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Planning with Intentionality for Your Church’s Future

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I could hear the discouragement in Jim’s voice as I talked with him on the phone. “I just know God is giving me this vision,” he told me. “How can I get my leadership team to buy into it?”

I knew Jim was a capable guy, and a natural pastor. He had taken this church a couple of years earlier, and they loved the new and energetic weekend services that Jim had designed. That, along with caring for the people he loved, had been the primary focus of Jim’s tenure at the church.

Jim went on to tell me about getting his leadership team together the previous week, and trying to get them to see into the future. He realized they needed a plan. But Jim and his leadership team seemed to be speaking different languages, and the vision he had been trying to communicate did not give a very stirring picture. I realized that Jim’s greatest need was not merely a plan, but a planning process.

Jim is like so many other pastors who are faced with the big task of leading a church. Pastoring and leading often require totally different skill sets. Planning church activities and sermon series are quite different from leading people to plan together for the future of a church.

In my experience as a church planter, pastor, and mentor to other ministry leaders, I have come to several conclusions regarding the planning process.

    • There are distinct levels of planning – each of which must be approached differently. Churches failing to distinguish these levels will find their resulting plans lacking and even unrealistic.
    • Churches typically don’t view planning as a systematic, ongoing process, but rather as a one-time event. However, occasional leadership retreats are not sufficient to answer the “What’s next?” question for a church.
    • Churches often fall short in the clarity of their corporate language with regard to planning. Definitions of planning and planning levels often overlap, leading to great confusion.
    • Perhaps most importantly, churches often expect leaders to function effectively at every level of planning, when this is simply not how most leaders are wired and gifted.


Levels of Organizational Planning

      One of the first keys to successful planning is the ability to differentiate between the various levels of organizational planning. Successful organizational planning is a systematic, multi-step process which involves distinct levels and ongoing hard work. There are four distinct dimensions of planning which leaders must take into consideration. These include Visionary, Missional, Strategic, and Tactical planning, and each dimension has its own considerations, functions, leaders, and “shelf life.”


      This 4-D approach is appropriate for any organization, – church, business, non-profit, volunteer organization, etc. In this month’s newsletter, we will talk about the first two of those ‘dimensions’ of planning.


Visionary Planning


      Vision must be the driving force within any organization. I define vision as “a compelling picture that depicts what could be, and what should be, in the organization’s future.” In our church context, I like to describe vision as God sending us a snapshot of our future. That picture doesn’t usually come into view suddenly, but is often so big that it takes a long time to download.


      God typically gives vision to a church’s senior leadership over time, as the organization goes through ups and downs, successes and mistakes, and learns lessons along the way. Eventually, enough of the picture comes into view that it can be deciphered and communicated.


      It is important to note that there should be one unifying vision, not several. Multiple visions are also known as di-vision. While this may seem an obvious danger, it is often tempting to sell out the one vision for more leaders. Other visions sound good; we need more leaders; therefore, we let these people (and their divergent visions) into our leadership circle. It’s not that these alternate visions are bad or “wrong,” but they may be wrong for your situation at the time.


      I tell our folks that God provides a canvas, while members of the church family are each provided with a paintbrush. As the vision snapshot becomes clearer through effective communication by the leadership, we each pick up our brush and paint a few strokes, representing our contribution to the fulfillment of the vision. This is a picture of 1 Corinthians 12, as the brush strokes reflect with our unique role in the Body.


      The result, over time, is a reproduction of that original snapshot, with contributions by as many as possible in the Body. This level of individual participation creates a strong sense of ownership, because everyone helped paint the picture.


      Over time, however, a vision can “run dry”. There is usually great excitement surrounding a well-articulated vision in the early years after its introduction, but that excitement can wane as time goes on. Because of this, the planning “horizon” for a vision extends from about 4-6 years, at which point the vision will need renewal. In a healthy church, a new vision will be articulated even before the prior vision is fulfilled.


Missional Planning


      The second dimension of intentional planning is missional planning. The vision is all about what is to be. It is a future state. Organizationally, it doesn’t just happen; there must be intentionality in the pursuit of the vision. For every vision, there must be a mission, aimed at bringing the vision to reality.


      I remember watching “Mission: Impossible” on television as a kid. Each week Peter Graves would locate a well-hidden cassette tape player. The tape-recorded message would describe his next assignment, before self-destructing in a cloud of smoke. He had a new taped message each week (at least until summer reruns). For each mission, the message laid out a description, a starting point, and a finish.


      The lesson from the MI show is that a mission is very action-oriented, and it has a completion point. However, the way “mission” is typically viewed in the church is very confusing. Many mission statements are in fact not very action-oriented, and many of them lack a clear completion point.


      I realize this may be a very different definition of “mission” than many leaders are familiar with. Therefore, in our ministry, we also acknowledge an overarching “purpose” to our ministry, which is reflected in Jesus’ Great Commandment and the Great Commission. In my opinion, this should be the purpose of every church. This “purpose” answers the question, “Why do we exist,” and the answer to this question never changes. A “mission,” on the other hand, must change as a church moves toward the vision horizon.


      In putting together an effective mission, a church must address these key questions:


      1. What is the vision of the church?
      2. What is the most important course of action that must be pursued in order for the vision to be fulfilled?
      3. How do we know when that course of action is complete?
      4. How do we best communicate that course of action?


      The mission of the church is the single comprehensive course of action that catalyzes the fulfillment of the vision. Everyone in the organization, with no exceptions, needs to buy into the mission, in order for the organization itself to succeed. The mission statement, then, must clearly communicate what must be done in order to help bring about what is to be. It must be action-oriented, brief, and simple enough to commit to memory.


      An effective organizational mission is strongly tied to its vision. Therefore, the mission must be renewed at least as often as the vision is renewed. It is very possible that over the course of a visionary life cycle, fulfillment of that vision will require multiple associated missions. After all, moving toward the vision is a process – a process that may require several major courses of action. In such a situation, the stated mission should be constantly revisited, to make sure that it still communicates the primary course of action.


      As the cast of “Mission: Impossible” worked toward the vision of a better and safer world, they assumed a different mission every week. Over the life of a vision, the mission won’t change nearly as often. In fact, changing the vision more than once during the visionary life could lead to serious organizational instability. But more than one mission will be needed to fully enact the vision.


    In our next post, we will explore Strategic and Tactical planning.