What AAR We Doing, Exactly?

My church takes part in a block party every summer. Together with partner churches and organizations, we gather at a park and spend an afternoon grilling burgers, playing games, and getting to know our neighbors better. The event was successful by nearly every metric: great turnout, new connections made, plans coming together smoothly.

And then come the backpacks.

The party always ends with distributing free backpacks and school supplies to children who need them. The process of handing out backpacks is wild and disorganized. Last-minute attempts at imposing order on the chaos get abandoned. Eventually, we just start throwing the backpacks out to the crowd, hoping everybody gets one.

"Didn’t we have this same problem last year?" Someone inevitably asks.

"Yes. It's always hectic. Year after year."

“Year after year”

Does it have to be this hectic? What if a few steps, taken immediately after the event, could help us drastically when we plan the same event next year? What if we could rid ourselves of the phrase: "Didn’t we have this same problem last year?"

Years ago, the US military saw a problem in how they assessed training exercises. Long after an exercise was completed, someone from outside the unit would judge how it went. The resulting feedback was often subjective, overly critical, inconsistent, and delivered too late for it to help the unit in future training. In response to these issues, the military created the After Action Review, helping standardize the assessment process. Rather than relying on outside observers, the AAR required that the training participants answer, immediately after the event, a few simple questions: What was supposed to happen? What happened? Why?

The change helped for several reasons. First, it encouraged greater trust and cohesion in the units since they took ownership of the assessment process. Second, the reviews were conducted quickly after the fact, when the exercise was fresh in their minds. Third, it standardized the process, meaning evaluations were less ambiguous and more consistent.

Many businesses and organizations have adopted a similar practice of using AAR's after major projects. I believe churches could benefit likewise. Church work can be fast-paced; when one big project is all wrapped up, another one is already going. On top of that: weekly worship services happen, well, weekly. It can be difficult to constructively assess how all our projects are going and how they could go better.

What was supposed to happen? What happened? Why?

Asking these questions has apparent benefits for planning future events. Had we asked them following the block party, we could have made a better plan for distributing backpacks in the future. For example, we could have grouped students by grade level or set up multiple stations, so the crowd didn’t get too large. We also could have assigned volunteers to help the children line up.

These questions can also strengthen your team. Following an event, there might be a variety of interpretations for why things happened as they did. When these interpretations are individualized and internalized, they can lead to potentially hostile group dynamics. Coming together as a team increases clarity, minimizes ambiguity, and helps create shared understanding. For this to happen, remember that the process is not about assigning blame or singling someone out; it's working toward collective meaning.

The AAR process can also be a communications tool. Having a clear, unambiguous, and unified interpretation of an event can teach us how to talk about it externally and internally. For events that get repeated, the review process can shape how we plan, advertise, and recruit for them.

When to do an AAR

Big, yearly events that involve a lot of planning and recruiting are ideal for such a process. Vacation Bible School, ministry fairs, Easter Sunday are great examples. If your church does a new member’s class, maybe include some of these new members in the AAR process and let them help the church welcome new members better. But the process doesn’t have to be for "big" events alone; it can be something to do every Sunday.

Did that last sentence make you cringe a little bit? Did the thought of a review process every single week send a little shiver down your spine? Then follow this tip: keep it simple and do it fast. When done poorly, the AAR process will be halting and debilitating. When done well, it will be insightful and energizing. The simpler you keep it—just use the three questions—the more likely it will be that you’ll actually do it.

Think your church could benefit from After Action Reviews? Have a better name for it? (because I'd like one!) Let me know in the comments.

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