For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Could the way our ministries do strategic planning quench the Holy Spirit? Should a Christian ministry make plans at all if it wants to be Spirit-led? A brief study of Paul’s second missionary trip will provide the answer.

Paul’s Example

Paul’s first missionary trip, which was initiated by the Holy Spirit, was very fruitful due to the many churches he planted in Asia. Good leadership and good strategic planning would dictate a return trip to ensure the churches were growing as they should, to further strengthen them, and then to build on the evangelism success of the first missionary trip by going deeper into Asia. This is what Paul intended to do (Acts 15:36). He left Antioch after his church commended him to God with this mission in mind (v. 40).

Significantly, although the Holy Spirit gave specific instructions for the first trip, Luke makes no mention that Paul received any direction from the Holy Spirit for this trip. While not wanting to read too much into the omission, we must recognize that Luke chose to tell the story of Paul’s second missionary journey in a way that leads readers to think that Paul’s plans were simply the result of good planning. But the omission need not be taken as a negative assessment of Paul’s plan. There is no foreshadowing of trouble at all. Luke could have written, “But he failed to consult the Lord” to alert his readers to what was to come (e.g., see Joshua 9:14), but he didn’t. It seems Paul was going about his business, using his intellect, and doing what he should be doing in the normal course of ministry. It’s quite apparent that Luke wanted us to experience the Holy Spirit pretty much as Paul did so the lesson would be all the more forceful for us today.

After visiting the churches, Paul tries to venture further into Asia, but each time discerns the Spirit withholding his permission. The frustration of Paul’s Asian plans mounts until finally, in a dramatic vision, the Spirit reveals to Paul what his mission trip is really about and calls him to Macedonia in Europe. By blocking Paul from going deeper into Asia, the Holy Spirit was gradually corralling him into a port city from which he could easily embark on a ship to the place he wanted Paul to go. Paul must have been grateful that this time God used a ship to transport Paul’s team and not, as he did with Jonah, a great fish! But then, Paul wasn’t running from his call; he was earnestly pursuing it.

Paul’s team wasted no time in getting on board with the new mission. Luke records in 16:10 that “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” And thus, the church was planted in Europe.

Luke wants his readers to know that when the Spirit gave clear direction to Paul to start out on an entirely new mission, Paul immediately followed the Spirit’s direction, just as we should today.

Human Purpose vs. Divine Purpose

Robert Tannehill wrote a brilliant narrative analysis of Luke-Acts. In Volume Two: The Acts Of The Apostles,he wrote that:

The narrator shows a keen interest in the dialogue between human purpose and divine purpose, indicating that Jesus’ witnesses, too, must patiently endure the frustration of their own plans in order to discover the opportunity that God holds open. This opportunity may not be the next logical step by human calculation.

While God expects us to use our intellect to make good decisions and plans, we must always be sensitive to the possibility that on a particular matter, God may have other ideas that don’t make sense to us. This is when we need to trust God and follow his lead.

In his two-volume book, Luke-Acts, Luke shows very clearly what following God’s leadership looks like. The Gospel of Luke shows the Holy Spirit guiding Jesus at every step of the way and continuing to guide the church in Acts. But more than just guidance, God’s abrupt interruption of human plans is a central theme in Acts. Just as the Spirit interrupted Paul’s planned visit to Asia, so he interrupted Peter’s planned visits to the Jewish church in diaspora (Acts 10:10-20) and directed and even moved Philip to the places he needed him (Acts 8:26-40). God has a history of disrupting human plans, as King David experienced when he planned to build God’s Temple but God reduced his role to that of a fundraiser for the project (still, it was a highly important role that made it possible for his son to build the Temple).

Luke’s history of the ancient church is unambiguous: God’s plans were not what the apostles had in mind. But to the benefit of the entire church throughout the ages ever since, the apostles set aside their own plans and followed God.

God’s Leadership

From a planning perspective, Luke’s essential point is that it is the Lord who directs Christian missions through his Spirit. In fact, it’s been said the book of Acts should really be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” not “Acts of the Apostles1 because the book tells the continuing story of what Jesus only “began to do” in the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s theology is that Jesus continues his ministry by working through the Spirit in us today.

