Thanks for the very thoughtful emails and responses to last week’s post about whether church is more like a family/community or more like a society/enterprise. If you haven’t already, you should go and read Callan Pritchard’s reflections in the comments. Very insightful.
(And if you didn’t get last week’s post because you’re not a ‘Payneful partner’ and you only get these free posts every three weeks or so … well, there’s something you can do about that as well.)
One implication of last week’s discussion is that if churches do have at least some characteristics of a society or enterprise, then we have purposes or outcomes that we seek together—purposes that are given to us by God, according to his marvellous plans in Christ. And if that is the case, then it’s reasonable to ask how we could go about seeking those purposes or outcomes in the best way possible.
And that brings us, perhaps reluctantly, to the difficult business of ‘strategy’ …
Campus Bible Study is doing something radical. For the first time in three decades we’re officially doing some ‘strategic planning’—and everyone is a bit nervous.
There’s a voice in most of our heads saying, “Strategy, schmategy! Do we really need all this stuff? These ‘Wildly Important Goals’ and ‘Key Strategies’ and ