“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” This military paradox, memorably stated by President Dwight Eisenhower, is particularly salient for congregations in this moment. So much has changed, so much is changing. Planning can seem useless when we are so likely to be forced to lay our plans aside and improvise. Some say the world is changing so fast that “planning” is outmoded altogether.
Nothing about the future has ever been certain, and yet every day we act as if we knew a little bit about tomorrow. With Eisenhower, I believe that in these times we should embrace the paradox of planning. We can plan with care and passion—and also be prepared to improvise when life does not unfold according to our plans.
It helps to distinguish strategic planning from tactical planning. Boards often get frustrated when they try to do both at once. A much better approach is to plan strategically at the governing-board table and then charge the staff (including volunteers who act as staff) with choosing tactics.
Tactical planning is the kind most people are familiar with—it plots a step-by-step path from where we are to where we’re going. Tactical plans drill down to the details, making it possible to delegate work to others and evaluate progress. A tactical plan might have a headline like one of these:
- Upgrade and modernize our kitchen so it can be licensed.
- Post a Black Lives Matter sign on our front lawn.
- Offer youth ministry, both virtually and in person.
Under each of these headings would fall numerous details, such as the number of dinners to be served from the kitchen, the size and location of the sign, goals for youth participation—and of course staffing, budget, timelines, and responsibility for leading each piece of the work.
Tactical planning assumes we understand the congregation’s mission and have a pretty good idea how to achieve it. Tactical (or practical) planning often involves shoring up old ways of doing things or copying models that are working elsewhere. Innovation happens, but within clear boundaries. Most people who plan at work plan tactically.
Boards are ill-suited to plan tactically. They rarely meet more than once a month, prefer to make decisions by consensus, and include members who have little or no expertise in any given task—though of course they do have suggestions and opinions.
Boards are better suited to strategic planning—which is not to say they find it easy. A strategic board looks far down the horizon and says, “This is how we’re called to change lives over the next two to five years.” The board may talk about various ways the plan might be achieved, but they wisely leave details out of the plan because they know the world is changing too fast for detailed plans to last long. The board articulates its strategies at a fairly high level of abstraction.
For example, a board’s strategies might say,
- Our building will become a center of hospitality for our neighbors, hosting gatherings for food, friendship, shared learning, and action.
- Our congregation will become a public ally for Black people, joining with their struggle for justice.
- We will follow young people where they are, creating spaces online and in person where they can grow with us in faith.
Strategic plans are less abstract than mission or “ends” statements, which are meant to capture the congregation’s lasting purposes. But they are more abstract than tactical plans, which a strategic board insistently omits. Strategies express the congregation’s choices about what parts of its mission it will prioritize, leaving tactical questions open to be addressed by others. Strategies guide leaders as they plan budgets, staffing, and capital projects, even when those plans take forms no one foresaw.
One way governing boards get stuck is by trying to make both kinds of plans at the same time. They spend time talking about YouTube versus Zoom, big signs versus small, and reminiscing about favorite youth programs of the past. In the process, they fail to state key matters of priority and value, leaving it to the tech team to determine (for example) whether the church should welcome people with impaired hearing into worship or not.
Strategic plans name priorities, authorize learning and innovation, and point to a process of trial and error, problem solving, and consensus building. One sign of an ambitious strategy is that someone objects, “How do we know that this is even possible?” or “This is just a pipe dream. We could never afford it.”
It’s true, of course—as Eisenhower knew—that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Even in the relatively peaceful realm of faith communities, implementing plans is a more a matter of improvisation than of following a script.
How can we prepare to improvise? First, by taking care of one another and ourselves. We improvise most nimbly when we’re healthy and relaxed. We can prepare by learning from our own and others’ failures and successes in the past. This is true even when the world has changed in ways that make us wonder whether we know what communities of faith should look like anymore. And we prepare by daring to raise up strategic plans.
The solution to the paradox of planning in a time of change, I think, is to embrace both the necessity of planning and the certainty that plans must change. Wise leaders practice planning—both tactical and strategic—all the time. They keep the two processes separate enough that neither weighs the other down, but also connected so that each informs the other. Perhaps most importantly, wise leaders keep a sense of humor about themselves, so they’ll be ready when it’s time for plans to change.
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.