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—Alignment is the arrangement of all ministries and staff in an educational system around a shared goal.
This makes sense on paper, but it is really difficult to achieve in reality. Moving toward greater alignment in the parish, however, can have a really big payoff in the end. Here’s why alignment is so important for parish education—and also a few tips for moving toward greater effectiveness in your educational system.
Alignment Avoids Confusion
I once heard that misalignment of parish education programs can be compared to a one-eared Mickey Mouse. This is most easily seen in youth group programs or family ministry classes. The main elements of parish life form the central circle. This includes worship, maybe Sunday School, maybe some fellowship events. But awkwardly tacked onto that central circle of parish life is another circle that is the other programs. Youth ministry, singles ministry, young adult ministry, or even Confirmation could be included in that other circle. These programs have their own volunteers, time slots, and identities. They really are only part of the parish program in name. In reality, they serve as independent entities or even mini congregations within the larger congregation.
This situation is often complex and confusing. It really is. There’s little communication between the central life of the congregation (usually what happens on Sunday morning) and the parish education programs. People don’t know what’s going on throughout the organization, and there’s little understanding of why each component does what it does.
Even worse, misalignment of the different parts and staff involved in the parish creates its own inertia. Each program, age group, or staff does what it thinks is best, and so begins to separate from the rest of the parish. Once the communication or central purpose begins to break down, it’s easier to keep going than to have hard conversations about overarching purpose. Each program fights for its own financial resources or volunteers from the limited pool. Before you know it, the DCE doesn’t know what the pastor is teaching in Confirmation and the DCE doesn’t know what the ladies are learning in their study group, and nobody knows what the volunteers leading the youth group are teaching. The youth aren’t considered part of the congregation by the elders because they’re not seen much on Sundays (even though they’re active elsewhere). Midweek programs and Sunday-morning programs have completely separate curricula, volunteers, and purposes, and they are usually somehow at odds with each other. You know the scenario. There has to be a better way.
What Alignment Looks Like
How do we arrange our programs and staff around a common goal? How do we move from a fragmented and complex system to a more simple and streamlined one? We’ve got to ask the WHY question. It’s the one that nobody really wants to ask because it upsets the status quo.
Why do we even have parish education in the first place? We don’t ask this question to attack or to defend. We ask this question to learn. Apart from worship, why have any program (Sunday School, Midweek School, Singles Ministry, Young Adult Ministry, Youth Group, etc.)? In order to build momentum and alignment among the programs of a church, I suggest you first consider three things:
- Purpose. As you consider why your parish’s programs exist, you must first communicate its mission to people. Why is the congregation there? If the purpose of a congregation is to make disciples, then how do you see it taking place? How do your programs help achieve your mission? Is there a process for this? An aligned church must know, understand, and communicate its mission and vision for its community. Otherwise, each program will make its own vision and purpose apart from the others.
- Flow. Flow is the series of sequential steps that cause people to move to greater levels of commitment in the congregation. Do your programs flow together, building off of one another? If you can’t clearly lay this out, chances are your programs are out of alignment. What’s the most important part of the congregation’s mission? If it’s worship, then consider this your first step—get people receiving Word and Sacrament together. But what about after that? What’s the next step? Is it attending Sunday School together, or belonging to small groups, or taking part in service opportunities? If a new person joined the congregation, would you have a clear path for that person after worship? Without flow, there’s never going to be alignment between programs. Each will just do what it thinks is best, and if people show up it’s more by coincidence or force of character than by design.
- Measurement. In educational terms, alignment happens when objectives, lessons, and assignments efficiently produce learning. An aligned educational system defines clear objectives, teaches those objectives, and contains appropriate assessments to gauge learning for each individual. In parish education terms, alignment happens when you have a good picture of what success looks like. How would you measure a successful program? Is it simply by numbers? If so, are you comparing the numbers of your program to others to see if there’s movement between them? If it’s not numbers but understanding, then how do you know if people are learning? What are you measuring and why?
In other words, alignment in your parish education system requires a clear purpose, a plan for moving households through that purpose, and effective ways to measure whether the purpose is communicated and flow is actually happening.
Some Thoughts on Aligning Your Parish Programs
Don’t get discouraged. By even considering the above questions, you’ve already begun the process of alignment. Contrary to popular belief, your parish education system doesn’t require an overhaul to make it simpler and more efficient. Instead, by making simple changes here and there, you can make a big impact on bringing things together. Here are ten personal thoughts—pick and choose what you’d like.
- Think about your congregation’s mission or vision. Then make a list of the major educational programs and groups you run. With a critical eye, consider how each contributes to achieving that mission. Think about how you could communicate that to the congregation.
- Bring the leaders of each program together and talk about the mission or vision of the congregation and how each leader’s group adds to that. Brainstorm ways different groups could work together or encourage one another to be more effective.
- Ask your senior lay leadership what they think the “ministry process” of your congregation should be. What is the path for new church members? What’s the order? Is it worship, small group, service? Or is it small group, worship, join a board? Just by asking these questions, you’ll get people thinking about alignment. Consider how what happens in worship moves your members into other areas of your parish life.
- Consider your curriculum choices. I have been very happy with CPH’s Sunday School curriculum. This provides similar images and stories for all ages. By studying the same Bible stories together during an education hour or midweek program, you’re building alignment into the very fabric of your church culture.
- In addition, the extra resources provided by CPH for all ages, including My Very First Holy Bible, Know the Bible Now, and Concordia’s Complete Bible Handbook, often use the same images and format for teaching those stories to different ages. Resource your congregation, people of all ages, with materials that align with one another. It’s encouraging to see the same stories, pictures, and graphs used in materials for preschoolers and adults. This can only help all learners see that what they’re doing is moving forward together. Think of ways of introducing these resources to the congregation before or after a worship service to create excitement and understanding.
- As I’ve written about before, the LCMS has at its core the enduring understandings of the faith as found in Luther’s Small Catechism. A great way to align programs is to focus each session, at least a little bit, on pondering or reciting a section of the catechism. If nothing else, this helps build unity in purpose and opens the door for discussion about the nature of the catechism.
- Don’t be afraid to say no when someone has a new idea. New ideas can be very useful, and it’s important to take care of volunteers. You need to consider, though, the cost to alignment each new program brings. If a new program will bring further disunity or dysfunction among staff and boards clamoring for the same resources, you may need to say no to even a good idea.
- Don’t count out the old programs. In many places, Sunday School or auxiliary groups are fading out. It may be the case that these need to go and be replaced by something new. Count the cost, though. Consider the benefit of investing more in the old programs instead of replacing them. Chances are they began for a good reason, and maybe at one time had a lot of momentum. Figure out why they succeeded when they did and think about what it would take to recapture that momentum. Most likely, the reason they’ve lost members is that they’ve come out of alignment with the parish life. Consider how you could reintegrate these programs back into your ministry process.
- Keep things simple. A clear path for ministry for each member, with intentional learning built into each program, can go a long way to building interest and passion in members. People want to learn, but they want everything they do to be worth their time. Make it purposeful and simple, and as a congregation move together toward your goals.
- Finally, look around and ask around. Chances are other congregations have already gone through what you’re going through. By asking a seasoned parish educator about triumphs and challenges around the problem of alignment, you’ll get some perspective. Try not to fall into the trap of simply copying and pasting the programs of another church, though. Instead, learn what you can, and apply it to your specific context.
God’s richest blessings to you as you consider both the importance of and opportunities for alignment in your parish.
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