Long Range Planning Versus Visioning And Discernment

I put my foot in my mouth recently. You know how that works—you make an off the cuff statement and suddenly realize that you may well have offended someone in the room. I was leading a training session for lay leaders in a congregation and I said something to the effect, “I don’t really think much of long range planning.”

I immediately realized that this evoked a reaction among those present, and then it was driven home when one person said, “Well, I guess he just stepped on your toes, pastor.” Rather than explaining what I meant, I pushed on. The pastor and I are still friends, but I should have clarified the difference between several terms we use interchangeably.

First, “long range planning” is still a very popular term in corporate America, even though most companies have no idea where they will be a year from now much less 5 to 10 years down the road. The world is too unstable to assume that plans and goals set today will have any meaning in a relatively short period of time (unless you think planning for the next six months entails long-range planning).

Second, “strategic planning” is basically the same as long range planning. Strategic planning is primarily analytic, assuming that change will be linear, the future is relatively predictable, and good planning will deal with any surprises. This tends to be rather unrealistic, as well.

Third, “visioning” is a process of understanding where you are now and discerning where you want to be at some point in the future. For a church, this takes into account a biblical understanding of what the church is, the values of a particular congregation, the context in which the congregation exists, the gifts of the congregation—people, facilities, finances, etc., and potential challenges and opportunities. The most effective visioning is rooted in prayer and spiritual discernment as well as demographics and assessment.

Fourth, “strategic thinking” takes into account the opportunities that come our way and realizes that we may have to adapt to deal with surprises. It takes into account the past (what we have done before), the present (what we are now), and the future (what we hope to be). Visioning and strategic thinking are on the same path in assuming that things are going to change and the best approach is to be ready to respond positively to those changes. A good tool for strategic thinkers is scenario writing—if this happens, then how might we respond?

The story of the church in the first century is a good example of visioning and strategic thinking at work. Under the leadership of the Spirit, the direction of the church was clear: share the good news with everyone. The way it happened, however, was not linear. Gifted men and women listened, prayed and acted. When one approach did not work out, they trusted that God would open another door. Their role was to be faithful and use what God had put in their hands. We would do well to follow their example.

Ircel Harrison
Coaching Coordinator
Pinnacle Leadership Associates