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Program Planning:
An Original Model for Planning Educational Activities in the Church

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA 


There is a mass of literature on planning in adult education, but little that is specifically directed to churches (Harton, 1986). This is somewhat odd since churches continually plan programs for adults as well as children and youth. Beatty and Hayes (1991) have said,

Those in leadership positions in the field of adult religious education should take as one of their greatest challenges the facilitating, among their lay leaders, of greater awareness of and greater skills in program planning. Without such knowledge and skills, adult religious education will remain largely institution driven rather than participant driven. A learner-centered, systematic approach to design, implementation, and evaluation of adult religious education programs should not only enhance motivation and participation but should also impact more positively the lives of the members and the entire congregation. (p. 406)
Many models not aimed directly churches will have relevant points of application. However, there are some significant differences between churches and other agencies which serve adults in an educational function. The differences are important, especially as they touch on the mission of the organization. The particular differences which I have recognized are as follows:

(1) The church is a voluntary organization. Since this is so, certain expectations which apply to employees are irrelevant. When there are high expectations the church staff often end up doing the labor, due to the time and energy constraints of members.

(2) The church has a mission which incorporates education but is broader than education. I think that the church's function is largely education from the Sunday morning programs such as Sunday school, the sermon and even the worship aspects of the service. Nonetheless, all of its activities for adults involve an important element of relationship which is not specifically educational.

(3) The church has a specific authority structure. While the specific polity of the Christian church has been long under dispute, from the episcopal, papal, Presbyterian, and congregational systems, our particular fellowship functions with a modified Presbyterian system known as elder- rule. The clearest indication of our prescription and ideal is found in the following passage.

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (I Peter 5:1-4)

This does affect planning since the elders of the church must lead the congregation. Actually, it places a high level of responsibility for planning on the elders.

(4) Churches are not among those agencies known for sudden change. Generally, a specific tradition is established and rarely challenged or changed. In the context of planning, practically speaking, one must have an overwhelming reason to do something different than has been done in the past, preferably a divine revelation complete with an audible voice from the clouds. Actually, our church is more flexible since it has been organized for only about 12 years. Nevertheless, it remains the case that if something has been done for a few years it may very well become canonized.

(5) Theoretically, if needs are present and resources are available, there is no reason to not meet the needs. In the case of churches, however, there is a normative standard which guides the planning of programs. In a word, it must be a valid activity according the Scripture. This is somewhat problematic since the Bible is a few thousand years away from us in culture, space and time. When a Christian desires to do things in accordance with Scripture, what is meant is that those normative principles within the Bible are to be followed.

In order to do this (1) the text of the Bible must be understood as given, (2) those things which are timeless principles are to be recognized (3) identification with contemporary application is to be made.

When an activity is a good one for the church, needs is a necessary prerequisite for a successful program. Assessing the needs of individuals to plan programs is such a broad topic that it is not within the scope of this paper. However, in the Tools for Planning Programs section of this project, I have developed some surveys and questionnaires which will aid in fine tuning the purposes of a program, if not guide the entire goal of a program.

Nonetheless, many principles apply from various planning models which are not directly aimed at churches. The most important reason for me to work on a planning model is to implement the theory in hopes of improving the adult education programs in our church. Similarly, Sork and Caffarella (1991) make the issue clear.

It seems to us that there are shortcomings in the planning literature that need to be addressed. Building a theory that takes into account the exigencies of day-to-day responsibilities of practitioners will require a collaboration between scholars and practitioners that is much closer than is usually found in adult education. Reflective practice, as described by Schon (1983), should reveal the major discrepancies. Scholars, working with practitioners, can then go to work refining theory so that it takes into consideration the contextual factors that affect planning. (p. 243)


My aim in writing this is to design a planning model to our church and its activities. In this process I hope to produce a document which may serve various individuals in planning a wide variety of activities and especially those which have a stated educational function for adults.


