Episode 4: Strategy and Church

Church planning. Strategic planning. Can they go together?

Interestingly, strategic planning doesn’t get a lot of air time in the context of leadership discussions in church board rooms.

In this episode, we’ll explore why that might be and discuss how strategic planning is complementary – not contradictory – to following God’s design for the local body of believers.

This episode’s special guest

Today, we have the privilege of chatting with Dr. Jeff Price from Ohio. Jeff is a long-time member of the board of deacons at Grace Gospel Church in Ada, Ohio. He’s been married to his wife for 40 years and has 3 kids and 5 grandkids.

Jeff currently serves as a school superintendent (18 years) and has also been an administrator for over 20 years. This is his 38th year in public education.

Jeff also shares that an important part of his development has been centered around dispensational theology being a great lens through which we view all Scripture.

Strategic planning as a school superintendent

As a teacher and coach, Jeff has always been intrigued with leadership. As a leader, he became convinced of the importance of allowing everyone to have input in the decision-making process. This is sometimes referred to as the distributed leadership model, which happened to be the centerpiece of Jeff’s dissertation in his doctorate program.

In a school setting, distributed leadership looks like ownership. It means using teachers, staff members, the board, and even the community in strategic planning. For Jeff, this means facilitating, but not necessarily being the decision maker.

Jeff believes that the best decisions are made collectively. It takes time to make good decisions.

Similarities and differences between a school and church setting

While there are some similarities and differences between schools and churches, overall, the model is similar.

Jeff’s church, Grace Gospel, has about 50-60 adults on a normal week. It’s not a large church. Therefore, the leadership is a bit less formal and has less committees than a school setting.

For Jeff, the key to getting a good dialogue is having 10-12 people. If it gets up to 15, the conversation becomes pretty cumbersome. For facilitators, it’s important to find a way to break a larger group down into smaller groups.

How important is strategic planning in boardrooms?

Does strategic planning actually happen in boardrooms?

Unfortunately, it’s really not all that common. However, as a leader, strategic planning is critical to moving an organization forward. If there’s a vision (and there should be!), there needs to be a plan in place.

In dealing with churches, it’s especially important to spend a lot of time in prayer. Strategic planning isn’t just about writing some tasks on paper. It’s about seeking God’s vision and guidance. A 30-second, superficial prayer before a board meeting simply isn’t going to cut it.

Is there a certain degree of health that an organization needs to have before they can implement strategic planning?

Can any church implement strategic planning? Or does a certain level of organization health need to exist first?

Well, every organization really needs to have a vision. At the same time, going through a full-fledged strategic planning process is really a 3-6 month process. For this reason, the church has to be willing to make a change and think forward. Otherwise, it’s just spinning the wheels with a plan that may not ever come to fruition.

In other words, yes, there does have to be some degree of health before a church can go through a full-fledged planning process. However, small planning projects can be done with any size church. This can even help them to become healthier.

One problem that churches run into often is tyranny of the urgent. Oftentimes, tyranny of the urgent – tasks such as keeping the driveway clean and the roof repaired – get in the way of strategic planning.

Are some churches too small for strategic planning?

Strategic planning may seem difficult with small churches. However, it’s still important. The trick is getting these small churches to see the value in strategic planning.

One question that’s helpful to ask of very small churches (and any church, really), is, “If your church ceased to exist today, why would it matter?” In other words, what makes you different or unique from every other church that anyone could choose to go to?

It’s important to ask the question of why God has called each specific local body of believers to exist. Perhaps there is something that God is calling this group of believers to engage in corporately for the life of the world that exists around it.

Defining this vision is an excellent first step in strategic planning, no matter the size of the church.

How to help a church see the value of strategic planning

What are some other ways to help a church see the value of strategic planning? Especially a small church?

Well, for one, smallness can actually make a church more nimble to make some really strong and exciting changes. The larger the organization, the harder it is to steer that ship. Think of a rowboat compared to a large ship. It’s much easier to turn the rowboat.

But are change and strategy always connected?

Or is it sometimes, “we’re here and we need to stay here?”

Without some sort of discomfort in where a church is at, there is no change. As a church looks forward to the future and God’s design for the local body of believers, it’s important that they be open to change.

God really isn’t in the business of making us comfortable. He’s in the business of growing us as individuals and corporate bodies.

Is strategic planning the enemy of faith?

Though they might not say it out loud, many people wonder if strategic planning is an enemy of faith. Do planning and trusting God go together?

Yes, they do. And seeking God through the strategic planning process is vital. It’s important for every church to seek God in every meeting they go through.

3-step process of strategic planning

So, what does the strategic planning process really look like? According to Jeff, a worthwhile planning process usually goes something like this:

    1. Break down into different committees or teams
    2. Each team goes through a meeting process that happens over 2-3 months (to give time to digest the information)
    3. The information is brought back to the board

Often now, we’re looking at 2-3 year plans. In some cases, the plan will be revisited every month (such as in a school setting). It’s a constant process of change as our society and technology continues to change.

What does a church look like if they don’t have a strategic outlook?

What are some common issues that a church is facing if they don’t do strategic planning?

Well, many churches are wrapped up in a variety of other tasks, such as keeping lights on, the lawn mowed, the hedges trimmed, day-to-day operations, who’s teaching Sunday school, what event they’re planning for next month… etc.

While these aren’t bad things, the church is called to do more.

Often, self-assessment is what’s lacking. Churches presume that what was done last year is essentially what will be done this year. Sometimes, there’s not necessarily a willingness to be called to do something different.

Why is the strategic mindset often turned off in the boardroom?

Often, boards are made up of a lot of strategic thinkers. Yet the business/strategic mindset gets turned off in the boardroom. Why is this?

Well, it could be because of the sacred/secular divide. Business feels more secular, so many board members may feel that they can apply secular principles like strategic planning.

But where does faith fit in?

Can faith and strategic planning go together?

They can. It’s important to note that strategic planning is also hard work. It can be boring. It can be time consuming. Are we willing to put in the work?

What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to strategic planning?

One of the biggest challenges in strategic planning is getting it right and not having to scrap the plan. Doing due diligence. Often there are things outside of a board’s control (such as a recession) that can impact the plan.

Another hurdle is getting people to commit to the amount of time strategic planning takes. A full-blown process looks something like committing to 3 nights over 2-3 months. This usually equals about 6-8 hours of planning.

Lastly, being willing to revisit the plan is vital. There’s a difference between living documents and dead documents. Dead documents are documents that aren’t revisited or assessed. And unfortunately, nobody abides by them because they’re never looked at again.

How do we make sure the strategic plan isn’t tied solely to the leader?

So, what is the actual definition of a strategic plan for a church?

First of all, the planning process for a church shouldn’t be any different from that of a business for Christians. Ultimately, we’re stewards of what God’s entrusted to us. There’s a noble task that Scripture talks about (the board governance structure), but everything we have is from Him. This isn’t just a church board definition.

Strategic planning is seeking God and seeking God’s desire and purpose for the entity that He’s entrusted into our care.

Perhaps more specifically, it’s a process of forecasting the future, obtaining a consensus of philosophy of ministry, and initiating and completing projects – whether a building project, ministry project, etc.

Closing thoughts

In closing, a healthy board allows for a ministry to think strategically. It can handle the weight of a strategic plan.

It’s not uncommon for a pastor to feel like they’re making decisions on their own. Unfortunately, this is usually because other people aren’t stepping up to help them. For boards, it’s important to not put the pastor in a place where he is the primary or sole voice in strategy. Board members need to step up. Help the pastor out. And help them become more empowered by the team.