138 – Research Findings on Successful Discipleship Programs (Part 1 of 2)
What I Learned From 236,325 Pages of Reading, 653 Web-Sites,
123 Hours of Interviews, 4, Churches, 2 Crashed Hard Drives and
1 Dissertation Committee
“Sustainability” easily ranks as the #1 challenge to men’s ministry. Many churches-even entire denominations-have quit trying. Why do some men’s discipleship programs succeed, while others languish or fail? Why is it so easy to start but so difficult to sustain a men’s discipleship program? These were the questions that inspired my Ph.D. dissertation.
Before diving into the research, let me give you some background. Did you realize that only an approximately one-third of all organizational change initiatives succeed? That’s right. A full two-thirds of changes programs fail outright, and that’s regardless of whether they are public, private, for profit, nonprofit, business, government, education, or health care (e.g., Pluye, Potvin, & Denis, 2004; Strebel, 2000; Yin, 1978).
By using the term “organizational change,” I mean all organizational change initiatives that are undertaken for the betterment of an organization including, for example, strategic change initiatives, cultural makeovers, total quality management, reengineering, technological innovations, diffusion of innovations in organizations, training programs, prevention programs, restructurings, and quality programs (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990; Kotter, 1995; Rogers, 1995). Since this was a management research study, implementing a program to disciple men fell within the realm of organizational change and program implementation.
Although there is continuing research on the important factors needed for successful organizational initiatives, many of these concepts have simply not migrated to church-based programs where new concepts are needed.
Purposes, Research Question, Research Method
The purposes of my research were to identify the implementation factors present in successful programs, to develop a model for implementing an effective men’s discipleship program, and to suggest areas for further research.
The key research question was to analyze why and how implementation factors present in effective programs differed from factors in ineffective and failed programs. In other words, what are successful men’s discipleship ministries doing that unsuccessful ones are failing to do?
To get at the answers, I designed a multiple-case study in four Protestant churches to compare the factors that contributed to the success or failure of their church-based men’s discipleship programs. Two churches were selected with effective programs, one church with an ineffective program, and one church with a failed program.
The Literature: 9 Essentials to Sustain Change
Before I could do the actual research, however, I had to establish what factors I would look for. So I conducted a meta-analysis of all the available academic management literature, including current journal articles and books as well as those which have weathered the test of time. I zeroed in on factors that affect program implementation and organizational change.
After two years of reading, I grouped the factors I found into 9 essential groups or themes: leadership, vision, people, planning, resources, execution, communication, handling resistance, and sustainability. These are the areas that must be addressed in order to implement sustainable change—change that lasts. (I have already written about each of these themes in Weekly Briefings #136 through #146 and you can access those articles at no charge by going to http://www.maninthemirror.org/weeklybriefing/index.htm.)
Data Collection and Findings
Next, I conducted telephone and onsite interviews, reviewed documents, and made on site observations in each church to determine the presence or absence of those factors. Virtually all of the factors from literature were present in the effective programs, but significant factors were absent or neglected in the ineffective and failed programs.
Those factors included the strong personal involvement of the senior pastors, support and involvement of the senior leadership (in one of the churches), visions that resulted in organization-wide commitment, people who understood what was expected of them, ministry planning models that worked and were perceived to work, policy support for the programs, building enough time and contingency into the plans, training for those who needed it, successful execution of the programs, making adjustments along the way, success in handling resistance, and normalizing the programs as part of the routines of the churches.
There were two factors that were exceptions: one program succeeded despite a lack of support from the senior staff, and neither of the successful churches gathered and analyzed information and feedback using corporate-style planning and program performance evaluation.
On the other hand, the churches with the ineffective and failed programs differed in many areas from their effective counterparts. For example, the senior pastors did not champion and become personally involved in the program, the senior staffs did not help build organization-wide commitment to the programs, the churches lacked a vision for men’s discipleship programs, people were not trained to understand what was expected of them and with skills to succeed, ministry planning models did not sustain momentum after the initial start up of the programs, resources were more limited, the programs were not executed effectively, the churches were not prepared to handle the resistance to the programs they encountered and, ultimately, they failed to reach sustainability.
The research revealed three main factors in the churches with effective men’s discipleship programs: (a) a senior pastor who personally champions the program, (b) a strong vision to make a disciple of every man in the church, and (c) a sustainable ministry planning model. With these three factors in place, the other needed implementation factors from the 9 themes appeared to follow in the course of time. Let me amplify on these three conclusions.
First, about the conclusion on the importance of the senior pastor’s involvement, management literature cites the personal involvement of the CEO (compare to senior pastor) as a key implementation factor success (e.g., Beer, 2003; Kotter, 2001; Lebrasseur et al., 2002; Miller, 2002; Zaleznik, 2004). This study found that to be the case. In the two churches with effective programs both senior pastors considered themselves the ultimate program champion, the vital force behind vision, and the guardian of the program. Their sense of ultimate, personal responsibility and commitment was possibly the most important implementation factor in the success of their programs (e.g., Kotter, 1996; Repenning, 2002). Their commitment rose above the level of job responsibility to a sense of calling or, perhaps, even life purpose (Guinness, 1998; Novak, 1996).
A second main conclusion is that the churches with effective programs have a strong vision to make a disciple of every man in their churches. Ironically, neither of the two senior pastors with effective programs could articulate specific goals for their men’s discipleship programs. Instead, they were guided by an urgent vision that they wanted to make disciples of every man in their churches (Kotter, 1995, 1996, 2001). Both pastors saw men’s discipleship as key to building strong men, marriages, families, churches, and communities. Their visions compare to the Big Hairy Audacious Goal concept of Collins and Porras (1999). Both pastors were passionate about their visions which fostered organization-wide commitment. In fact, they depended on their visions to “catch on” and mobilize the resources of their churches to make disciples of men. The senior pastors of the churches with the ineffective and failed programs would agree about the importance of reaching men, but it was not part of the core visions for their churches and resources were not provided.
Third, having a ministry planning model that could reach sustainability was a major conclusion of this study. All four churches appeared to have worked diligently to make disciples of men at different times. However, the two effective churches had models that sustained momentum; the two ineffective churches did not. It is an inescapable conclusion that men’s discipleship programs are hard work and it takes a long time to sustain them—regardless of the program or approach. A church that does not have a sustainable ministry planning model may find their best efforts fail to maintain momentum, even after several years at which time the program fails. Like an inoculation, this increases resistance to future attempts to revive the program (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990).
In the next issue of A Look in the Mirror I will share some research-based recommendations for leaders who want to implement a sustainable church-based men’s discipleship program, and some recommendations for further research.
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Pat Morley is the Founder and CEO of Man in the Mirror.
© 2006. Pat Morley. All rights reserved. This article may be reproduced
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