ASSESSING PARISH NEEDS
by Ron Nicola
The January, 1983 issue of The Word magazine carried an article about stewardship at the parish level. Seven guidelines were presented which were intended to direct the process of building a parish level stewardship program. The first three steps involve the creation of an awareness/education plan designed to make the entire congregation knowledgeable about stewardship's role in the parish. Some suggestions were offered concerning how to accomplish these first three steps, and, once completed, the stage would be set for the actual development of a stewardship plan for the particular parish.
Once the members of a certain church community are committed to the idea that stewardship embodies the essence of parish life, they are ready to develop a specific parish level stewardship plan. The fourth guideline for initiating such a program calls for the conducting of a needs assessment within the parish. This process produces a set of specific tasks which can be targeted as initial goals of the parish's stewardship program. There are many valid ways to conduct such an analysis, and it is important to realize that what results is a set of mutually agreed upon needs which become the focus of a stewardship program.
The needs assessment methods presented in this article represent only a few possible procedures. Every parish can use these ideas as springboards to the development of a process specifically suited to their unique situation. While there is room to design a model appropriate to a certain church's wants, two elements must be kept in mind; trust and follow-through. In order for a needs assessment to produce valid goals, people must be willing to be honest and open in their expression of ideas about parish strengths and weaknesses. This only happens if a high level of trust exists between all segments of the parish community. In addition, people must be convinced that the needs assessment is set up to produce ideas which will lead to action. Plans to follow-through with development of programs designed to implement the goals generated through the needs assessment convince people to be open and honest. They are assured that the energy they put into the analysis will lead to tangible progress, growth, and change.
Does trust exist within the church community? When a priest, parish council, and parishioners decide to conduct a needs assessment, this question must be raised. It is not an easy one to answer because so many people and forces exist within the complex network of parish life. Very often it is not productive to dwell on past events which may have impacted the level of trust among the congregation. Rather, those organizing the needs assessment should concentrate on the present and the future. The decision must be made that honest input from the congregation is really desired, realizing that weaknesses as well as strengths will be mentioned.
Once this decision is made, and it must be if an effective needs assessment is to be conducted, a climate of trust must be established concerning the upcoming implementation of this parish analysis. One way to achieve this atmosphere is to realize that a needs assessment is essentially an exercise in communication. It involves questions being asked and information received. In this particular format, however, effective transfer of information is based on an often overlooked communication skill: listening. Those conducting the needs assessment must recognize that their job is to receive input. The more objectively they are able to do this, the better the quality of data produced by the analysis process. Evaluation and discussion of the information comes later. Initially it is important to let those participating know that their honest input is valued.
Accomplishing this involves practicing the three levels of communication important to development of good listening skills.
The specific needs assessment model adopted by a particular parish will effect how these skills are applied, but they can be adapted to any situation. Making an initial observation involves showing a certain amount of empathy and concern. The first stages of a needs assessment involve simply gathering information, with very little, if any, judgmental comment on the input. Questions can be asked about how a particular idea or feeling developed, but they should be phrased in a way which will encourage further explanation. The goal is to give people a chance to talk about topics they are interested in or feel strongly about.
If a particular feeling or attitude is noted in their comments, this can be acknowledged and discussed. Again, the goal is to let the person or group know that their feeling is recognized and there is interest in knowing its origin. This kind of information becomes useful in the latter stages of the needs assessment as people can be matched with their expressed interests as a specific stewardship plan is developed.
Application of these listening and trust-building skills can be made once a specific needs assessment model is selected. The particular method chosen must include not only information gathering devices, but also the plan for following through on the ideas and suggestions made by participants.
The information gathering process can take a variety of forms, but each should be based on four essential questions:
Answers to these questions produce a set of data which become the basis for identifying parish needs. Once generated, the information can be categorized and prioritized, leading toward the development of goals and targeted needs.
Meetings is one of the formats within which answers to these questions can be developed. A general parish meeting could be called for the purpose of soliciting responses from the people. Careful planning would be needed to make this work, since it would probably be necessary to use some grouping techniques in order to manage the larger crowd. A person with special skills might also be needed to facilitate a gathering of this type.
As an alternative, neighborhood meetings organized in parishioner's homes would allow for smaller groups and a more relaxed atmosphere. A designated person at each home would be appointed to record the answers to each question, and the data from all the meetings then combined into one report.
