northern Ireland’s official website for business advice and guidance:
- Reduces the chance of a project failing
- Ensures project quality and that results meet requirements and expectations
- Allows church volunteers to serve in various areas of ministry and increase efficiency both with the project and within the church
- Makes things simpler and easier for the church staff with a single point of contact running the overall project
- Encourages consistent communications among church staff and project team
- Keeps costs, time of completion, and resources on a budget
Theologically, I think 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.” (Gen. 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 utilize 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 the work of the church 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 & evaluation phase.
- Closure & Evaluation: This is where the project manager, team, congregational leadership, and pastor review how well the project was done. In a project closure & 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.
Project management examples
This first example highlights how project management can be used in planning a ministry with a tight timeline. During the summer 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 project manager. Other members volunteered to be on the team. 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 time frame. 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, when issues arise, they are made visible quickly so that project team members can 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 has 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 again in 2016.
A second case study involves the church and community resources. A member with a passion for community health education had an idea for a project that would raise the church and community’s awareness of heart disease in women. After sharing the idea, training on project management fundamentals was provided. The project idea was then presented and approved – “The Westside Go Red for Woman Tea.” The team met, and then defined and documented the project objective, timeline, roles, and responsibilities. It also developed a project plan and meeting plan. The project was ultimately executed in February 2013. From the first event, it took lessons learned – project evaluation – and has since hosted the event successfully in 2014 and 2015.
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 the lay and pastoral leaders in managing God’s work in ministerial related projects.
The Rev. Vincent Howell is the pastor at the Westside UMC in Elmira and the Webb Mills UMC in Pine City.