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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Are you a People Pleasing Pastor? Take this Assessment and Find Out

I based my third book, People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership on significant research around people pleasing. As a scripturally based book, it incorporated fascinating insight about how our brain influences our leadership and our tendencies to appease and please others in unhealthy ways. To discover how pervasive people-pleasing is in the ministry I gathered research from two sources. I contracted Lifeway Research to survey over 1,000 pastors about people pleasing and I added to this research the results of a similar on-line survey of 1200 pastors I did for a total of over 2200 pastoral responses. In this post I’ve created a simple self-evaluation for pastors to determine how much people pleasing affects them.

My research revealed that 70% of pastors agreed that people-pleasing affects their lives and ministries at some level. In the on-line survey I included an option for pastors to anonymously tell their people pleasing stories. I got 100 pages of heart wrenching stories, single-spaced!

Here’s one pastor’s sad story.

In a church that I pastored, there was a major power struggle with several members who remained very close friends with the previous pastor who actively worked to wield control through these members. I often felt unable to measure up, always trying to ‘minister’ to these folks in hopes that I could win them over, and yet being angry that I couldn’t. After two years I left the church and left the ministry. And I felt like a failure as a pastor and as a husband/father.

Is people-pleasing affecting your ministry?

Take this short assessment to see if it is. Mentally check which statements are true of you.

  1. In my church’s board or leadership meetings, sometimes I don’t speak up on an issue for fear of creating tension.
  2. Too easily I say yes to someone’s request for me to do something. Later I regret having put that on my plate.
  3. I will go out of my way to attempt to change someone’s mind who wants to leave my church or ministry.
  4. Sometimes I get angry at myself for not having stood up or spoken up for what I believe.
  5. I have kept on a non-performing staff person or volunteer leader too long before making a change.
  6. When I need to be firm with someone else, I inordinately delay the conversation and/or after I do have the conversation, I realize I didn’t say everything I should have said.
  7. Sometimes I try too hard to be nice.
  8. It bothers me when I upset someone. I tend to blame myself for his or her distress.
  9. I tread lightly around some people in the church because of their moodiness.
  10. When those around me are angry, I become the peacemaker by trying to get them “un-angry.”

How many did you check? If you checked…

  • 1-3: People-pleasing could become a growing issue in your leadership unless you do something soon.
    • Keep this issue in prayer and stay vigilant of your tendency in the area(s) you checked.
  • 4-6: People pleasing is most likely hindering your leadership and may get worse.
    • Find a safe, wise leader in your church or a local pastor with whom you can confidentially share your struggle. Become accountable to him so you can stop unhealthy people-pleasing before it gets out of hand. See my blog here on what to look for in a safe person.
  • 7-10: You’re probably angry, anxious, and fearful most of the time and people-pleasing is clearly hurting your leadership.
    • Consider seeing a good counselor who can help you ferret out the cause and help you lead less from an approval motivation.

As you deal with your pleaser tendencies, consider this verse.

The fear of human opinion disables . . . (Prov 29.25, The Message)

How have you seen people-pleasing tendencies affect your or other’s ministries?

You can learn more about the book here and view a cool animated video trailer of the book.


“People-pleasing in the ministry: I just took an interesting assessment on people-pleasing.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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7 Ways to Make a Graceful Exit and Leave Your Church Well

Unless you stay at the same church your entire life, you will leave one ministry or church and go to another, perhaps several times. In fact, the average pastor in the U.S. stays at one place about four years. I’ve served at six different churches in my 35 years in ministry and have always sought to leave well. At my current church I hope I’ll have another 10 years of fruitful service. I’ve learned, however, that leaving is more of an art and is often difficult. Here are 7 insights I’ve learned that have helped me make a graceful exit.

  • Deal with your baggage. Leave with a clear conscience that relationships have been made right, as much as is possible.
    • Acts 24:16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
    • Rom. 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone
  • Don’t leave angry. Process your pain. If you struggle with anger after you leave, get coaching or counseling to avoid bitterness.
    • Hebr. 12:15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
  • Leave on top. That is, leave your ministry as healthy and as strong as possible.
    • Col. 3:23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men….
  • Speak well of the former leaders, both lay and paid. Don’t leave a trail of gossip. Don’t undermine the leaders or anyone else who may have hurt you. Don’t burn bridges. Leave in such a way that your and Christ’s reputation remain intact.
    • Prov. 22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
  • Let go of ownership. You are no longer in charge. You may be tempted to still influence it from afar. Guard against that.
  • Pray that God would bless the ministry even more with the new leader who replaces you.
    • 1Kings 1:37 “May the Lord be with Solomon as he has been with you, and may God make Solomon’s reign even greater than yours!”
  • Grieve well. Change brings loss. You will lose familiarity, relationships, and influence even as you gain those in your new ministry. Don’t be surprised if you grieve. The Apostle Paul grieved when he left the church at Ephesus for the last time.
    • Acts 20: 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: `It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” 36 When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

Years ago I heard a talk by Ellen Goodman about leaving well. This quote captures the spirit of a leader who makes a graceful exit.

There is a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over-and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on, rather than out.

What insights would you add to this list?


“I just learned some good insight about how to gracefully leave a ministry.”(tweet this quote).


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