by John Wimberly
As a retired pastor, there are things I miss and things I don’t. I don’t miss frantically trying to get everything ready for the post–Labor Day period, as I did for forty Augusts. In most congregations, summer is a relaxed time when committees don’t meet, the choir takes a break, and Sunday school has a bare-bones team. Organizing for fall is always challenging because so many of the people we need to talk with are still away.
In the crazy start-up period of early fall, strategic priorities easily get lost in a maze of practical, operational decisions. Who can think about our church growth strategies when we’re still not sure we’ll have enough Sunday school teachers? Who can think about new mission programs for the community when we are hustling to jump-start the current ones? Who can think about new ideas for worship when we are trying to get back into the worship groove that was successful in the spring—before so many people left for their vacations?
Every fall, it’s easy to prioritize short-term concerns at the expense of longer-term priorities. As pastors, we only have so much time. Our members only have so much time. If we don’t focus on the short term, we’ll have chaos in the fall. However, if we don’t focus on the long term, we’ll have difficulty realizing our strategic goals.
Moving into crisis mode
The crush of deadlines in the fall is symbolic of what can happen throughout the year. When fall worship and program finally are up and running, many congregations move into crisis mode over the stewardship campaign. When stewardship is done, we pour our energy into Advent and Christmas. In January, we take a deep breath and then hurry to prepare for the annual meeting. Then we move into Lent and Easter. And so it goes. (A Jewish congregation can create its own version of this typical Protestant church calendar.)
Toss on top of all of those deadlines all the unexpected things: a staff member announces her departure, a beloved member dies, a seemingly model married couple in the congregation visits the pastor to say they’re getting divorced, a teenager in the youth group gets arrested for underage drinking. How do we think and act strategically, when everything in ministry seems to be conspiring against a strategic approach?
Planning or chaos?
First, everything I am describing constitutes Reasons #1, #2 and #3, why a congregation needs a strategic plan. Without a strategic plan, the only driver in the congregation’s life will be agendas set by the calendar or personal and institutional crises. I am not saying everyone needs to hire a consultant to engage in a strategic planning process. While consultants can add value to a planning process, many congregations simply cannot afford the expense. For such congregations, Alice Mann and Gil Rendle wrote a wonderful “how to” book on strategic planning entitled Holy Conversations. It is concise and detailed. I read it when it first came out in 2003. I re-read it from time to time as a refresher. Whether or not one uses a consultant for strategic planning, every congregation needs the kind of planning process Mann and Rendle describe. Without a plan, we are adrift in the strong currents of fall startups, stewardship campaigns and major religious holidays.
Second, once completed, the plan cannot go into the pastor’s desk or a file. It must sit visibly on the pastor’s desk. Even better, write the major strategic goals on a piece of paper and tape them to your desktop monitor. Without such a prominent place, the plan will get lost in the madness of pressing agendas.
Third, the plan cannot be addressed just quarterly in the congregation’s governing council meetings. It needs attention monthly. The Council should be asking: How are we doing on our priority strategies? Has anyone heard from the team working on worship plans? If a plan isn’t addressed explicitly and regularly by a congregation’s governing council, it will definitely get overwhelmed by the current financial reports, leaky roof or crisis du jour.
In other words, it is one thing to have a strategic plan. It is another to strategically and methodically implement a plan amidst the ongoing realities of congregational life. Until we do the latter, we might as well just accept that our lives are driven by events rather than us driving events. Ritualized chaos or some degree of control? It is a question strategic planning can help us answer.