A third variation on the meeting format would be to conduct the information gathering sessions at regular meetings of parish auxiliaries. The advantage of this plan would be that those attending each session are part of an existing organization who are used to exchanging ideas. They are also the people regularly involved in parish activities and, therefore, familiar with the workings of the local church. Once again, a recorder at each meeting could share their data with those from the other auxiliaries, compiling all of the information into a parish-wide set of responses.
The meeting format, in its various configurations, represents the gathering of data from groups of people. Another alternative would be to contact parishioners on a one-to-one basis, asking them each of the four questions. Again, there are various ways to organize this information gathering process. A survey or questionnaire could be developed and sent by mail to each parishioner. The advantage of this technique is each person can freely express their views without others present to judge or comment on their responses. The disadvantage is the experience many have had with such surveys, a certain percentage are simply not returned. The particular character and make-up of a parish might help determine if it would be worthwhile to use this type of survey/questionnaire method.
Home visits or telephone calls represent the other ways to use personal contact to get responses to the four questions. A visitation day could be advertised and conducted, with teams of trained volunteers calling on an assigned group of families and discussing the church visa-vis the four evaluation questions. The telephone could be used instead of the visits, but the format would be quite similar. These techniques represent the greatest investment of time, but this might be worth the effort if the people in a particular parish would respond well to this sort of personal approach.
All of these variations produce the same result: a set of answers to the four evaluation questions. This data is in very rough form, and the need is to categorize and prioritize the responses. This can probably be done by the committee who organized the needs assessment, and the results could be reported to all of the participants. While it is important to use this synthesis process to consolidate the data, it is crucial not to eliminate anyone's input. During the follow-up stages, those who participated in the needs assessment want to see ideas they contributed reflected in the report.
Once this consolidation process is completed, the information should be reported back to the participants. It is most appropriate to do this at a meeting called for this specific purpose, since the task is then to prioritize the items in each category. This process of ranking ideas from most important to least important makes it easier to identify realistic and meaningful goals which become the focal point of the soon to be developed stewardship program. This needs assessment process increases the likelihood of parishioner support for identified goals since they participated in the creation of these targeted needs. In organizational work of all types, there is something of a golden rule which states, "people are more loyal to something they help create." Since one of stewardship's key elements is member participation and involvement, it is clear how the needs assessment technique will help produce this desired result.
The seven step process for developing a parish level stewardship program serves to give structure to the congregation trying to incorporate this important aspect of Christian commitment into their congregation. Educating the people encompasses the first few steps, with identifying parish needs coming next. These identified needs become the basis for the creation of a parish plan, with development and implementation of this model the intent of the last few steps. Since stewardship at the parish level involves heightening member participation in all phases of church life, the usefulness of the needs assessment process becomes clear. It provides those committee Christians with identified areas where their time, talents, or resources are most needed.
The needs assessment process also serves another important role in developing good stewardship at the parish level. It was stated in an earlier article in this series that three principles should be kept in mind when a church tries to upgrade their stewardship program and conducting a needs assessment helps fulfill each of these principles.
First, a stewardship plan should be viewed as an ongoing process within every parish. This can be achieved more readily if a needs assessment is planned at regular intervals. It will produce new challenges each time, thus keeping the need for good stewardship practices alive.
Second, every parish is unique and should develop its own stewardship plan. The special character of each congregation will result in a unique needs assessment format and the goals it produces will be different than those generated at any other church. All of this will necessitate the creation of a unique approach to the incorporation of stewardship into the life of every parish.
Third, the special talents, resources, and abilities of all parishioners should be used to fulfill the church's identified goals. The needs assessment process makes parishioners more aware of the skills of others in the congregation. Use of this technique continually reveals parishioners who can contribute in some unique way to helping the church progress.
The effectiveness of the needs assessment process can be heightened in a parish if the church leaders explore various ways of using this technique. This article suggests a few approaches, but there are many others to be discovered through research and exploration. There are also people who are experts in this field who could be called in as consultants. No doubt members of every parish have had some experience with a needs assessment program at their place of employment. These and other avenues could be explored by a church community interested in conducting a needs assessment.
As this series continues, other aspects of parish level stewardship will be explored. While the actual plan of action is the most visible part of the seven step process, it can only work if the necessary groundwork has been laid. This means the awareness/education and needs assessment steps. If these first four steps are done thoroughly and carefully, the chances of accomplishing the last three are greatly increased.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America