How to create SMART goals based on your church survey results

“…God willing.”

Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”

Our planning work can be done within the practice of prayer, with eyes up and hands open. Our planning posture can be, “God, you have our permission to rearrange anything and everything to accomplish your purposes.” Like Jesus, we can remain in the place where our explanation for our behavior is, “We do what we see the Father doing.” (John 5:19) With this posture in place, let’s look at some wise practices for implementing survey results. First, here’s a quick recap about the survey itself…

The Vital Impact Assessment church survey is designed to help local churches measure their impact.

A short survey taken by church members assesses 8 areas of life (demographics, spiritual formation practices, service to others, personal health, quality of relationships, core beliefs, church practices and perceptions, and level of trauma) and from this survey, advanced statistical modeling is communicated in practical terms and through compelling visualizations. Detailed comparisons, between segments of the church, other churches across N. America, and across time (beginning in year 2), highlight trends and help church leaders identify key insights that can have a profound effect on decision-making.

For example, maybe you find that high participation in certain discipleship initiatives is strongly correlated with higher engagement in ministry, or that high levels of trauma significantly affect personal health or quality of relationships, or that one age group has a much larger drop off rate between present and future involvement in the church. When you see these connections, it helps inform your decision-making and ultimately leads to greater impact.

One of the questions we hear a lot is, “We have the results…now what!?”

Setting SMART Goals

Imagine you fast-forward one year from today and you’re looking at the same report for the next year: what would you hope would be different within your church? Where would you most want to see growth or change? This is one starting place when considering how to make the survey results actionable. In this post, we’ll look at how to work our way backwards from this vantage point: desired outcomes one year from today.

Much like a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), the 4 helpful lists can be a helpful exercise to move survey results into actionable categories. The 4 helpful lists are:

  1. What’s going well?
  2. What’s not going well?
  3. What is confusing?
  4. What is missing?

Create lists for outcomes to celebrate (“What’s going well?”), potential growth areas (“What’s not going well?”), questions to explore more in-depth (“What is confusing?”), and necessary action items (“What’s missing?”). What are the identifiable themes across the categories? Such an exercise can be done individually and as a group to structure the initial discernment process. It may be helpful to distribute the full report to leaders and invite them to create a draft of the exercise separately and then compare the responses in a group setting.

Once you have clarity on the priorities for the next year, you can develop these desired outcomes into SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, Time-Sensitive.   

Setting Specific Goals

The dictionary defines specific as “clearly defined or identified.” As a noun, “specific” means “a precise detail.” That’s exactly how your goals should be; clear, defined, and detailed.

Deciding that you want to grow spiritually or that you want the congregation to become stronger disciples is good; but it isn’t specific. How exactly do you want to grow spiritually? What precisely will demonstrate that the congregation members are stronger disciples than last year?

For instance, in our sample report, we’ve already established the current level of small group participation and the percentage of church members that prayer daily with their spouse.  A specific goal might be to see the level of participation in small groups grow by 10% and a 15% increase in spouses praying together daily. These are specific items which can be focused on and evaluated on a yearly basis.

Example: “50% of our families next year will integrate spiritual formation habits into normal weekly rhythms.” The goal has a specific aim: introduce a set of habits aimed at strengthening Christian discipleship.

Setting Measurable Goals

Measurement is a means of feedback. It isn’t perfect or perfectly objective, but if done well, it provides feedback to help improve effectiveness. When we measure goals in the church, we aim to improve what we can for the sake of changed lives. We accept the limitations of what’s beyond our control and embrace the humility to learn from disappointments and setbacks.  

Measurements also help provide clarity and create alignment. We want to see people become like Jesus and experience the fullness of life He offers. What does that look like in our context? For a single mother of three children? What if something we’re putting very little energy into has a far greater impact than something consuming vast resources? Measurements help drive us to clarity and hopefully refocus programs as a means to an end rather than serve as an end in themselves.   

Example: “50% of our families next year will integrate spiritual formation habits into normal weekly rhythms.” The goal can be measured: what % of families say they integrate spiritual formation habits into weekly rhythms?

In addition to other measurement tools, beginning in year two, the Vital Impact Assessment will help you track changes over time and provide an in-depth time series analysis that compares segments of the churches and correlates activities and outcomes. Family discipleship is included in the time series analysis.  

Setting Action-oriented Goals

A quick way to assess this value is how it impacts church decision-making, especially schedules and budgets. How does this goal influence the way you manage tensions and organize priorities? Action-oriented goals move intentions into tasks.  

In the case of our example (“50% of our families next year will integrate spiritual formation habits into normal weekly rhythms.”) the action is the integration of new habits. This practice can be broken down much further into personal, interpersonal, family, and community determinants. You might identify a series of related practices and resources to support this single action. Start with the action and work backward: “What can help this new habit integrate into existing rhythms?”  

Setting Realistic Goals

In our example, we said 50% rather than 100%. If we had 20% of families last year engaging in such practices and we elevated it to a critical priority for the upcoming year, we need to find the place where faith-stretching remains a vision on the horizon. It needs to be something we can visualize. Realistic doesn’t need to equate to: “reasonable in light of present resources.” Often, God stretches us beyond such places. But if the goal is so far beyond present experience that we cannot even visualize it, the goal can lose its magnetic effect.  

Setting Time-specific Goals

Time specificity provides good accountability. Goals can be specific, measurable, action-oriented, and realistic, but if there isn’t an answer to the “when” question, the goal can easily remain a good intention. Once timelines are set, you can create a gantt chart or other scheduling model to help keep track of progress.    

“…Again, God willing.”

Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” We plan in pencil and are always open to the Lord to redirect our paths. We learn from wisdom while recognizing that God’s ways are not to be held hostage by it. Data informs us, but doesn’t drive us. All of this is a way of keeping the work of planning within the practice of prayer.