Strategic planning and Christian ministry

I’ve just finished writing a workshop called A Christian Perspective on Strategy Development. While writing it, I had a thought: Jesus, the ultimate leader, didn’t write a strategic plan for his disciples.

I wondered, what might a strategic plan have looked like if the apostles had felt they needed to write one? Let’s speculate with a “What if…” scenario.

(Don’t take the scenario too seriously folks, the serious point is at the end.)

Vintage television set

Image courtesy of tungphoto at freedigitalphotos.net

If this were a TV show,  your screen would now mist over as you enter an alternate world and find yourself in Jerusalem the day after Pentecost. As the mist clears, we see the apostles holding a strategic retreat.

Mission Statement

The mission seems pretty clear and they quickly agree it is: To be Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8) by preaching the gospel (Mark 16:15) in order to make disciples (Mat 28:19). (I know, the New Testament didn’t exist the day after Pentecost, but since this whole scenario is preposterous anyway, do anachronisms really matter?)

As you watch events unfold, you notice a twist. They interpret their mission as taking the gospel to the Jews wherever they have settled, even to the uttermost ends of the world. Since the prophets repeatedly said that God’s promise to bless the nations will be fulfilled by the nations coming to Jerusalem, and not by Israel going to the nations, it simply is not in their minds to initiate a mission to the Gentiles, and in fact, they explicitly reject that possibility and put it in their plan as a guiding policy that they will follow the current Jewish practice of receiving Gentile converts but not looking for them.

SWOT Analysis

The SWOT analysis starts off well enough, but in this alternate world the apostles get bogged down in the Weakness and Threat categories.

“Well,” Peter starts off encouragingly (remembering the events of the previous day and the promise that the gates of Hades would not overcome the church), “we do have the Lord’s backing and the Holy Spirit’s gifts. Those are strengths.”

“Yes,” someone acknowledges, “but they have the army, the judges and the crosses! That’s a threat with a capital T for sure!”

Peter, still with a bit of his old bravado, suggests that his preaching is a strength. Thomas counters, “Yes it went well yesterday, but you can’t assume that God will do that everytime you preach. Why would people listen to us when we have no recognized rabbinical training? We all need to go to rabbinical school first to prepare  for our mission. We need,” he said, “to study to show ourselves approved to handle the Word of God.”

Tapping his toes with excess energy, one of the Sons of Thunder, itching to get moving, jumps to his feet and blurts out, “Forget the egghead stuff! We are weak because we have no POWER in the synagogues! First we must build a coalition of leaders with AUTHORITY who can MAKE THINGS HAPPEN!”

Unconvinced, a small voice pipes up, “Maybe in time we can do that, but right now we don’t even have the right people on the ox cart. We need to get some of the upper class on board before we go public any more than we already have.”

As the chair, Peter tests for a consensus. “It sounds like we are agreed then that we’ll take a go-slow approach and build capacity before rolling out to the public. We need to do some recruiting to our ranks, some training and some coalition building before the public phase.” Hearing no opposition, he suggests they move on to develop a strategy for the public phase so they are ready for it when it is the right time.

Strategy

This was a short discussion as they decide, due to quality control concerns, that only the apostles should present the Gospel to anyone. People speaking to family, friends and workmates would not be allowed to present the Gospel message, but would invite people to one of the mass evangelism events instead.

Performance Measurements

“Let’s see,” Matthew comments while calculating figures on his tablet.  “If Peter could convert 3,000 in one sermon, I think a good target to shoot for, assuming we take a course and get more polished in our oratory skills, would be 5,500 people per sermon, and we should be able to do, what, ten sermons a week? All we need is to have an advance group assemble a crowd so when the evangelist shows up he can concentrate his time on working in his area of strength – preaching. So anything less than 3,000, which Peter already has shown is attainable with no sermon prep time and no training I might add, is not acceptable.”

Evaluation

Suddenly the scene blurs as we jump forward a few months to hear Thomas ask, “How are we doing? Do you think we’ve done what we said we’d do?  Let’s do a program review.”

