Before Pursuing Strategic Ministry Planning

When I was trained as a church consultant, the prevailing model for visioning or strategic ministry planning was based on a certain understanding of church. During the 20th Century, the church was changing, though incrementally. So we used processes which helped churches function more faithfully and effectively within their church paradigm. Typically, the outcome included a lengthy plan which helped the church focus its efforts while increasing its spiritual vigor. These approaches were not faulty; effectively helping churches when the prevailing church paradigm remained intact. Long ago, this work produced up to 15-year plans. Later these plans shortened to 10 years, then 5, and now 3-4 years. The reduction in time itself is an indicator of the increased speed of change in our culture and churches.

Now, given the major shifts in our world and in church life, traditional strategic planning processes are aging-out as helpful ministry endeavors. Improving our current church paradigms simply does not include enough adaptation to position us for fruitful ministry. No matter how robust or invigorated current church paradigms become, the church is simply not on the radar screen of most people in our communities. Even excellent quality improvement and spiritual invigoration are not the adaptations needed for engaging our current world. The paradigm itself must change.

Since traditional strategic planning leads to low-outcome benefits for our churches, what’s better? What kind of processes help churches become their best selves in this Postmodern world? Even more, how do we recognize churches who are making the shift to more relevant expressions of church?

Savvy churches and their leaders are astutely asking these kinds of questions. Through our consulting and coaching work, the following are proactive actions we are observing in churches who are discovering newer, life-giving ways to be church this century.

Growing Curious
These churches take note of the large-scale changes in our world and then grow curious. Rather than huddle in the corner, afraid of what might come, these church exercise faith, allowing curiosity to grow. Curious inquiry leads to new discoveries. Curious churches are empowered by the Holy Spirit to , they lay aside anxiety, positioning themselves for learning (first step toward adaptation).

Raising Awareness
Not only are these churches curious, they intentionally engage in learning. Their clergy and church staff, along with lay leaders, seek out reliable and accurate sources of understanding about what’s happening around them. They invest time, energy and funding into learning experiences for their congregations, raising awareness. Again, when we are not afraid, we are open to intentional learning, raising our awareness.

Letting Go
Exhaustion is increasing in those churches who are pushing their outdated church paradigm with even more vigor, hoping for results but coming away disappointed. Adaptive churches give themselves permission to let go; stepping back and taking a deep breath. They give themselves permission to take their collective feet off the gas, reflect and consider together. They recognize their church paradigm is less helpful and give themselves permission to quit pushing so hard while they explore what’s next.

Holy Experimenting
What is next? We have some clues, but the “next best way to be church,” with graphs and charts has not risen yet. We are not far enough into this Postmodern world experience for paradigms to coalesce into models. Instead, this is the age of God’s Holy Spirit. Now is the time to follow the winds of the Spirit, acting on the nudges, calls and pushes of the Spirit. These churches act on the light they are given, experimenting their way into new ways of being church. This is a sacred process.

Proactively Adapting
After discovering newer, life-giving ways of being church; then these churches adjust their structure. “Form follows function,” is a twentieth century phrase which still provides helpful wisdom. After discovering how to be disciples and join God’s mission more fully, then adaptive churches adjust their structures to support this newer way of being church. They continually adapt themselves to support the Spirit’s movement through them.

As you might note, courage is required to become an adaptive congregation. But never fear, for God specializes in helping fearful people rise up and move ahead anyway. Be courageous and fear not. God’s transitioned God’s Church before….and God is certainly doing it again, right before our eyes. Blessings to you on this journey.

NOTE: Next week’s e-news article will describe Missional Church Visioning.

Mark Tidsworth
President, PLA