Strategic planning is a tried and true method for moving organizations forward to achieve goals and realize expectations. In recent years, many good resources have become available that adapt certain strategic planning processes to the Church environment. Many of these are very well done and have a wealth of information every pastor and church leader should assimilate. Yet, if you read all of the books and resources available on this topic, you might come away more confused about strategic planning than when you started. I want to try to simplify the process for you. Before I do, I want to answer a basic question.
Is Strategic Planning Biblical?
You might be tempted to think strategic planning for the Church is nothing more than adopting the world’s business practices and is not biblical. I’ve had church leaders in the past object to approaching local church ministry with a strategic mindset. Some have used verses like 1 Corinthians 3:19 as a proof-text to suggest that strategic thinking mirrors “worldly” methods in the Church because the “wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” The context of Paul’s discussion is the divisions in the Corinthian church that centered around certain personalities. He wasn’t establishing a general maxim that disallows all secular methodologies in church ministry; much less disavowing strategic thinking.
Does God not want churches to think and plan strategically? Does setting up a strategic plan nullify faith and trust in God and elevate our plans above His? The simple answer is no, it doesn’t. Let’s look at a few examples of God-ordained leaders using strategic planning in ministering to God’s people.
Jethro was a strategic thinker who advised Moses to not only think strategically, but put a strategic plan in place to advance the plan of God. Having observed that his son-in-law was struggling to lead God’s people effectively, Jethro taught Moses how to set up a strategic plan of delegation that involved others to govern and lead God’s people. God blessed this plan in a way that eased Moses’ stress and allowed Israel’s resources to be used more effectively to accomplish her God-given mission.
Moses, himself, was a trained tactician who used strategic planning to spy out the land of Canaan. He gave the spies specific instructions and a plan to follow. While not all of the spies returned with the same reports, they did all return safely and with an accomplished mission.
Joshua, one of the 12 spies Moses sent into Canaan and his successor, spent 40 years planning his conquest strategy of Canaan. He used a simple, but effective plan to take a ragtag band of untrained and lightly armed refugees from Egypt to invade Canaan and defeat 31 kings with walled and fortified cities and heavily armed and well-trained militaries. He first invaded Canaan and secured the cities of Jericho and Ai; giving him a foothold and base of operations in the central spine of Canaan and dividing the north and south from each other. Rather than head north to coalition of kings around Galilee, or over the mountains to the heavily fortified Philistines with their chariots and state-of-the-art iron hardware, Joshua attached Canaan’s spine – the southern cities of the Judean hills. The hill country allowed a lightly armed strike force to maneuver easily where heavy warriors and chariots were ineffective. This advantage allowed him to defeat 5 kings at Gibeon before turning south to round up stragglers and siege various cities. Joshua’s strategic plan allowed him to solidify his hold on the bulk of Canaan while gathering supplies to head north and defeat the coalition of kings at Merom and Hazor.
Nehemiah was a master at strategic planning. Upon hearing that Jerusalem’s walls were still broken down after so many years, his heart was touched to rebuild Israel’s capital. Yet, he did not merely run to Artaxerxes without a plan and beg for help. Nehemiah formulated a plan before he ever addressed the king. When Nehemiah was allowed to leave Persia for Jerusalem, he was well supplied with materials and laborers by the king. It would surprise me if Nehemiah had not carefully estimated what it would take to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gave the king a list before he left. Upon arriving in the broken Jerusalem, Nehemiah carefully assessed the damage, planned the wisest use of his resources, enlisted leaders and laborers, distributed assignments, and strategically went about the work with immense success.
The Apostle Paul approached ministry from a strategic mindset. After a successful initial missionary endeavor with Barnabas, Acts 15 says that Paul devised a plan whereby he and Barnabas would return to those same churches to see how they fared and advance the gospel even more so throughout Asia Minor. While the initial plan had to be modified with Silas replacing Barnabas, Paul still followed his strategic plan. It’s interesting to note that the execution of Paul’s strategic plan was always subject to Divine intervention (cf. Acts 16:7), but that does not mean he did not approach ministry haphazardly. He devised a strategic plan, moved to advance that plan, and allowed God to redirect and adjust as needed.
From these examples, we should be able to safely say that strategic planning is in no way unbiblical, but on the contrary, God expects us to use our minds, establish plans, move to execute those plans effectively and successfully; always allowing for Divine intervention and redirection.
How Do Devise a Strategic Plan?
Before overviewing the How to of strategic planning, it’s imperative to note that every facet of the process must be bathed in prayer. No plan to advance Christ’s mission will ever be successful without His leading and blessing. Start with prayer. Continue in prayer. That said, developing a good and God-honoring strategic plan is a four-phased process that takes a lot of work and collaboration among the leaders and people whom they lead.
