Strategic planning: in some congregations it’s the “go-to” solution whenever leaders feel stuck. We need to grow. We want more families with young children. We don’t know what to do next. Let’s plan! But strategic planning is usually a poor choice for getting unstuck. It takes a lot of time and energy—and in many cases postpones action when action is most needed.
What is strategic planning, anyway? Strategic planning is a process leading to a clear and documented statement of direction for your congregation. It begins with assessing where you are and where you are currently going. It also looks outward at the context in which you do ministry. Along the way, you grapple with big questions: Who are we? Who do we serve? What do we stand for? What is God calling us to do or become next? The strategic plan declares your mission, vision, and values and lays out the long-term goals and the action plans needed to fulfill them.
A well-formulated strategic plan can take up to a year to complete in a volunteer organization. A good plan may be worth the investment of time and energy because it helps to clarify the difference you are trying to make in the world and helps you to prioritize where to invest limited resources.
However, strategic planning isn’t the right thing to do in every situation. A hasty or poorly formed strategic plan is a waste of time and resources. A well-formed plan that isn’t executed is also a waste. And at times, action is more important than planning.
What are the Right Conditions?
Strategic plans are effective under certain conditions. When these conditions don’t exist, it is better to do shorter-term planning or take more direct action. Strategic planning works well when:
- There is already momentum and energy in the congregation. Strategic planning is a good tool to help a congregation gain focus when there are too many ideas and not enough resources to pursue them all. Planning helps to sort through and prioritize competing purposes.
But when a congregation lacks momentum, planning rarely makes a difference. Leaders do not suddenly become innovative when they haven’t been before, simply because they undertake a planning process. If you can’t imagine how to attract young people into your congregation before you start planning, the planning process probably won’t help you figure out how to attract them.
- Senior clergy leadership is stable and engaged. Long-term planning isn’t effective in the first year of a new pastorate. The new leader needs to learn about the congregation. There is important work to do in the first year of a ministry but generating a strategic plan is not on the short list.
Similarly, congregations anticipating a pastoral transition should not engage in strategic planning. Too many leaders say, “I don’t know if I have the energy to lead the next chapter. Strategic planning will help me figure out if I’m the right leader for what comes next.” Such leaders often decide to leave as a result of the planning dialogue. Leaving the congregation with a newly minted plan that won’t get executed is a mistake. No new leader wants to inherit a plan formed by a tired and uncommitted leader.
- Leaders feel spacious with their time and energy. Long-term planning takes focused effort on the part of both staff and laity. Active experimentation often grinds to a halt during planning simply because leaders are absorbed by their planning tasks. Also, no one wants to start something that may contradict the emerging plan. If there are crises afoot that demand action now, don’t start a strategic planning process!
What Might We Do Instead?
The time may not be right for strategic planning, but that doesn’t mean you have to remain stuck. You can pursue other leadership actions to create momentum:
- Make a strategic adjustment. Change your day-to-day tactical approach to an existing strategy. Incremental improvements can help fine-tune current strategies and structures and infuse new energy at the same time.
First Church revitalized its commitment to youth ministry by forming an alliance with three neighboring congregations. Separately, each youth program had foundered. The newly combined group energizes youth and parents.
- Claim a strategic reorientation. Work with leaders to alter one of your existing strategies, or layer in a new strategy to complement your current efforts. This form of intermediate planning doesn’t require the lengthy self-study of traditional strategic planning, but can inspire new commitment.
Community Church has been involved with ministry to the homeless for decades, maintaining a food pantry and participating in an annual warming shelter. This year, leaders decided to ramp up their efforts by also advocating on behalf of the homeless. The congregation became active in a local coalition, and members trained in tactics to influence their legislators.
- Create a disturbance. Our typical leadership impulse is to maintain the status quo. Instead, imagine how you might productively destabilize a structure or process to encourage adaptation. If no one volunteers to lead a committee, let the committee lie dormant for a season and see what emerges in its place.
- Conduct a series of small experiments. Formulate some low-risk experiments that leaders might learn from. Plan and execute the experiments quickly and see what happens. Orchestrate random encounters between people in the congregation who don’t normally work together, and see what those encounters produce.
- Fail faster. Failure is an opportunity, but only if we stick with failure long enough to learn from it. Don’t sweep failed efforts under the rug. Celebrate them as a sign that you are one step closer to discovering what is possible. Don’t keep repeating things that no longer work. Instead, change something and try again.
Strategic plans are meant to guide stable organizations through long periods of adaptation. In seasons of disruption and disorientation, other leadership approaches are more appropriate to spur adaptation. Instead of planning, act now and see what you can learn on the go.
Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.