Acts is a manual for how the church, both local churches and all other ministries, should faithfully go about its work as a Spirit-led church. Luke’s purpose is to encourage and inspire us to follow the Spirit as we continue to fulfil the church’s mission. Remember, we can’t plan our way into the great and marvelous things God has already planned for us to do.

Spirit-Friendly Ministry Plans

But it is not all bad news for planning. Planning is very useful and much good comes from it. God blessed Paul’s plan to revisit the churches he founded in several ways: Paul’s planned second missionary journey led him to Timothy, who joined his team; he strengthened the churches he had planted; and he saw many converts added in those areas (Acts 16:1–5). Even Jesus endorsed the value of planning in Luke 14:28–32. However, planning just can’t, on its own, get all the results that God desires to achieve through us.

The best way to plan is to use human reasoning and wisdom in conjunction with the leadership of the Spirit. We need to steep our planning in the practices of spiritual discernment and apply the best of human intellect to what we discern. If there isn’t any specific guidance from the Spirit, we can follow our plans while continuing to listen to the Spirit. Let’s hold our plans lightly and be ready for God to disrupt them. Since such disruptions are not the usual experience, we can go ahead as planned but stay ready to switch gears when the Spirit calls.

My Experience

I have had to learn this lesson in my own life. In my previous role as a corporate leadership trainer, I was an enthusiastic supporter of strategic planning, goal setting, and performance reviews based on measurable objectives. My enthusiasm for all that changed, however, when I received my own very unexpected call ‘out of the blue’ from God to prepare for something new. Believe me, no plan of mine had that call from God in it! The Spirit did not reveal what the preparation was for, and I was challenged to trust God, give up my work, and become a full-time student again in mid-life without knowing what the goal was, where I was headed, or what God had in mind. All I knew was that I had to go to seminary.

Halfway through my second year, due to some difficult circumstances I felt abandoned by God and, at my age, despaired of ever having gainful employment again. I dropped back into planning mode and ‘helped’ God by putting my resume out for work at various Christian ministries. In the midst of one interview, the Holy Spirit said, “This is not what this is all about. Withdraw your applications.”

The Spirit reminded me, “If my ways are not your ways, and if my thoughts are so much higher than yours that you can’t even conceive the depth and breadth of my thoughts, then the best your puny little plans2 can do is frustrate what I want to do through you. Stop planning and let me lead!” A vision of me being blindfolded and holding on to God’s shirtsleeve was very vivid and God’s intent was quite clear: “When I take a step, you can take a step.” And that is how I have lived my life ever since.

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Through that experience, I learned first-hand of God’s ability to orchestrate things so you end up doing something far more significant than you ever could have planned to do on your own. Just before God told me to withdraw my job applications, I had submitted my resume to CCCC. Both my wife and my pastor saw the job ad for my present position and encouraged me to apply because they thought I was a perfect fit for the job. When I was told to withdraw my applications, I had not yet had any response from CCCC. I asked God about this particular application, and the Spirit let me know that I should leave this application alone. “If they call, you can go. If they ask, you can answer. But you can’t do anything proactive,” the Spirit said. “Just sit back and watch what I can do.” At just the right time, a time orchestrated by God, I was ready for work when CCCC published the job ad. The rest is history. After 20 years at CCCC (2023), I am still as fresh and as vital as the day I was hired and even more passionate about our mission

I still plan today, but my plans are default plans — plans that I will follow should nothing better come up. My promise to the CCCC board is to do my best to stay sensitive and receptive to the Spirit’s guidance each and every day.

Key Thought: A planning process must honour the leadership of the Spirit. Follow God, not the plan.

  1. I think it was Dr. Roger Stronstad who said this in a seminary class.
  2. Yes, this is a quote from God — I wrote it down as soon as I could.
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Thoughts on Divine Leadership: Strategic Planning and the Holy Spirit

  1. Khristy

    Thank you so much!! Your article, testimony, and podcast spoke directly into my life and circumstances!! God bless you for being such a wonderful yielded vessel of Christ Jesus.

    In Jesus Christ,
    you sister in Christ

  2. Pastor Zakayo Nzogere

    Dear Pastor John,
    Thanks for this encouraging article. Currently I’m working on my dissertation and I’m writing about Strategic Planning in ministry. Your article has given me a broader understanding on the subject matter. God bless you.

    Pastor Zakayo Nzogere
    Tanzania – East Africa.


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