Phase 1 – Ministry Analysis
The initial phase in ministry strategic planning is a discovery phase that involves several steps.
- Determine where the ministry/church is in its life cycle. Is it just beginning, plateaued, in a revitalization phase, or declining?
- Review the ministry’s/church’s current mission and vision. If no mission or vision exists, then significant time and effort should be given to crafting them. If they do exist, they should be examined for clarity, applicability, and adjusted as needed.
- Analyze every facet of the ministry’s/church’s functions to determine specifically how each contributes to the successful accomplishment of its mission and vision. If a function does not advance the mission/vision can it be realigned/retooled? If not, remove it. If so, is it viable and sustainable?
- Determine the ministry’s/church’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Yes, I’m talking about a tried and true SWOT analysis!
- Analyze the ministry’s/church’s current fiscal situation. Are current ministry needs being met? Is a there a history of fiscal shortfall or abundance?
- Analyze job descriptions for each component of personnel. Do they align with the mission/vision of the organization? Do they accurately represent the current expectations of the position? Are they flexible enough to allow for creativity and growth in the position?
Phase 2 – Stakeholder Analysis
Every ministry/local church has stakeholders. Ministry/church stakeholders include staff, ministry leaders, donors, and volunteers. Because most evangelical ministries and churches are a hybrid of paid staff and volunteers, accurately analyzing the thoughts, and feelings about the ministry/church can be difficult. Done correctly, this phase can be very insightful and helpful.
- Assess the ministry’s/church’s overall health. In a local church setting, tools like the Church Health Survey (Lawless Group) and the Transformation Church Assessment Tool (Lifeway). It’s harder to find prepared analysis tools for parachurch ministries but some like the MCORE can be quite effective.
- Assess the stakeholders’ readiness for change. Change can be difficult and uncomfortable. Effective change will never occur in any organization if the key players within that organization are not ready for change.
- Assess the stakeholders’ commitment level. Effective and beneficial change will never occur if the stakeholders are not ready to buy into and effect the desired change.
- Garner stakeholder feedback. This can be uncomfortable for ministry/church leaders, but also revealing. Ask the stakeholders for their impressions and feedback in a number of areas and what changes they would like to see.
Phase 3 – Goal Setting
By the time you’ve gotten to this phase, you should have a good idea where the ministry/church is and if it’s poised for advancement. You should know how your stakeholders feel about the ministry/church and if they are ready to move forward with you. You should also have a good idea of the needed change based on the ministry’s/church’s overall health along with its SWOT analysis. All of this combined should allow you to begin formulating goals and action plans.
- Based on the data from your analyses, set a series of goals – 2-year, 5-year, 7-year, and 10-year goals.
ü Goals should be distinctly Christian: Focused, Audacious, Inspiring, Transforming, Hopeful (FAITH).
ü Goals should be intelligently thought out: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely (SMART).
- Write out the strategic plan and revise it thoroughly. Incorporate regular reviews by ministry/church leadership, and communicate your plan to your stakeholders vivaciously and routinely for approval, support, and full buy-in.
Phase 4 – Action Plan
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is quoted as saying, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Goals are great, but a goal never acted upon is an exercise in futility. Set up a plan of attack to reach your goals. A series of well thought out questions help in setting up a good action plan.
- Will God approve of my plan? Have I been asking for Divine blessing and empowerment at every step? Who can I enlist to continue to uplift this ministry/church and its plan in intercessory prayer?
- How am I going to fund my strategic plan? What fiscal resources do I need now to get the plan off the ground? What fiscal resources will I need throughout the life of the plan to see it flourish and come into full realization? Where am I going to get the fiscal resources I need today and tomorrow?
- What personnel do I need to see the strategic plan come to full realization? Where can I enlist the requisite personnel? What initial/ongoing training will my personnel need to be effective?
- Will I need any other physical resources to realize the strategic plan? If so, what/when? Where can I procure these?
- How will I measure my success? What measurables can I put in place to see the tangible/visible advancement of the strategic plan?
Get After It!
My grandmother was fond of the saying, “If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a fry.” It simply means that if what we want (wishes) were as easily available as fish, we’d all get what we want. If you’ve ever been fishing, you know that just because there is a bounty of fish available doesn’t mean you’re always going to catch what you want. They call it fishing, not catching, for a reason. As enjoyable as fishing is, it can still be hard work to fill out your limit.
Strategic planning is like another fishing adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for today; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” A solid strategic plan is what ought to teach the ministry/church to fish. Like any fishing expedition, work is involved. After you’ve prayed, planned, and prayed some more it’s time to get to work and work the plan. Like Paul, allow for Divine intervention and redirection.
 This process is a modification of a plan laid out in detail by Aubrey Malphurs, Advanced Strategic Planning, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999).