A biblical church should be driven "to be disciples and to make disciples" (Matthew 28:18-20) and founded on the Scriptural components of a New Testament Church (Appendix). In this way our services and programs are regulated by the Scriptures. "The regulative principle of worship states that true worship includes only that which has biblical warrant. Explicit or implicit biblical support must be found for all that forms a part of worship (as contrasted with a circumstance of worship)" (Engle, 1982, p. 77). In New Testament terms we have a Scriptural "regulative principle" directed specifically to the assembly or worship service. "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthian 14:26).

In the assembly of the church on Sunday, this principle is to guide the activities of the church. However, we may broaden the purpose of the activities of the church aside from the worship service (e.g., the other educational ministries) to include that which fits within a Christian world view. While regulating our Sunday assembly to that which is explicitly biblical, or at least giving such things the priority, we should plan programs which include everything that fits within the church's goals. The goals are theology developed into a philosophy of ministry and shaped into policy. This goes beyond what we are commanded to do in the assembly but does not go beyond the absolutes of the will of God as communicated in the whole of Scripture.

For example, although the Scripture does not explicitly command us to train teachers of adults in the assembly but it does give precedent and command to do it otherwise (Acts 17; Matthew 28:19-20; II Timothy 2:2).

Thus to summarize the relevant purposes of our church in program planning, we must develop educational activities which fit within the Christian world view and which are supported by biblical examples, commands, or deduced from biblical precepts. An outline of these things have been summarized in the goals of the appendix.


I tend to think in priority and chronological terms. The model that I will sketch is chronological and moves in a certain scheme of priorities. One of my goals for this discussion is to help the members of our congregation understand planning better. I will consider this project successful if I can hand this section of the paper to an individual and it helps illuminate a process and pattern for planning.

There are three phases to planning: (1) the approval stage (2) the development stage and (3) the implementation stage.

(1) The approval stage is that time during the inception of an idea for an educational program. The goal of this stage is to gain full approval and support for the program. The approval is not only to come from the leadership of the church but it must be approved by the congregation. This is not to say that every individual in the congregation is to vote on the educational activity, but simply that enough support from members of the congregation is evident that the support can be taken as representative.

(2) The development stage is that time in which a program's particulars are considered. While a fairly good notion of the program is necessary for widespread support (the goal of the first stage) this could be known only in generalities. The development stage means every detail is to be considered in preparation for the last stage. This stage involves a great deal of the work in planning.

(3) The implementation stage is the time for the curtain to be raised. Prior to this time, in the best instance, all has been worked out. Now the instructors, participants and all involved participate in the event. All the planning comes to fruition. Some kind of final evaluation is to be the conclusion of this stage.

Now that I've sketched the basic flow of the planning model, I want to discuss the specifics under each stage. These specifics are applicable to our church as it is at present. There are certain factors which could change the implementation of this model. However, since I aim for this to be a practical model, I will apply this model to our current setting.


During the approval stage the highest priority is to get approval and support from the elder body of the church. Without their support the program will not gain full acceptance which will result in failure. Several important means for this may be considered. (1) Informal presentation is what I call any proposal not written but is made to the elders in a meeting. Many programs gain support in this method. It is the easiest means, especially in the case of status quo programs. However, the cautions range from miscommunication to inefficiency, as well as the situation where because of the presenter making the proposal or the dynamics of that particular meeting, acceptance remains to be gained. (2) Formal presentation is a term that I have chosen to summarize methods of proposing a program which are given through media such as handouts, booklets, transparencies, etc. These proposals require effort and energy of the part of the presenter. Since this is so, it becomes in some ways a more serious proposal. The cautions are that a formal presentation may incline those listening negatively because they feel as though they are going to pressured into approving or sponsoring something. (3) Leadership delegation is the term which I want to use to capture the idea of getting an elder or other leader to promote an idea for you. An example of this (unplanned, by the way) is that I had an idea to propose financial support for a particular vocational Christian worker. In the meeting of the elders, the pastor actually proposed the support. He acted as a delegate to propose something that I wanted. This kind of proposal is important but will in the next step take the form of one of the other two (formal presentation or informal presentation). When an individual feels shy or does not feel comfortable making a formal presentation this may be a good means.

