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Reform Magazine | December 7, 2023

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Community-minded: In praise of evaluation

alison_micklemFrom his birth in Bethlehem to his resurrection appearances, Jesus turned expectations and received wisdom on its head. Even his closest disciples were constantly surprised by his statements and behaviour. He made people see life from a new perspective, which was liberating for some and extremely challenging for others.

I fear that all too often, churches are trying so hard to be approachable and appealing that we lose that prophetic edge, that disturbing challenge. However, for all my desire to be counter-cultural, there are some elements of contemporary practice from which I think we can and should learn.

One of those is the current emphasis on monitoring and evaluating everything from small community events to global business initiatives. Your heart probably sinks at the very words. It sounds like yet more paperwork – time-consuming but not productive. It doesn’t have to be like that, and I have come to recognise just how important it is. Without it, we run the risk of falling into unchanging yet unrewarding patterns of behaviour. When things go well, we rejoice, when they go badly, we feel dejected, but we do not usually examine the reasons for our successes and failures, or our emotional responses to them.

Take a hypothetical annual Christmas fair. Each year, fewer people attend, and it seems like harder and harder work. One year it coincides with a big family celebration of one of the members, and lots of young people come. Everyone is encouraged, but the following year attendance is thinner than ever. Eventually, the weary organisers agree not to bother any more.

If they were engaged in a process of monitoring and evaluating, they would ask themselves questions such as “Why do we have a Christmas fair? Who is it for? How do we publicise it? Is it at the right time?” Once they have answers to those questions, they can start to judge whether the event was a success, and why. If the reason for the fair is to raise money, and the takings are pitiful, then it hasn’t gone well. However, if the aim is to attract people from the local community and take time to talk to them, and several people came and chatted over a cup of tea and a mince pie, then it doesn’t matter that they didn’t spend much. If one of the reasons the bumper year felt so positive was that lots of children and young people came, maybe it would be good to design some publicity for schools and local youth organisations.

Recently, we piloted a new venture at one of the churches here in Liverpool. To say it wasn’t a great success would be putting it politely. A group of us sat over a cup of coffee afterwards, feeling thoroughly demoralised. It would have been easy just to say: “That was a disaster!” and go our separate ways. Instead, we embarked on an informal but quite detailed evaluation. Why had something for which we had had such high hopes gone so badly wrong?

We felt powerless and frustrated; we had gone to a lot of trouble and our efforts had not been appreciated; but as we talked it through, a strange thing started to happen. We realised we had not been clear about who we were aiming to attract, that our publicity had been too little, too late; as a result, we had been unsure of our capacity to deliver. We acknowledged that there were many things we could have done differently. Then we started looking for positive aspects of the experience, and found a surprising number. We had learnt a lot about what was possible. In the space of an hour, we moved from the despondence of “What a disaster: never again!” to “Next time we will do it this way,” to getting really excited and starting to plan three events for next year!

If you think I am exaggerating the importance of evaluation, let me paint a possible alternative scenario. Suppose we had just drunk our coffees in misery, then gone away feeling we had failed. The next time someone had suggested a similar activity, we might well have responded with those fateful words: “We tried that once, and it didn’t work!”

This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of  Reform.

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