How long does it take to know whether a new ministry is effective?

Three years to get the initiative properly established and aligned. Seven years to start seeing signs of its influence. Fifteen years to see the full flourishing of the work.

The participants in Foundations of Christian Leadership did not like my answer.

They lead services offered by Christian institutions. Frequently, these denominations, seminaries, missions agencies and large congregations are under great financial stress. Their supporters want to see immediate results; their critics accuse them of being all talk and no action.

Yet if leaders give in to supporters’ or critics’ short-term thinking, we end up focusing our evaluation on the day-to-day work. We end up spending more time counting how many events we’ve held or meals we’ve served. We end up being micromanaged, with supporters and critics telling us how to do the work, without a clear picture whether anything we’ve done is transformative.

It may not be satisfying in the short term, but a more constructive focus is on impact. Leaders should focus conversation on these guiding questions: What is the impact that the ministry is aiming to make? How will we measure the impact, both the early and long-term signs?

For example, some congregations and their denominations focus on the transformation of individuals, or making disciples. How might we measure that? We might describe the traits of a transformed life, such as being generous, compassionate, humble and dedicated. A number of activities could form these traits and qualities in individuals. The particular ministry activities might change over time, but the impact of the ministry will be something more durable.

In the first three years of a ministry, leaders make all sorts of adjustments in activities, because the targeted constituency is not attending or people are not motivated to follow through. Once people are participating, it takes time to know whether the activity is really making a difference in people’s lives. Three years is enough time to get the activities right, but seeing the impact takes several years longer.

After seven years, the activities have taken root and the impact becomes visible. Seven years is also a natural turning point in the tenure of a leader. It is a natural time to examine the work and renew one’s commitment to it or find the next challenge.

A few years after Leadership Education at Duke Divinity was established, I had a conversation with a military strategist, retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik. He asked me about the impact of the ministry. I fumbled around with a response, and he finally stopped me. He said that after three years, he would not anticipate much of an impact. Anything worth doing requires 15 years of work, he said. Not long afterward, business strategist Roger Martin similarly said that his work at Procter & Gamble required 15 years to see the full impact.

Fifteen years is the long view that institutions should use in evaluation. Most of us don’t serve in a specific role over that many years. Yet anything we attempt that affects the culture of an organization takes more than a generation of leadership to implement.

When Dubik mentioned 15 years, I asked him how long he had held a given assignment in the U.S. Army. His answer? Three years. He kept a 15-year horizon in view, and he did what he could to advance the work for his three years.

Last month, I met with a recent seminary graduate who had been tasked with founding a church within a church. She asked me what she should measure. She had asked the leaders of the sponsoring congregation and officials from the denomination, and no one would answer the question. Really? No one would even attempt to envision the impact this new congregation should have? The pastor was right to be nervous about the situation. Yet the lack of clarity is very common.

Occasionally, I meet leaders who are frustrated in their work with foundations, denominations and other funders. Typically, these leaders don’t want “the money people” telling them what to do. They argue that the leaders are the ones with the experience to decide the best course of action. I answer that one of the most effective ways to work in partnership with funders is to focus the conversation on impact and connect that impact to a vision for a flourishing life that can be available for all.

Most reasonable people realize that the impact takes time. Setting expectations for measurable progress in three-, seven- and 15-year periods can help focus the conversation with supporters and critics to be most fruitful.