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Six keys to learning from experience

August 13, 2015
By Tom Ehrich
You've heard it many times: "Experience is the best teacher." And its corollary, "Failure is a better teacher than success."
Makes sense, but what does it actually mean for church leaders? Here are six keys to learning from experience.
State your intended outcomes
"Grow my church" is a nice idea, but "Launch a membership program to add 25% (after attrition) within four years" is an outcome you can work toward and measure. Even better would be a detailed project toward that outcome, each step scoped, staffed and resourced, each step having a timetable, each step having a specific outcome in mind.
Create your metrics -- and implement them
Any good plan must be "specific, attainable and measureable" (the "SAM Principle.") To learn from experience, you need to measure outcomes. If membership grows by 1% the first year, you need to improve your efforts for year 2 if you want to attain 25% after year 4.
Once you analyze the 1% result, you will identify bottlenecks, ineffective workers, failed ideas, tactics to be abandoned, or tactics to be enhanced.
You will also reexamine the metrics themselves. Maybe "membership" isn't the most meaningful measure. Maybe you should be focusing on "participation" and taking a fresh look at what "affiliation" with a church means nowadays. Maybe "average Sunday attendance" is as meaningless a metric as people have been saying.
Be bold, transparent, and honest in analyzing metrics
Resist the temptation to hide negative results in order to keep naysayers at bay. Get people accustomed to the reality that most new ideas fail, but that avoiding new ideas will kill the church. If people pounce at the first sign of failure, push back, stand your ground. Change the dialog from fear of failure to learning from trial-and-error.
Name what you learn. If a membership development effort fails to reach people because it's focused too much on welcoming Sunday morning visitors, rather than reaching more prospects in the community, then name it, change it.

Change course constantly
Don't debate and debate up front in order to create a bulletproof plan. Try some things, learn from failure and success, and try some more. The best plan is grounded in nimbleness and candor, not perfect planning.
Keep adding new personnel
You thought you'd need, say, five people working on this plan, but you learn that you need fifteen, and in a year's time, you need 25. The project team must not become a closed circle of people who "own" the project and resent anyone coming into it. Keep reforming the circle, and keep the leadership of it fresh.
Don't hesitate to pull the plug
Take it as a given that when you try ten new ideas, eight of them will fail. Let them die. If you expend resources trying to breathe life into a failed idea because you don't want to hurt the feelings of its workers, you will end up with frustrated workers who now feel like failures. Instead, thank them for trying, show what you have learned from their efforts, and assign them to new ideas. 
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