February 8, 2016—Much of my consultation with schools focuses on educational assessment. Rarely is that the focus of a consultation in a congregation. That is not to say that most congregational educators understand the importance of educational assessment of their church’s programs. The challenges of practicing rigorous educational assessment in congregations include a lack of know-how, a lack of established procedures, and a lack of time. The good news is that when I do have conversations about assessment with church leaders there is an appreciation for the value of evaluating the effectiveness of the Christian education program in the congregation, and the necessity of doing it if we want to make any difference in helping people grow in faith (along with other issues like practicing good stewardship of resources, etc.).
Congregational educational leaders, and church members, need to know whether or not, or, to what extent, their educational programs are making a difference in helping people grow in faith. After all, that is the mission we were given, to make disciples. A fundamental concept in program evaluation is that an activity is not the same as an outcome. Churches engage in many educational activities, but, what is their outcome?
When reviewing educational assessment practices it is not uncommon to hear the complaint, “But this is hard!” when issues of rigorous educational practice come up, from lesson planning to curricular assessment. The best short response to that is, “Yes, so?” (Sometimes I follow up by saying, “What do you tell your children when they whine that something is “too hard”?”). This gets played out not only in churches, by the way; I get that response when I work with school systems. The alternative of not engaging in intentional, rigorous educational practice is to perpetuate the situation in which we find ourselves today: ineffective and benign educational activity–benign in the sense that it makes little difference whether or not people participate in our church educational programs since the activities are, in and of themselves, ineffective for the ends we seek.
Comprehensive assessment is overwhelming if you try to do it all at once. In Planning for Christian Education Formation: A Community of Faith Approach, educators Galindo and Canaday offer a cyclical three-year model that can help church educators assess the most urgent matters first (in order to address things that need the most attention). Subsequently, educators and church committees do only ONE assessment component per year while engaging in actions in other areas.
The paradox of practicing formative educational assessment in the church is that rather than lay members getting discouraged, they get very energized about this important activity. They see that their work has direction (not just maintenance of programs), that their ministry has purpose (it is goal-oriented, not just routine), and is important (they are doing something that makes a difference in the lives of church members). In my experience lay persons are not afraid of hard work—but they don’t respond well to meaningless activity. And, they have the capacity to discern the difference.
The assessment plan presented in the book presents a development plan to help you establish a practice of formative assessment of the Christian education program in the congregation. It not only offers an assessment model, but provides a strategy for getting to implementation. Let’s be honest, in congregational life, some changes are accomplished like eating an elephant—one small bite at a time.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.