Avoiding Ministry Failure: 5 Questions to Ask when you do a Ministry Pre-mortem

Ministry initiatives in the church often fail. A simple planning tool called the pre-mortem, however, can minimize ministry failure. In my last post I suggested 7 good reasons to conduct the pre-mortem, a tool credited to Dr. Gary Klein. A pre-mortem is an exercise that assumes your plan spectacularly fails and considers beforehand what might go wrong. It helps teams plan ahead to avoid potential pitfalls. In this post I explain how to do a pre-mortem.

To get started, you’ll want to schedule a pre-mortem session with your team and include these steps when you convene them.

  • Brief your team about the proposed plan.
  • Describe the imaginary failure in colorful terms. Imagine it as a spectacular fiasco.
  • Ask your team to write down everything they believe could have possibly gone wrong.

After these steps, consider these questions.

  1. What did you miss that contributed to the failure?
  2. What went wrong as you implemented your imaginary plan?
  3. Who messed up and why?
  4. Had you known these pitfalls, what would you have done differently?
  5. After completing your pre-mortem session, what do you need to change about your proposed plan to avoid potential failure?
  6. Who needs to know these changes?

Here’s a helpful guide that describes in more detail how to do a pre-mortem.

Have you ever conducted a pre-mortem? If so, what additional questions would you include?


“I just learned how to conduct a ministry plan pre-mortem to help avoid failure.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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7 Benefits of an Often Overlooked Planning Tool: the Pre-mortem

Jesus recognized the role good planning plays in life and ministry. He said, Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? (Luke 14.28) Unfortunately, lack of planning often torpedoes otherwise good ministry ideas. Scientist Gary Klein, author of The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, offers a great idea he calls a pre-mortem. In this post I unpack 7 benefits a pre-mortem offers in planning.

planning tools

Dr. Klein says that a pre-mortem can increase the chances that our plan will succeed. In contrast to a post-mortem that we often perform after a plan fails, a pre-mortem is an exercise that teams do before they implement a plan.

By imagining that an event is over and that it failed, a pre-mortem can often surface potential problems that you can address and prepare for before you invest time and resources in an event or a plan.

In my next post I’ll give crucial questions to ask to make a pre-mortem successful.

But first, I’ve listed several benefits of a pre-mortem.

  1. A pre-mortem helps you fail on paper rather than in practice. A pre-mortem considers what might go wrong so you can plan to avoid those mistakes
  2. You can surface potential pitfalls in a safe environment. Before others get overinvested in the plan, considering the pitfalls beforehand makes it less threatening for a team member to voice a concern.
  3. A pre-mortem helps you value your team members by soliciting their ideas and thoughts. We all like others to feel that our voice matters. A pre-mortem reinforces that experience.
  4. You can help team members become more sensitive to potential problems as you roll out the plan. By discussing potential issues beforehand, your team is more likey to see potential issues when you do roll it out.
  5. You can increase the chances that you will avoid a painful post-mortem autopsy prompted by a failure. We’d all rather avoid autopsies.
  6. You can surface potential problems you might have otherwise missed. Pretended your plan has failed makes you think outside the box.
  7. ___________ (what would add as a seventh benefit?)

So, the next time you plan a big initiative, try a pre-mortem.


“I just learned 5 good reasons to conduct a ministry plan pre-mortem to avoid failure.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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5 Brain Biases that Limit Leaders

Leaders would like to think that they lead in unbiased ways. However that’s easier said than done. The fall of man affected every part of who we are, including our thinking. Brain biases abound. A Google search reveals almost 200 different biases. Among those 200, what brain biases poses the greatest threat to effective leadership? In this post I explain five and suggest an idea for each to counter its potential negative impact.

Scientists call these ‘brain’ biases cognitive biases, judgment errors that rise from our tendency to mentally jump to conclusions. Daniel Kahneman,  Nobel prize winner and author of the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls them heuristics, mental shortcuts we use when we make decisions. Because our brain has limited energy, we can’t consciously ‘think’ before every decision. Therefore, we intuitively make many decisions (over 40% of what we do is habit) that require limited mental resources and allocate our brain energy only to those that require our immediate attention. As a result, we sometimes don’t make the best decisions which can impair our leadership.

Here are my top 5 brain biases.

The confirmation bias. This bias reflects our preference for those who agree with us. We subconsciously look for people and information to confirm our preexisting beliefs, actions, and attitudes. As a result we spotlight only the information that supports the decision we want to make and we tend to discard negative input that we need to see the full picture and make the wisest decision.