“Whoa!” someone exclaims. “We don’t need to go through that exercise. It’s obvious. Just look at what happened to Stephen. And Jerusalem is too hot for us to do anything in public anymore. Doesn’t look like this certainty about our beliefs is going to take us very far. I think we need to fine tune the message and appear more reasonable. The hardline approach doesn’t work well.”

Implementation

Skipping forward a few years now, we come across Silas and Paul debating about the direction of their ministry. The Plan agreed upon by the apostles has remained solid so far, but Paul has endangered it. Silas says: “I know, Paul, that you had this personal revelation about going to Macedonia, but the plan is to finish Asia first! We committed to our Asian goals and now we have to perform! We can’t change The Plan!”

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

Back to Reality

At this point, your screen mists over again and you are back in the real world where everything is once more as it should be. “Phew!” you say to yourself, “that was a fun diversion, but I’m sure glad that’s not what they did!” And you flip open your Bible to read again about the Lord of all creation who has called you into ministry to serve his purpose using his resources, and who goes before you and behind you. You appreciate anew the power of the Holy Spirit who equips you and who works in the hearts of people, calling them to their Creator. You feel a fresh affinity for Paul, who in his own weakness relied on God’s strength and turned the world’s order upside-down through the foolishness of the Gospel. You’re glad Peter set aside his own notions about the mission and went to see Cornelius when God told him to go.

Does this mean that strategic planning is a no-no? Not at all. Preparation, planning and training are good practices. Just be careful that, like everything else you do in your ministry, they support your mission and your identity as a Christian organization.

The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the plan can easily become the master instead of the servant. It can easily restrict God’s ability to be God and do fresh things today because once we have a plan we can become too attached to it. Worse, strategic plans become straitjackets when performance evaluations are based on them.

This is why I prefer to talk about strategic thinking or strategic management rather than strategic planning. I see it as a way of leading as opposed to a periodic task. There is a place for going through a specific strategy development process, one in which you give much more time to plumbing the depths of strategy, and in which you invest extra time in more thorough research than usual. But the tools and techniques you use should go beyond objective analysis and leave room for subjective analysis, spiritual reflection and group discernment.

Fulfilling our organizational missions depends on us doing our part (which means we do have to plan), but it equally depends on us allowing God to do his part, which means our plans must be subject to change at any time. That way, when we take a retrospective look at our progress, we will be able to say, “And here is where the miracle occurred!

I’d love to hear any stories or thoughts you have related to developing strategy for a Christian ministry.

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Thoughts on Strategic planning and Christian ministry

  1. Eric Stolte

    Great thoughts, John. You said, “Worse, strategic plans become straitjackets when performance evaluations are based on them.” Not necessarily sure this is as forthright as you state. Appreciate the idea though. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. John Pellowejpellowe Post author

    It is a provocative statement for sure! As long as the employee and the manager are both willing to judge performance on the basis of the plan as it may change through the year, then it should be okay.

    I have what I consider to be a better way of evaluating employee performance which I wrote about in the Bulletin, 2008 Issue 3. I included a number of different ways to evaluate, but here’s the one I use at CCCC:

    “A different approach to outcomes evaluation is to evaluate how well people adhere to the organization’s values. At CCCC, for example, the board evaluates the CEO based on outcomes, as described above. But aside from the CEO, the staff are evaluated by their managers against the team values, which are 1) dependability, productivity and quality; 2) communication; 3) desire to serve; 4) knowledge; 5) competence; 6) respect; and 7) initiative. Each is defined and the assumption is that if everyone excels in each of these, the outcomes will follow and we will be a high performance team. The board’s evaluation of the CEO ensures the organization stays on track with its mission and the values-based evaluation of all the other staff keeps the team together and functioning on the basis of shared values that lead to high performance.”

    The annual action plan can change at any moment without in any way affecting the way the staff are evaluated.

    Reply

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