In my reflection these are the basic components of gaining elder approval in the first stage. There is more that must be done. In the spirit of andragogy (the education of adults as distinct from children), one of the most important things to be done is gain the support of the participants in the program, the people for whom the program is designed (Knowles, 1980, p. 75). The more participation in planning the more ownership of the program will result. This kind of participation will factor heavily into the program's success. There are certain means of gaining this sort of support as well. Recognize the most natural participants in the program and seek to gain their support. This is the easiest support to gain. If a theological debate is being planned seek to involve those in the congregation who are motivated in this direction. An example that comes to mind currently is the Advent musical drama. I desired to see it supported. I sought out those who would best fit the parts and perform the music. The individuals committed to the program were the most natural participants in the performance of it. In this way a group of individuals who are significant in the congregation can give support to a program and be involved in the second stage, development.

During this stage the basic assessment of the needs of the learners in a program, whether it be the entire church or a select group must at least be supposed. From an indication of a need, the basic thrust of the purpose of the program must be developed. As I indicated earlier, a church can easily fall into a rut of doing only what has been done in the past, aside from the needs of the congregation and the community. For example, if there were a great need for literacy skills in a congregation, and this need was evident through a formal needs assessment of some sort, ideally the church should plan a program to meet this need. Since, however, there is no precedent for such a program, it may not have the kind of immediate support that bi- monthly ice cream social might have (this is a hypothetical example) simply because of the status quo mentality. Someone has called this the seven last words of the church, "we've never done it that way before."

In my experience, the best way to insure the greatest amount of success is the gradual development of programs which fit goals developed both normatively from Scripture and descriptively from needs assessment into familiar programs. The event should be justified from Scripture, identified in the congregation or community and standardized in familiar programs, althought the latter is, of course, not always possible. For example, in a church in which the adult Sunday school curriculum is divided into different classes, it is not difficult to begin another class on a different topic or segregate men from women or younger adults from older adults, etc.


The development stage is the second stage of program planning in which a program's particulars are considered. The details of the program must be considered in this time. The are some important ways of planning during this time. Again, in the spirit of andragogy, a key strategy in the development stage is to get those who will be benefiting from the program to plan (Knowles, 1980). This can be done in several ways, the most popular of which being a committee structure. A committee structure can give organization and purpose to groups in the planning process. The best situation is when a committee somewhat naturally develops and individuals take up responsibilities within their basic abilities and spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4; I Peter 4). This is, however, idealistic and not realistic. If such a situation occurs, there is still a need for clear definition and role responsibilities within the groups. A good policy is to establish a precedent of a committee to plan a program. This can be illustrated with our annual missions conference. In the past a committee met together over a series of months and weeks to plan the three or four day long conference. Various individuals made contributions and there was genuine growth in the planning of the conference.

One of the most helpful processes which I have learned in my experience which applies to planning is the skill of problem-solving through brainstorming. I was probably first exposed to this in a learning setting a King's Arrow Ranch Leadership Training Camp. The program which we were led through was developed by the armed forces initially and revised for that setting which trained camp counselors. One of the components of the training, a very impressive one, was developing a problem-solving method. This process stuck in my mind under the title "brainstorming." The method is as follows:

(1) Define the problem clearly.

(2) Consider as many possible solutions as you can (brainstorm).

(3) Choose the best possible solution.

(4) Develop an implementation strategy to solve the problem.

In some ways this is a micro-program planning model. I am using it here to mean a function within the development stage. When a need becomes evident this problem-solving method can move a group or even an individual to the next step in the planning process. This process is one which when considered is somewhat simple. It does, however, escape many of us when a stressful time is at hand.