  • Suggestion:  Do a pre-mortem on a planned ministry or initiative. Before you make the decision, gather your team and ask, “Let’s assume we did (such and such) and it gloriously failed? What would we say contributed to the failure?” Allow full and frank discussion. This post goes into greater detail about this bias.

The planning fallacy. This bias explains how our plans and forecasts tend to mirror best case scenarios. When we plan a new initiative, we tend to assume everything will go as planned, with few bumps or obstacles along the way. For example, studies show that college students tend to vastly underestimate how long it takes to write a major paper.

  • Suggestion: Assume that your project will take you 50% longer than you anticipate. Schedule that extra time into your calendar. If it takes less than that, consider it bonus time to spend on other projects.

The sunk cost bias. This bias appears when we’ve invested considerable time and effort into something that is not going well, but we simply can’t give it up. If we did, we’d feel like a failure. This often happens in churches when we keep a ministry alive when we need to kill it.

  • Suggestion: What ministry or project is not working and draining your soul? If you could magically make it go away, how would you feel? If, as you imagine it gone, you feel a great weight off your shoulders, you may have succumbed to this bias. It may be time to kill that program or project. In this post I unpack this bias in more detail.

The correspondence bias. This bias is also called the fundamental attribution error. This happens when we attribute unseemly behavior of others to their character or personality but when do the same thing, we attribute it to external circumstances.

  • Suggestion: Give people the benefit of the doubt. Our brains are wired to be negative and assume the worst. Unless a behavior is really egregious, tone down your judgmentalism until you get the facts.

The halo bias  or halo effect. This bias mirrors the previous bias. It affects us when we make unrealistic judgments about a person’s ability to perform a task or judge their character based on positive qualities we see in him or her. Ministry expectations can easily fall to this bias. Church people can assume that because a new pastor has good speaking skills that he also must be a superb organizer, is great at hospital visitation, and is an excellent counselor. Unfortunately, most pastors can’t excel in every ministry area.

  • Suggestion: Find the core strengths of those you work with, both volunteer and paid. Help them develop those skills without trying to make them who God did not create them to be.

Bias can sneak into any leader’s life. Inventory your leadership and honestly ask if any of these biases have slipped in. If they have, create a simple plan to deal with them, sooner than later.

What other brain biases have you seen in ministry?

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Tithing: a Simple and Effective Way to Encourage People to Tithe

I believe every pastor should help his church grow in generosity. One tool I’ve used for many years is called a “Tithe Demonstration Day.” It’s essentially setting aside one Sunday each year, usually in a stewardship sermon series, when we challenge every person in the church to tithe, give 10% of one week’s income. It’s always the highest giving Sunday of the year. And weekly giving usually increases after that Sunday as well. I’ve included below the text of a bulletin insert we’ve used that simply explains it. We called this one the “7-30-90” plan because we encouraged not only tithing for one week, but continued tithing/increased giving for 30 or 90 days. Most people who build a habit over 90 days make it permanent.

If you schedule a Tithe Demo day, consider these pointers first.

  • Promote it well through all your promotion channels. Start a month prior.
  • Use a tithing testimony the week prior.
  • Mail a reminder the week prior in addition to sending an email reminder.
  • Create a special envelope for that Sunday.
  • Have your church tithe 10% of the offering given on Tithe Demo day to some ministry outside the church. Be sure to promote this well. This models for the people that your church will also tithe.
  • If you are the senior pastor, share your commitment about giving.
  • Report the results the week after. Make it a big celebration.
  • Include some sort of continued giving commitment that you are comfortable with, as the insert does.
  • Ideally, teach a four-week series on generosity and schedule Tithe Demo day on the fourth week. If you don’t do a full series, preach on giving two weeks prior.

Here’s the text of the insert we used. Use it any way that helps.


The 7-30-90 Generosity Plan

If you consider (church name) your church home, would you prayerfully consider accepting the “7-30-90 and beyond” challenge?

Recently Pastor Charles challenged those who don’t yet tithe to trust God to enable them to begin tithing in a step-wise fashion. He also challenged those who do tithe not to view tithing as a ceiling, but a foundation upon which to become a “beyond” giver.

God’s Word teaches that Christ followers should generously give back to Jesus their time, talents, and treasures. A tithe serves as a monetary ‘benchmark’ for systematic, proportionate giving. The word “tithe” is a mathematical term that means “a tenth or 1/10.” It means giving 10% of your income back to the Lord (Malachi 3:10).

The “7-30-90 and beyond” challenge is a three-step faith venture.

