It’s easy to overcomplicate the whole area of strategic or mission planning, but this very powerful tool can help enervate, encourage and refocus your congregation.
There are as many forms of strategic planning as there are theories of management: some translate well to the not-for-profit sector and some translate even better to a church environment. What is important to remember is that planning is a process – not a result. The journey and who accompanies you on the journey is more important than the destination.
The starting point
Who should be involved in the planning process? The short answer is “whoever wants to be”. The long answer is: primarily the governing body (Session, Church Council, Board of Managers, Deacon’s Court), staff and key leaders initially and then moving quickly to involve and inform the whole congregation. I will refer to this collection of people as the “leadership group”.
To increase congregational ownership at an early stage, seek and gather their focused comments. This can be done in a parish-wide planning day, or through means of questionnaires that are worked on in people’s own time and then collated. This is then a resource for the leadership group.
However, to gather useful comment, church leaders, both lay and clergy, must start off the thinking process by talking about the importance of personal perceptions and views and encourage the congregation to dream the big dream of what might be possible. During worship services, in newsletters and in small groups, two or three of the following questions should be in front of people:
- What does this congregation do well? (Strengths)
- What would we like to do better? (Opportunities)
- How can we offer care and compassion to our community? (Strategy)
- What are the needs in the community around us? (Opportunities)
- What talents and resources has God gifted us with to enable us to meet these needs? (Strengths)
- What are we called to do? (Discernment of Mission)
Within this mass of data, particular themes will emerge. This is a helpful prompt to early discussion in the smaller leadership group. This group should also be working through a discernment process (see earlier post) to understand where God is calling them to be as that sets the scene even more than the views of “the people”.
The Mission answers “why?”
The Mission (I use the word here in its widest sense of “purpose”) is the first thing that the leadership group must define. If a Mission Statement exists then it should be examined and either reconfirmed or changed. Against the Mission all else will be measured and evaluated. The Mission must be honest. You can’t have a Mission that talks about bringing people to Christ if you have no deliberate strategy to do this and the very thought of talking about faith makes the congregation cringe with embarrassment. (Yes, there are some congregations like this!) In many ways this will be the hardest part of the whole process as you will have to confront the question about why your parish exists.
What would happen if you weren’t there? What unique contribution does your congregation make to God’s kingdom? Don’t settle for pious statements: examine them all for truth and honesty. Because when you evaluate your church’s achievements for the year against broad goals and specific objectives that relate to the Mission, you will always fall short of a Mission that the congregation does not commit to.
Many parishes will have amongst their number, members who are gifted in facilitating this planning process. Often the neutrality of an outsider is beneficial. Maybe someone in another parish can assist you in this way, or perhaps you utilize the skills of PressGo, or a Presbytery Mission Advisor. It doesn’t really matter if you go from defining your Mission to creating your draft Plan in one long retreat or as an adjunct to each monthly meeting – what is important is that you are progressing it.
Goals are “what” you will do to achieve your Mission
The Goals you set will answer the question “what will you do to achieve your Mission?” It is best to avoid getting too specific at this stage and also to be clear about the words you choose. For example if you choose to have a goal which relates to the environment being fostered in the church, like : “To have a culture of permission-giving”, then make sure there is a common understanding of the terminology. I have discovered that the same words can mean vastly different things to people!
Three or four broad goals are the maximum you will need – if you have more, then there is little chance you can be effective in all of them.
Objectives say “how” we will meet our goals
Management theorists make much of Objectives as it is at this level that the Mission and the goals start to intrude on our daily lives. Objectives need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound). If you have a goal which states that you will “develop, plan and implement a children’s programme” then the objectives will need to cover the following: the activities you envisage in the programme (e.g. is it just Sunday School or is it also a Holiday Programme, After-School Activities, a Pre-school Music Group or a Teenage Hangout?), how you will know that the objective is being met, how achievable the objective is (just wishful thinking, or trying to do too much too soon), whether it is realistic in terms of the resources you have at your disposal and what the time-line is. Because objectives can therefore become very wordy, I prefer to keep them relatively straightforward and they form more of a bridge between the goal and the action steps.
Action steps make things happen!
The Action Steps show us the way we can turn our plans into action. For each action plan we will say what the activity is, who is involved, when it will happen and where it will happen. At this stage of the planning process a lot of detail is required. The leadership group might chose to delegate each goal to a group that has familiarity with the specific area being covered. For example: if we take the goal I mentioned earlier concerning programmes and services targeted at children’s needs then the group working on specifics would include Sunday School teachers, Youth workers and others with a heart for children’s ministries.
Finally … we allocate resources: human, financial and informational to each Action Step. This then can form the basis of our budgeting and thus ensure that the parish income and expenditure are relevant and proportional to the goals. What I mean by proportional is where you have three goals and all expenditure is currently mainly directed to only one of the goals. If you can’t allocate the means to achieve the other two goals then maybe they either shouldn’t be there, or you need to free up resources to direct to the other goals!
But it doesn’t stop there …
The final “strategic” plan will bring all of these things together and be presented to the congregation for approval. At this time you can highlight potential new ministries, potential sources of giving, and the day to day implications of the Mission you have all agreed to.
At the end of an agreed period (usually 12 months) the leadership group should evaluate annual activity against the goals. Use the action steps as checklists – did this strategy help us achieve its relevant goal? / if not why not? / will you change it next year? / should you quit that programme? etc. The answers to these questions will then help create the objectives and action steps for the following year. In general, Mission and goals shouldn’t change very often. Objectives and their related action steps may change each year as you try things out and some work and some don’t.
Being a Mission Congregation
The process I have described to here is well accepted and will facilitate the creation of Plan that the congregation can “own” and, hopefully, commit to act in accordance with.
But what happens when you have done all of this and somehow it just doesn’t work? I think that’s the point where we have to remind ourselves that Mission is God-inspired: not a consensus decision of the congregation. While the democratic model of accepting everyone’s contribution as equal may assist in congregational “buy in” and “ownership”; it is not God’s model.
The model of the church as a human body makes this point well – some people are “eyes”, others an “arm” or a “leg”. There is no point in trying to be something that you’re not. The church is made up of individuals who have complementary gifts. Sometimes it is best to leave the planning process to those people that God has gifted with the necessary qualities of leadership, discernment, prophesy and teaching.
“More often than not, mission simply grows itself up because a small number of people – three to five – have discovered similar longings to help with a specific human hurt and hope. Growing from their longings, missional outreach blossoms and develops into a full-range mission in the community.” (Kennon Callaghan)
Through these leaders, God’s Spirit is free to take the congregation in directions that enable His Will, directions which may not be the consensus direction of the parish. The process may then provide valuable teaching on whose Mission we are serving – ours or His.
Mission then grows outwards from the heart of the congregation. Don’t try to have a ministry for all people and all purposes. Strength grows strength. As we discern the primary ministry God is inviting us to, we stay focused and confident that there will be action, not mere good intention. And that is after all what a strategic plan is all about – making things happen!