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It's Time to Perform an Autopsy on Your Church

Ok, calm down. I'm not saying your church is dead. What I'm really suggesting is that you leverage this time to do a strategic analysis of why the last few weeks didn't go as well as they could have.

(or Why a New Idea Isn't Enough)


Ok, calm down. I'm not saying your church is dead. What I'm really suggesting is that you leverage this time to do a strategic analysis of why the last few weeks didn't go as well as they could have. Even if you've found yourself in a place where "church" is thriving, there were some small (or perhaps quite large) bumps along the way.


Knowing WHY is important.


And with the growing prospect of this "blizzard" of change turning into a longer season of "winter," it is critical to have clarity on what went wrong before you try to rebuild it right.


Our tendency is to want to rush into new ideas. We believe all we need is more knowledge, more information. And perhaps, if we can just do what (fill in the blank) is doing, everything will be fine.


In my work at Leadership Network with some of the most creative church leaders in North America, I spent more than 12 years reminding them of the same thing: knowledge is only the first step on the long path to strategic change. And if we fall in love with ideas too quickly, we run the risk of making inferior decisions that will lead to limited results.


Ideas these days are a dime-a-dozen. What leaders really need to invest in is understanding. You can't make the best decisions and take effective action without a clear understanding of what is happening/has happened with your church model and why.


As this winter of change drags on, put in the work now to bolster your understanding, and you'll make better decisions that lead to lasting results. And perhaps you'll emerge from all of this with a stronger, more robust church model than before.


Back to the autopsy.


A simple, yet often profound exercise you can do with your team (whoever that may be) is to conduct a post-mortem on your church model (you can download Effective Post-Mortem Tips by clicking here). At Leadership Network, we ran similar exercises with church leaders participating in our various groups, usually future-casting a new tactic or strategy they were considering. The idea was to assume catastrophic failure (which is always fun) and to evaluate why that failure happened. And even though their answers were based on likelihood rather than actual facts and data, the insights gained were no less revealing.


Good news: you don't have to take a guess at what might happen and where things might break. You have lived through some degree of failure, and the memory is fresh. Leverage that before it fades. Here's how:


  1. Decide one specific area to do an autopsy on. This is a great option for pre-work, simply asking everyone to complete a brief online survey listing things that didn't work the past few weeks. You can also involve other stakeholders in this part of the process to get a broader perspective. Once you've collected and consolidated all the responses, either choose the most common area mentioned or conduct a second survey allowing the team to vote on their top priorities. People are more invested in things they help build, so get them engaged in building the agenda from the start.
  2. Decide on your session outcomes. If you just want to identify key issues for later problem-solving sessions, plan for a shorter session. If you are planning to drive toward solutions and action steps, prepare for a longer session. Either way, set clear expectations from the start and reinforce your objectives along the way.
  3. Provide a brief overview of the topic for discussion, including any relevant information or data that is helpful. Start your time together by level-setting the room, making sure everyone understands the desired outcomes for your time. This can also be done pre-session, allowing for clarifying questions when you begin. Consider posting a quick video overview along with an explanation of what you want everyone to do to prepare for the session. Whether in person or on video, this should be no more than 5 minutes.
  4. Give everyone a few minutes to capture their observations of what went wrong. If you are doing this in person (with appropriate social distancing), have participants capture thoughts on sticky notes, one thought per sticky. Then have each person present their stickies without commentary. If any clarifying questions need to be asked, allow time for that. If you're doing this virtually, enlist a scribe to capture notes and arrange them on an on-camera board or wall. (HINT: you'll need to use large stickies and large, clear print to be seen well on camera. Test it out beforehand so you don't frustrate your team.)
  5. Group stickies into columns of similar responses, giving each column a heading that summarizes the responses. This should be done quickly and without lengthy discussion. You can choose to have the teamwork silently to accomplish this.
  6. Review each of the summary statements and ask for feedback from the team. What do they observe? What is surprising? What's missing?
  7. Reframe each column summary as "How might we…?" (HMW) statements. This step will set you up for problem-solving later on. Use the simple format "How might we (objective) so that (outcome)?" For instance, if your area of focus is small groups and one of your column summaries is "Our leaders need more care," your HMW statement could be "How might we provide additional care for our small group leaders so that they are refreshed and better able to meet the needs of their group members?”
  8. Prioritize HMW statements for strategizing. Before you wrap up the session (or move on to the solutions phase), get feedback on which questions the team feels are most important to answer first. As a general rule of thumb, give each team member half the number of votes as there are questions to be answered. So if there are 5-6 questions, give each person 3 votes. You can use checkmarks, sticky dots, or text in voting to get the job done.

This process can be used to identify issues and set up the move toward solutions for almost any challenge you have faced over the past few weeks. The more of these you do, the better you'll become. This is an opportunity that, as a leader, you don't want to slip by.


Need some help processing issues and developing strategies for your biggest challenge? We are hosting "tuition optional" virtual strategy groups to help church leaders move from surviving virtual church to thriving as a virtual church. Click here to learn more about our Virtual Strategy Labs.




Tim Nations

Tim Nations

Tim Nations serves as our Lead Church Coach at Chemistry. He most recently served as the Director of Facilitation and Leadership Community Director at Leadership Network. Tim has served in full-time ministry in churches across the north Texas area for over 15 years. He brings with him broad experience in communication, organization, planning, and facilitation.

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