Step 1: tithe (give 10% of a week’s income) on Sunday, (date) on our all church Tithe Demonstration Day* (details below)

Step 2: after taking that first step continue to trust God and tithe your income through the entire month of March

Step 3: continue your faith journey and trust Him to enable you to continue tithing for three months (March-May)

Tithing example: If you make $52,000 per year and divide that by 52 weeks, your weekly income is $1,000/week. $1,000 weekly income x 10% = $100. A weekly tithe would be $100.

Note: Because of your financial situation, you may need to modify Steps 2 and 3 by increasing your giving over a longer time period so that by year’s end you can tithe regularly.

After three months of faithfulness, tithing will become a regular part of your financial plan.

If you now tithe, consider the ‘beyond’ part of the challenge an opportunity to review your giving and consider giving beyond a tithe.

(the back side of the bulletin insert is below)


TITHE DEMONSTRATION SUNDAY – SUNDAY, (date)

WHAT IS TITHE DEMONSTRATION SUNDAY?

It is an invitation for everyone who calls (church name) their church home to give one week’s tithe on this Sunday (10% of gross household weekly income). The purpose is to demonstrate what our potential could be if every household in our church family tithed.

WHAT IF I WON’T BE IN CHURCH on (date)?

If you can’t attend church on (date), please use one of these three options: (a) Mail in your tithe so it will arrive prior to Sunday, (date); (b) Drop your tithe off at the church office; (c) Send it with a friend; (d) use our online electronic funds transfer option (go to…your website… for instructions).

WHAT IF I’M ALREADY TITHING?

Thank you for your faithfulness. If you give on a monthly or biweekly basis, please adjust your giving schedule to participate in this church offering for this one Sunday.

WHAT IF I FEEL ABSOLUTELY UNABLE TO TITHE?

We ask that you give consistently as God leads you. If you feel absolutely unable to tithe, check your heart and God’s Word and make sure it is consistent with His leading.

On that day our church will tithe that day’s offering. We will be giving 10% to (ministry).


“I just learned a simple way to encourage tithing in my church.”(Tweet this quote).


How have you helped increase your church’s generosity?


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5 Ways to Make Brainstorming More Creative

Brainstorming sessions have become standard fare for ministry teams that seek solutions to problems. The two key rules are to generate as many ideas as possible and don’t criticize the ideas. These concepts came from Alex Osborne’s book Your Creative Power published in 1948. Since then it’s been common practice to avoid criticizing the ideas in brainstorming sessions. The underlying assumption was that people won’t speak up if they fear criticism. There’s only problem with this kind of brainstorming is this: it simply doesn’t work. In this post I explain why it doesn’t and give 5 ways to make brainstorming more creative.

Multiple studies have shown that groups who use standard brainstorming rules generate less ideas than do individuals (Lehrer, 2012). In other words, when posed with the same problem, individuals consistently generate more possible solutions to a problem than do groups. When I learned this I was shocked because I’ve always applied these two basic rules in brainstorming sessions with my teams.

So based on the latest research, I’ve listed below 5 ways we stifle creativity and the antidote to each.

  • Stiflling…Discourage dissent. Don’t allow anyone to debate or criticize an idea in a brainstorming session.
    • Antidote: encourage friendly debate and healthy criticism. Set up rules beforehand, though, such as don’t personally attack people, clarify before criticizing, use phrases like I have a different view, etc.
  • Stiflling…Make the group an all boys club.
    • Antidote: include women because they, in general, have greater empathy skills and emotional intelligence and can offer unique perspectives.
  • Stiflling…Only includes your BFF’s (best friends forever).
    • Antidote: include in your brainstorming team both people with longstanding relationships and newbies. One study found that the creative teams behind the most successful Broadway musicals included people who had known each other a long time and newbies (Ellenberg, 2012).
  • Stiflling…If you are the leader, telegraph your views at the beginning of your brainstorming session.
    • Antidote: if you’re leading the session, be as neutral as possible or you may hinder some people from sharing a good idea because it may conflict with yours. And, most people don’t like to disagree with their leader.
  • Stiflling…Make the brainstorming session a serious, linear, logical experience.
    • Antidote: make the session fun, out of the box, and as rule free as possible. Encourage individual idea generation, counter intuitive ideas, and mind wandering. Mind wandering often produces some of our greatest insights (Christoff et al., 2009).

What have you discovered that encourages creativity in your team in brainstorming sessions?

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Sources:

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719-8724.

Ellenberg, J. (2012) Six Degrees of Innovation. Slate. Available from: [Accessed 9 May 2013].

Lehrer, J. (2012) Groupthink. The New Yorker. Available from: [Accessed 25 February 2013].