Strategic Discernment, Not Strategic Planning

I have participated in four separate strategic planning processes in various churches.  They each followed a different methodology, and each had similar results:
  • A group of dedicated people got together and worked very hard over several long meetings to create a plan.
  • A facilitator led us through a well-organized set of exercises to encourage everyone to contribute her or his ideas for the future.
  • With the facilitator’s help, we took a world of information and reshaped it into a set of goals and priorities, with timelines and responsibility assignments.
  • A beautifully packaged plan was created, summarized, presented, and affirmed by vestry vote.
  • In each case, we looked at the final product and felt in some unidentifiable way that something vital was missing.
  • The plan went onto the shelf and, after some initial attempts to follow up on identified action steps, was never seen again.

I know that the “shelf” is a common destination point for strategic plans in all kinds of organizations, not just the church.  But after the last time I experienced this life-draining process, I started thinking: maybe the church, of all places, is not the place to be doing strategic planning.

This is not to say that the church should just drift along and let happen whatever may.  That’s how we fall into bad habits and start believing that the church exists for the benefit of its members, and everyone who should be a member already is a member.  Our natural human tendency is to serve ourselves before we serve others; it takes vision and planning to remember that we have a broader mission to accomplish.
But the church is uniquely a Spirit-led organization, or should be.  And the Spirit is full of surprises we can’t anticipate or plan for.  It would be difficult to imagine the apostles in Acts 7 sitting down for a strategic planning session and determining that the next logical step would be to go out to the Gaza Road and wait for an Ethiopian eunuch to come along.  Who would ever think to do that?  Who would imagine that that young man holding the coats while Stephen was stoned in Acts 7 would turn into the greatest evangelist in world history in Acts 9?  Who would have suggested that Peter go to sleep and arrange for a dream involving unclean animals on a sheet descending from heaven in Acts 10?
In my church experience, most of the great steps forward I have seen weren’t planned.  They happened: the right person came along, the right location became available, someone heard a call from God they couldn’t ignore.  Yes, we channeled those outpourings of the Spirit in organized and planned directions, but they came to us as gifts from God.
This is why, as the church plant I lead is entering into a vitally important new phase (a move to our first permanent building), we are not doing strategic planning.  We are doing strategic discernment.  Where is God leading us? is the question we are asking.  We are not asking for a list of ideas, or a list of problems to solve, or a list of good stories that highlight the strengths we want to build on.  We are praying and discerning.
The process that we have designed starts with an extended period of meditative prayer (as opposed to what I have often experienced before – a perfunctory one-paragraph petition for God’s guidance before we get down to the real business of the meeting).  It continues with an extended “African” Bible study of Luke 10:1-12 (one of the classic passages on evangelism).  It then proceeds with some creative exercises to encourage people to use right-brain powers to envision God’s plan for the future.  Only after all those exercises do we start working on goals, priorities, and problems.
In other words, this process is our attempt to let our own thoughts and plans take a step back, and ask God to open our minds to God’s thoughts and plans.  It is a process of strategic discernment, not strategic planning.
Here are the details of how we have done this process:
1.  Open the team meeting with prayer.  This is not a prayer where you read words while everyone bows their head, then move on to the real business of the meeting.  This is prayer for discernment.  Tell the group that you are going to take some time for silence.  Ask them to make themselves comfortable, flatten feet on the floor, close eyes, etc.  If they wish to sit or lie on the floor, that’s fine.  Take a few minutes to help them silence themselves.  Ask them to breathe deeply and lead them through a relaxation exercise, head to toes.  Then, after some silence, invite the Holy Spirit to speak into our hearts, saying something like, “Holy Spirit, we are gathered in your presence today to hear your words … Please speak your words into our hearts … Help us to hear what you want to say … Help us to see your vision for each one of us, and for your church.”  Pause for more silence, then invite people when they are ready to open their eyes and join the group.
2.  Continue with team Bible study of Luke 10:1-12.
  • Ask someone to read the passage through once out loud.  Tell the group to pay attention as the passage is read and think about:what word or phrase caught your attention in this passage, or what would you like to ask a Bible scholar more about the meaning of?
  • Ask the full group to divide up into small groups of three.  Take 5-10 minutes and ask the small groups to share their answer to the first question.
  • Bring the full group back together and ask for sample responses to the question (not a formal reporting process, just sample responses from a number of people).  Similar insights and questions will probably begin to emerge.  Record them on a flipchart.
  • Have someone read the passage through a second time.  Tell them to pay attention to the following question: what does this passage mean for my/our ministry at Nativity during the next ten years?
  • Divide them into the small groups of three again and give them 10-15 minutes to share in response.
  • Bring the full group together and ask for sample responses. Record the responses on a flipchart.
  • Have someone read the passage through aloud a third time.  Tell them that the question to ask this time is: what is God calling us to do in our group’s ministry at Nativity during the next year?
  • Divide them into small groups and have them share for 10-15 minutes.
  • Bring the full group together and record responses.  Pay attention to patterns that emerge.
  • Put the flipchart pages on the walls around the room so everyone can see them.

3.  Hand out paper and crayons, and ask each person to draw a picture or symbol that gives an image of the insights they got from the Bible study, something that would represent what they believe God is calling your group’s ministry at Nativity to become.  Give them 5 minutes to complete this exercise.

4.  Go around the room and ask each person to share their picture and describe what it represents.  On a flipchart, record insights or different components of what people are seeing.

5.  Together, begin to describe what God is calling your group’s ministry to look like ten years from now.  What happens in the ministry?  Who is involved?  What kind of spiritual growth and discipleship is happening in the ministry?  What kind of people are leading it and participating in it? How is this ministry reaching out to new people who are not yet a part of the church?  How is it building ones who have been around longer into better disciples?  How is it transforming lives?

6.  Together, create a short news story that describes your group’s ministry as it exists ten years from now.  What is it doing, how are people growing, what would a religious news reporter see as exciting in the group?  (You may choose to create small groups of three and have each group appoint a “reporter” who will interview the others and write a short news story.)

7.  Now, looking at your group’s news story/stories, start thinking about what first steps we should take over the next year to get to that ten-year vision.

  • What kind of resources do you need – personnel, money, time?
  • What work needs to be done to make that vision a reality?
  • What contribution will this ministry make to the full Nativity family?
  • How will this ministry transform lives with the love of Jesus Christ?
  • What are your group’s top three priorities for the coming year?

8.  From there, each group reports to the vestry, and the vestry identifies over-arching themes, agrees on its top three or four priorities for the coming year, decides how to allocate resources to those priorities, communicates the priorities to the ministry groups, and asks each ministry group to be in charge of implementation and accountability.

I am not saying that this process is the best possible way to do visioning in the church.  But we have had good results so far.  The group leaders (who are ministry leaders working with their ministry groups) report terrific, Spirit-filled visioning sessions.  The groups have come up with amazingly coherent plans that, without much effort on the part of the vestry, naturally highlight three or four clear, over-arching priorities.  Every group has, in one way or another, identified evangelism and discipleship growth as a clear strategic priority.
How have you done strategic discernment in your congregation?
Blog posts by Susan Snook prior to March 2013 can be found on her old blog, here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s