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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

How to “Just Try a Few Things”: Lean Experimentation


Mature congregations (the ones with parlors, pipe organs, and portrait galleries of past pastors) usually want to grow, and they program for growth by doing some version of the following:

  • A person or group gets an idea
  • The idea is laboriously perfected by a committee over a period of months
  • The idea goes to the board, which either approves it or sends it back for further work (this loop may be repeated several times because boards like to micromanage ideas)
  • The idea is rolled out to the target community
  • The community responds positively (by showing up) or negatively (by not showing up)

As you probably already know, this process takes a while, and a good idea sometimes dies because people run out of energy or run into one or two vocal members who hate the whole thing.

Fortunately for congregations, there are other ways to try something new.

Lean experimentation, for example, is a process that’s used in the for-profit and non-profit worlds as a fast way to develop and roll our new products.  It focuses on three elements that churches don’t usually use but could:

  • Constituent feedback
  • Rapid experimentation
  • Using data to make decisions

In a lean process, constituent feedback is sought from the beginning. In other words, if a congregation is developing a program the intention of which is to meet a need in their “neighborhood,” people from the neighborhood are involved in the conversation. In effect, they become a part of the development process rather than the target group upon whom some great new thing is going to be unexpectedly dropped. The engagement process can look like everything from going door-to-door to creating a Facebook group, but the key is to get out of your building and listen to the people you hope to serve. You will probably discover that they are not at all interested in something you thought would be fabulous and are completely captivated by something you’d never even considered, but the end result will be better ideas.

Any idea generated through this kind of discovery process then needs to be assessed to determine whether it aligns with your mission, solves a problem for your constituents or helps them to reach a goal, and is affordable in terms of your congregation’s time and money.

Once an idea is generated that meets these criteria, the next step is to develop a quick way to test your idea. In technical terms, you “determine your riskiest hypotheses” and develop a “Minimum Viable Product.” (And we though “exegesis” and “eschatology” were hard to understand!) For our purposes as congregations, this means that you

  • Identify the assumptions (the “riskiest hypotheses”) that have to be true in order for the program to work (e.g., that families actually exist who want to come to the church for family Bible study late on Friday afternoons before the weekend actually starts). Depending on the kind of program you’re thinking of starting, other “riskiest hypotheses” might include whether participants would be willing to help in order for the program to exist, whether they would be willing to invite others, or whether the content you envision is actually appealing to the kinds of people who want to come to church on Friday afternoon.
  • Test your hypothesis by creating a rough version of your product, often on paper or online (a “Minimum Viable Product”) that you can put in front of as many people as possible. If the hypothesis you’re testing, for example, is the viability of late Friday afternoon Bible study programming for families, the “Minimum Viable Product” might be an online survey describing the program, and the test would be the number of families who are “not at all interested,” “somewhat interested,” or “very interested.”

Based on the data gathered from your test, you then decide whether to improve your idea, move away from your idea, or invest in the actual implementation of your idea.

Fundamental to this whole process is the notion that it moves quickly! We engage with constituents throughout the process and we experiment with Minimum Viable Products so that we don’t spend months developing an idea that our neighbors ultimately don’t want or need. And the key constituents are neighbors, not board members. It should not matter that Friday afternoon Bible study sounds odd to several long-time board members if the idea sounds compelling to a group of families who want to do Bible study but don’t have time on the weekend or during the week.

Also fundamental is clarity about who you’re trying to reach. Last week, I mentioned the Drag Gospel Festival created by the congregation described in Molly Phinney Baskette’s Real Good Church. Not every congregation has a community of drag queens to reach out to, but every congregation has a community of some kind that is not being reached. The key is to identify that community and determine which of their aspirations or challenges your congregation is excited to address.

Finally, lean experimentation requires a different attitude on the part of congregations. Many of our congregations, especially our “mature” congregations with parlors and pipe organs and portrait galleries, are used to moving slowly while they carefully consider not only the merits of an idea but also whether it will upset someone. In a world in which congregations actually struggle with whether or not to install LED light bulbs in the parlor because they know someone will complain that the light is now “too bright,” congregations who want to try something new will need to create teams of people who are comfortable with experimentation and then give them the authority to be move forward.  For mature congregations wanting to grow, now is the time to be experimental, not cautious.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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