by W. Kenneth Phillips
Adult learning research shows that too often highly trained, highly motivated people, like the missionaries and church leaders we serve, are not highly motivated when it comes to sitting through training seminars.
Adult learning research shows that too often highly trained, highly motivated people, like the missionaries and church leaders we serve, are not highly motivated when it comes to sitting through training seminars. Often it’s because they haven’t had anything to say about the planning and execution of the seminar, and quite likely because they don’t see anything on the program that meets their needs. Worse, they’ll resist learning and application, unless the content specifically relates to their needs.
I would like to propose that to avoid this dead-end street, we get the participants to help in the planning stages of the training program, to detect both their real and felt needs. Of course, they should also help carry out the program and evaluate it after it’s over, find out how to improve it the next time, and how to meet their needs more adequately. However, I want to suggest some pointers about the planning stage.
To achieve everyone’s participation in the seminar’s planning, you will need to: (1) identify the growth and job-related needs of your group; (2) ask people how well they think they measure up to their tasks; (3) ask them how interested they are in learning more about the subject; (4) ask if they would attend a seminar or other program related to the need; (5) choose those things most people want to learn more about and make them the core of your program.
In Portugal we wanted to help our church leaders become more effective in their ministries. We had some ideas about what they needed because some of the leaders had come to us for help. But before we could plan anything, we neded more information. So, we decided to ask the leaders what they needed most.
To do this, we first identified the specific group of people we wanted to help. Without minimizing the value of leaders of all ages, we decided to work with those under age 45.
Then, we organized a committee representing different denominational and parachurch groups committed to ministry among young adults. From them we compiled a list of about 125 young leaders. The committee also identified our major topic as "leadership of the local church."
After that, we defined the specific kinds of jobs a person has to do to be an effective leader. Beginning with a list of books and articles on leadership, we brainstormed as a committee and with some pastors. Our list was refined to make it manageable and relevant to Portugal.
We ended up with a list of 30 jobs that fell into four broad categories: (1) the leader and his life; (2) the leader and local church work; (3) the leader and the Portuguese evangelical community; (4) the leader and Portuguese society.1
We could have stopped there, because we had identified what it means to be an effective church leader in Portugal. Needs had been identified based on the literature and our interviews with key leaders. We had done our group program analysis.2 But one of our prior decisions was to let potential participants tell us what they thought their greatest needs were. We wanted to build our program on what would help them do the jobs for which they felt least adequate and which they were interested in improving.
So, we prepared a questionnaire and sent it to the 125 potential participants for their feedback. We wanted to find out how well they thought they could do different jobs, what their interest was in learning more about the subjects, and their willingness to participate in a seminar on the subject.
QUESTIONNAIRE ON LEADERSHIP
Our questionnaire was designed to get the information we needed, but not too long to discourage responses. It included instructions, examples, and a space for suggestions about other jobs for which the person wanted help. We enclosed a cover letter about the conference and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. We received 48 responses, enough for us to take our next step.
In summarizing the responses, we found some interesting results. Somepeople did not feel as capable in jobs where wethoughtthey would. High-interest things we picked were not always priorities with them. We also would have chosen some subjects that few people showed any interest in. In short, if we had planned a conference and seminars without their participation, we would have missed some key felt needs and held seminars on subjects of little interest.
We looked for jobs we had identified in which at least half the people showed high interest and in which 80 percent indicated they wanted a seminar. Using these high percentages, we were sure that we were addressing high felt needs and interests. We were sure that seminars or conference messages built on those jobs would be attractive and useful.
To prepare our program, we applied the results of the needs assessment. The job tasks defined our problem-solving objective.
Our speakers and seminar leaders knew about our planning process. We counseled them so that their sessions could help the people reach their objectives.
Our publicity emphasized that the program was built on the needs and interests of potential participants. We sent it to 250 young leaders and 87 of them came, which was our capacity.
Afterward our keynote speaker and his wife observed, "We cannot believe how the participants faithfully showed up for the main sessions and the seminars." We explained that we had given them what they felt they needed.
Of course, our needs assessment data had many uses: (1) for our program objectives and learning experiences; (2) for periodic and final evaluation of the conference by the participants; (3) for an end-of-conference needs assessment; (4) for planning follow-up seminars and retreats; (5) for deciding our priorities in view of our time limits; (6) for responding to critics who wanted to know why we did not include certain topics or activities.
Of course, our conference wasn’t perfect and we want to improve in the future. However, our leaders felt that we had respected them as fellow workers in Portugal and that we had served them well through this continuing education program.
Are your conferences and seminars crashing? Try starting with felt and real needs. Most likely, your co-workers will respond with greater enthusiasm and will participate willingly. Best of all, chances are much greater that they will practice some new ideas and skills. All because you first respected them by asking them what they wanted to learn.
1. For a copy of the questionnaire used for the young leaders conference, or of others used to plan a church growth conference, local Christian education seminars, and a masters level graduate program, write to the author, c/o Portuguese Bible Institute, Rua do Castelo Picao, 13; Sto. Antao do Tojal; 2670 Loures, Portugal. Identify which questionnaire you want.
2. For a helpful summary of various methods of needs assessment, see M. S. Knowles, The Modern Practice of Adult Education (Chicago: Association Press, 1980).
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 288-295. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.