Aside from preparing for what will be done during the educational program, the development stage is a time when some things are practically done. The budget, the educational materials, many of the logistics, and all the instructional preparation must be done during this stage, and most likely, many other things too. Therefore, this stage involves planning for tomorrow and doing specific tasks today. The committee structure is very significant in actually accomplishing the work. Delegation of responsibility must be a major part of the accomplishment of the tasks. A committee could be organized in a number of ways. The following is a suggestion for a standard planning committee:

Chairman: all decisions of any consequence must go through him or her; he or she has direct contact with the church leaders who can advise toward funds or facilities, etc.

Co-chairman: this person functions as an assistant to the chairman.

Secretary: takes notes on the meeting; keeps track of any written records; is usually designated responsibilities such as mailing, calling, and calling; and is available for general clerical work;Promotional manager: is responsible for planning and implementing the basic promotion and is able to delegate to others tasks in connection with promotion.

Logistics manager: is responsible to carry out all arrangements in relationship to the facilities (this would include decorations; they could be delegated), parking, and setup.

Instructional manager: is responsible for making certain the teaching and learning activities function well through curriculum, instructors, instructional aids, leaders, and facilities. In certain situations this person might be the teacher or facilitator.

This committee structure could be altered but certain components probably must be there. A chairman is almost a non-negotiable in a committee. A secretary is probably second in importance. I think it is obvious as to why I have chosen the others but there could be others or several of these roles could be combined. For example if decorations or a meal were an important part of the program, a person could be delegated those responsibilities or the could be actually added to the committee.


During the final stage of program planning, the implementation stage, all the previous work is put on the stage and the curtain is opened. If all the work prior to this time was effective then success in imminent. But as the adage goes, "failing to plan is planning to fail," the spotlight will show the blemishes in planning. The instructors and participants carry out the educational activity.

The most important thing from spiritual perspective is that culmination of all the planning becomes a means of edification of the church. This is best facilitated by joyful individuals who display confidence that what is about to take place will minister to the congregation. Further, whatever takes place in the educational event (or series of events) those involved should be given gratitude and encouragement. This is because of the volunteer nature of the church and because of New Testament commandments such as the following--and about 20 other passages: "And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you " (Ephesians 4:32). "And the Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged" (II Timothy 2:24). The principles of love, respect, and kindness in the Scripture teach us that if mistakes are made in such a setting, there is no good reason to offend an individual, especially at the time of the program. All of the constructive evaluation and critique will come out in the final evaluation. Even then, the only purpose it serves is to sharpen individuals and to improve future programs. The Bible has a very applicable command at this point. "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29).

One safeguard to planning during implementation is to be certain that a person is in charge during an event. When questions arise this individual can be present and guide accidents away from happening. A person gifted in leadership should be present to help any unforeseen difficulties through to a positive conclusion.

Finally, evaluation should be considered and planned during the second stage. If a response kind of evaluation is to be done by the participants/learners it should be ready by the conclusion. This kind of evaluation is good if it is short (see Tools for Planning). It can be used to for future planning especially. Another kind of evaluation can be constructed prior to the implementation stage for the a sample of the learners or the planners to guide the final arrangements of planning. This could be done informally by brief interviews or as a group. Essentially, this kind of formative evaluation, is what is taking place throughout the first two stages, but to make a concerted effort to gather input is a good means of planning.

The important motivation that the church has for planning adult education programs is to bring these individuals to maturity in Christ. "And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me" (Colossians 1:29).


Beatty, P. T. and Hayes, M. J. (1991). Religious Institutions. In S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 397-409). San Francisco and Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Engle, P. (1982). Discovering the fulness of worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Great Commission Pub.

Harton, R. M. (1986). Program planning models for adult Christian education. In J. M. Stubblefield (Ed.), A Church ministering to adults (pp. 144-161). Nashville: Broadman Press.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Sork, T. J. and Cafferella, R. S. (1991). Planning programs for adults. In S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 233-245). San Francisco and Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1987, 1988, The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.