- A Theology of Strategy Development
- A Kingdom Perspective: Strategic Planning for Christian Ministries
- Divine Leadership: Strategic Planning and the Holy Spirit
- Faith and Risk: Strategic Planning That Will Amaze Jesus!
- Strategic Statements and Christian Ministries
- Developing Values, Mission, & Vision for Christian Ministries
- Converting Mission & Vision into an End Statement
- Value Propositions for Ministries
- Planning for the unpredictable
- Checking for Blind Spots
- Corporate History – Resource or Constraint?
- How Far Out Is Your Planning Horizon?
- The Untapped Power of Your “Mission” Statement
- How to Release Your Mission Statement’s Power
- Theory of Change: A Step-By-Step Guide to Developing a Customized Plan For Your Ministry
- Strategy Maps Adapted for Charities
- The Measure of Our Success
- What to Do with Hard-to-Measure Mission Statements
Building on the theology of strategy development described in another post, a key question ministry leaders need to wrestle with when they begin a strategic planning process is: What sets the strategic limitations for our ministry – our circumstances or our mission? The deeper question is, Which perspective are we using to shape our plans: a solely human perspective or a kingdom perspective supported by human wisdom?
- If the strategic limitation is our circumstances, then the environmental scan and SWOT analysis will be done very early in the process and will set the parameters for what will and will not be considered for inclusion in the strategic plan. Since our focus is first and foremost on the possibilities that are open and closed to our ministry, we could easily accept limitations that God might want us to challenge and overcome (with his help).
- If the strategic limitation is our mission, then we are constrained only by what the mission requires for it to be fulfilled. We will start by exploring our mission and developing plans to achieve it by doing whatever is necessary. Our focus will be first and foremost on our mission. If there are obstacles, they will be obstacles to overcome rather than obstacles to accept as insurmountable blockages. Knowing that God supports our mission, we will make obstacles a matter of prayer with the confidence that God is not limited by circumstances, weaknesses, or threats. I call this a mission-first mindset.
A kingdom perspective on strategy development supported by human wisdom acknowledges that while we live in a world with realities we must take into account, there are far stronger spiritual realities that help us as members of the kingdom of God. We must approach our work in this world with ‘kingdom eyesight’, such as Elisha’s servant experienced when Elisha said to him:
“Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
2 Kings 6:16-17
It should be obvious – traditional strategic planning tools based only on human wisdom do not allow for kingdom eyesight and therefore, on their own, limit God’s ability to lead our ministries. If those tools are all we use, then we will not see what God wants us to see. We will not do what God wants us to do. The practical difference that planning with kingdom eyesight makes is that we know that the conditions and obstacles we face in this world are not the final reality. There is more to be seen. And the spiritual reality is what spurs us on to persevere in our mission. This was the point Jesus made when he challenged his followers:
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.”John 4:34-36
We must keep our focus on our mission or we risk being overwhelmed by the scope of work and the challenges the world throws at us and lose heart. For example, Jesus did say that the poor would always be with us,1 but that reality is no reason to give up fighting poverty.
The Deficiencies of Traditional Strategic Planning
From a Christian perspective, traditional strategic planning tools are out of alignment with the way God works when they are given primacy in strategy development for Christian ministries. A plan for harvesting would have waited four more months, but Jesus, who knows the true situation, says “Look up!!” His urgent message is that the fields are ripe for harvesting at this very moment! And while we are waiting for circumstances to dictate the right time to get to work, others are already earning their wages, like – right now! Get a move on!
Without kingdom eyesight, we may lose out on the best that God wants to do through us. What strategic plan would ever have led the Israelites into the desert without planning for food and water? What strategic plan would have ever conceived of reducing an army of 32,000 soldiers to 300? What strategic plan would have brought salvation to the world through a peasant born in a cave in what most people at the time thought was a backwater, no-account country? While these are very dramatic and unsual examples of how God works, they inspire us to test our own self-imposed limits based on what we see with human eyes.
The Bible declares that God is on a mission and is unstoppable as he works to fulfil it. His strategic options are bounded only by his mission. Circumstances are acknowledged and then blown away by a God who can do miracles. We can’t expect God to always rescue our human plans with a miracle, but if a ministry’s board and leadership have discerned God’s direction to take a step of faith, then it can reasonably expect his support in some way (not always miraculous, but through his provision nonetheless). As his earthly representatives, as God’s agents in mission, we can do no less than Paul who steadfastly pursued his call and relied on God to work things out however he would.
I love Paul’s attitude, his fixation on what God had called him to do against all odds. While he’s writing about his personal growth in this passage from Philippians, I think we should all emulate his attitude when it comes to planning for our ministries with the firm belief that we will not let circumstances stop us from pursuing our goal. At the end of his life, I’m sure Paul had no “I shoulda” or “I coulda” regrets. Not when he had the commitment seen in this passage!
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The Primacy of Our Call
Traditional planning tools can be very helpful, but they should not be the primary drivers of Christian ministry strategy. Businesses can change their missions if they want to get more profits, but Christian ministries have been called to a particular purpose and must work at that purpose until it has been fulfilled.
A ministry’s strategy has one purpose: to help the ministry fulfill its mission.
A Suggested Strategic Planning Process for Christian Ministries
While there is room for multiple ways to do strategic planning from a biblical-theological perspective, here are the steps of one faith-friendly approach:
- A group discernment process to be clear on what people understand God’s call to a ministry is. The output will be a set of strategic statements.
