When I first arrived as University Pastor at Capital University, I discovered that this community valued assessment not only in the realm of student learning (what we call academic affairs), but also in student development (what we call student affairs). That includes my areas of Religious and Spiritual Life, as well as the Center for Faith and Learning. In the first days of ministry in a new place with high hopes but unclear expectations, to a young pastor with an inferiority complex, this word seemed to spell certain doom.
All too often we equate assessment with negative judgement. Perhaps that’s because we evaluate success on metrics like growth in attendance, increase in giving, or development of new programs, even if we know those metrics do not equal faithfulness or align with the ministry’s mission. If we cannot show such evidence, then someone—perhaps our boards, perhaps our supervisors, perhaps ourselves—will perceive failure. In that light, assessment seems scary. In fact, in that light, assessment IS scary.
But that problem isn’t with assessment itself. Instead, the issues lie with inexact measures, the lack of connection of assessment to mission, and an absence of transparency on who or what we are, in fact, assessing. If we can bring clarity to those issues, healthy assessment is not only possible, but an incredible help to share the import of our ministries with students and with the wider church.
Rather than an omen of disappointment, assessment can be a chance for development in and celebration of our work. Gathered below are a few insights I’ve gleaned over the past few years as I’ve seen a culture of healthy assessment create opportunities for thriving in campus ministry.
Helpful Assessment Needs Clear Goals
One of the problems we face with assessment is that goals are unclear, unstated, or not aligned with our mission. To be evaluated on unstated goals is unfair to both participants and leadership. It creates a kind of red herring that can distract from the ministry’s real purposes. So, to have effective assessment, a ministry should first define clear goals that are related to the ministry’s mission. And, if the ministry doesn’t have a clearly defined sense of mission, that needs defined too.
One helpful way to build goals is through the acronym SMART, developed by George T. Doran. SMART Goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound. Such a specific approach makes SMART Goals particularly helpful for assessment.
Clear goals also include a clear understanding of responsibility. Without assigned accountability for the goals, they can remain amorphous and disconnected from the ministry’s daily activities. Specific accountability for the goals should be assigned, whether to a staff person, a committee or task force, a trustee, a rostered leader, or a ministry participant. This way, once goals are assessed, feedback can be directed toward effective change or continued support for success.
Helpful Assessment Uses Numerical and Narrative Approaches
With a clear mission and relevant goals in mind, you can assess. But how should you assess those things? Often, we focus on quantitative assessment—that is, driven by specific measures in numbers—but that can be difficult in our vocations where our work is so often focused on development and depth rather than simple numerical growth. This doesn’t mean, however, that numerical assessment is useless. Instead, we need to be creative with those assessments.
One thing that I do for assessment is offer a survey annually for those involved in certain activities, like our PreSeminary Small Group. Then, at the end of the semester, I offer the same survey to measure the development of specific students, as well as the movement of the overall group. We use Likert Scales, which you’ve probably encountered as spectrums from 1-5 that ask you to rate how often something occurs or how clear something is. We employ Likert Scales to ask how confident students are in certain skills, like leading various parts of liturgy, as well as how clearly they understand their vocations. This allows us to see whether our programming is effective in increasing confidence in worship leadership and clarity of personal purpose, which are stated goals of the small group’s curriculum.
Beyond this numerical approach, we also invite narrative feedback. These stories can offer context for data interpretation, as well as provide valuable first-hand experiences for sharing the ministry’s development through visits with individual donors, congregations, and synods.
Helpful Assessment Shares Results Internally and Externally
Assessment is most helpful when the results are shared in ways that make a difference for the community, its programs, and its leadership. Not only does this kind of transparency increase the likelihood of trust, but it also diffuses the gossip machine that can so quickly erode investment in our ministries. So, in addition to performing assessment, make a plan for how you will share that assessment with your community through media, meetings, and worship, as well as with the wider church through publications, denominational meetings, and donor visits.
Such shared information can provide a healthy model of authenticity. For instance, last year we assessed whether our programs enabled our students to “interact knowledgeably and ethically with people and ideas from many cultures, religions, and identities,” which is a goal we share with areas across the university. In that, we found our Hinges Conference (which explores the intersection of spirituality and identity) does that work quite well, but that our PreSeminary Small Group did not, despite overall positive feedback for both programs. This led to changes in the small group’s curriculum to more intentionally engage that learning goal as we empower people to discern calls to theological education.
In this light, I see intentional assessment as a kind of stewardship. It helps our ministry to honestly evaluate our activities and our investments, both in terms of whether they’re aligned with our goals and whether they help us to achieve our goals. Rather than an experience of punishment or judgement, this has proven vital in arguing for increased investment in campus ministries and provided me with insight on how to best pursue continuing education so I can become a better leader in this context. For more information on how to incorporate assessment into your work, click here.