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Why Strategic Planning for Churches Wastes Your Time

Time for a confession. Let me tell you a consultant’s dirty little secret: Congregational strategic planning is frequently a waste of time and can be counterproductive. There, it’s out. Now, it’s time to explain.
Many congregations, for a variety of reasons, choose to engage in strategic planning.

Some opt to conduct the process internally, while others hire an outsider to help. Denominations and judicatories are getting in on the action, selling scads of books, workbooks and assessment tools to help the process.

Since consulting with congregations is all the rage, there are many variations on this theme.

Most take some form of corporate planning and apply a thin veneer of spirituality to a secular model.

Behind these plans is a paint-by-number approach to your future that, if followed, promises to produce a set of core values, a mission statement, SWOT analyses, strategic initiatives, SMART goals and the like.

Some vary the theme and design a process that produces the same thing in every church that uses the plan.

This sort of prescriptive planning is used by those who know what your future should be and have a not-so-subtle agenda of turning your church in a direction that they have predetermined.

If you get hooked into one of those plans, expect unnecessary conflict and unhealthy upheaval.

The truth is, far too many of these generic plans are a waste of time and energy because they give only lip service to the question of divine guidance.

Oh, there is the obligatory prayer emphasis, but what is lacking is genuine spiritual discernment.

Without this, the planning becomes an exercise in stating the obvious/inevitable, and wastes a valuable opportunity to deeply consider the future God has in mind for you.

A spiritual discernment process is very different from a corporate strategic planning model or a biased approach to your future.

Spiritual discernment begins by admitting we do not have the solutions. Spiritual discernment invites thinking, praying and reflecting at a level that most of us studiously avoid.

Spiritual discernment is messy, often slow and extremely complicated. Most churches want neat, quick and simple.

Sorry, but neat, quick and simple work in this area (like most of congregational life) will be shallow, predictable and counter-productive.

My wise friend and colleague Steve Scoggin recently reminded me of the time-tested pattern of spiritual discernment for individuals and organizations.

Spiritual discernment begins with disorientation. Something happens to knock us off our feet.

Some event or series of events conspires to turn our world upside down. It may be an unpleasant experience such as a death, a beloved pastor’s departure or some crisis.

Whatever it is, our life and world is shaken, and we experience high anxiety. Throughout Scripture, disorientation is the portal God uses to break into ordinary lives and do extraordinary things. (See Joseph, Moses, Esther, Mary, Paul, Peter, etc.)

God’s people are constantly finding themselves thrown off balance and unable to manage things using old frames of reference.

The next phase of spiritual discernment is a time of reorientation. On the heels of our crisis, we look around for something or someone to hold on to that will help us make sense of our shaken world.

We find that the promises made by culture, leaders, politics, money, possessions and an array of false gods are empty. We turn once again to the One who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

All of our self-made structures, programs and hollow leadership models collapse under the weight of the issue before us.

In their place we rediscover our reason for being as a congregation. Our pride gives way to brokenness and humility as we reconnect to our mission and purpose.

We lean into our future with a willingness to lay aside those things that have distracted us from our true calling.

Finally, a spiritual discernment process leads us to a new orientation to life and ministry.

We reorder and reprioritize our life as God’s people so that we are on his mission, not ours.

We find a depth of meaning and fulfillment that has been missing. We sense passion and engagement rather than lethargy and apathy.

Because we have taken seriously the voice and movement of the Spirit, we no longer rely on others to prescribe our future, but we create that future as collaborators with God in an ongoing process of regeneration and renewal.

Our time spent in re-visioning our future has produced a new spirit of openness to God’s leadership. We begin the hard work of aligning every part of our life with our new vision.

We need congregations who resist the temptation to cut corners and go for easy solutions to complex issues.

Instead, what if we journeyed along the narrow and arduous way of spiritual discernment?

I believe we will find that spiritual journey leads us to become the people God intended us to be. That is a very good place!

BillWilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.