- A theory of change to make explicit what your ministry believes about how the mission can be accomplished. For example, sociologists have studied how people change their worldview and religion. Evangelism ministries will want to know about this. Others have studied how people escape poverty. Inner city ministries will find lots of good program ideas in this research. The goal of developing a theory of change is to understand what your ministry can do to bring about the change that their mission requires.
- A theory of change is also a specific form of a logic model that “connects the dots” and shows how and why your ministry’s activities (its programs) will ultimately result in fulfilling the ministry’s mission. The initiatives column in the theory of change will be the broad strategic initiatives that will lead to mission progress (and maybe even mission fulfillment).
- Development of the strategic initiatives leads naturally into determining the programs that will best fulfill a strategic initiative, and from there the annual action plan converts intentions into actions. There are some good faith-friendly strategic planning tools that are helpful in this part of strategy development.
- Check that you have a business model that will deliver on your plans. This includes organizational structure, revenue model, and other operational aspects of making mission activity happen.
Where do the traditional planning tools fit in? They can play an important but secondary role throughout the planning process. Think of them as “filling in and rounding out.”
- The environmental scan is helpful to more fully understand the mission and to ensure that the theory of change is comprehensive. It can also help with the development of the strategic initiatives. The scan may indicate the tasks of fulfilling the mission will be more or less difficult, but it shouldn’t deter anyone from doing what must be done to fulfil their mission. The environmental scan will likely surface a list of things to ask God for his help. Doing the environmental scan ahead of or during the early stages of the strategy development process is helpful as it provides the context in which your ministry is working.
- The SWOT analysis should be done in stages:
- Opportunities are best considered after the mission-related strategic initiatives have been identified. The initiatives are based on what the mission requires and the opportunities show where the ministry can leverage the fruit of its work within those initiatives in terms of programs or advocacy.
- The SW part (Strengths/Weaknesses) is useful when you are checking organizational readiness to implement your strategic plan, so they are best considered once the detailed mission-related tactics (e.g., programs) have been identified. This way, there is a context in which to decide what is a strength and what is a weakness. For example, is being tall a strength or a weakness? It depends on whether a person is playing basketball or riding a race horse. However, don’t allow a weakness to stop you! New strategies will always involve areas of weakness precisely because they are new.
- Threats are particularly important as matters of prayer. We should be wise about threats (as Paul was in Damascus)2 but the mission continues, just as Paul continued his mission after being stoned and left for dead in Lystra3
But remember, God works through our weaknesses and God is our defender, so weaknesses and threats should not be deterrents! I admire Paul’s pluck; he got up and marched right back into the city (Lystra) that had just thrown him out, stoned him, and left him for dead. Wow!
To repeat what I’ve written elsewhere, Jesus commended people who used their brains and the best of human wisdom (for example, the unrighteous steward in Luke 16) and he challenged his followers to do for him what they would do for themselves (eg., think ahead and count the cost before following him just as they would when building a tower or going to war – Luke 14:27-33), so we shouldn’t be derelict and switch off our minds when planning for our ministries.
But if you reduce your plans to what you think you can do with human wisdom and strength, you’ve left no room for God to do what only he can do, and I suspect that when you can do it yourself, God lets you do it yourself! But if you want to partner with God, then make a plan big enough that God has room to manoeuvre and do his thing.
Thank you for taking the time to provide this excellent overview of the strategic planning exercise in Christian ministries.
I would like to respectfully provide some comments. I don’t like to view the mission or (Ends statement) of a ministry as a problem. To view it this way from the beginning, initiates the process from the negative. God didn’t want that for us in our ministries. He wanted our light to shine so that others would clearly see what motivates us. Light is not negative. Light is our start.
I approach Strategic Planning in Christian ministries from the perspective of:
1. Establishing our Core Values and meeting them every step of the way. These need to be determined and clearly displayed as a first step and referenced throughout. A positive start.
2. Clearly understanding who is in charge – (not us) and what that means in eternity. So as not to lose faith.
3. Being real about our expectations and abilities to engage our staff and volunteers – we’re human.
4. Fully exposing the spiritual gifts we have been blessed with through an exercise designed to help with this.
Then we approach the Carver model of governance and planning realistically, understanding that John Carver wasn’t engaging the full extent of our Christian strengths and abilities. His business model or strategy gives us the basics; what we do with it in a Christian sense is much more meaningful and far reaching.
Thanks for a very helpful contribution to the discussion, Elizabeth. I really like how Christian spirituality has been incorporated into the process. I take your point about the word ‘problem.’ I prefer positive language too. The gap between the world as it should be and as it is is the change that our ministries want to make. Problem to solve or goal to achieve? Either way, we press on. Thank you for providing another way to think about our mission that is positive and uplifting.
You mention there is support for this view in the literature. Could you share some of those sources? I have been conducting a literature review to support program evaluation in faith-based education programs and coming up short. Thanks!
Sorry for the delay in responding. I approved your comment and then got sidetracked!!
The contrarian view to the traditional strategic planning model is best laid out in Henry Mintzberg’s book “The Death of Strategic Planning.”
Another book that helps in determining which strategic planning tools are suitable in a faith-based ministry environment is “Reviewing Leadership” by Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter.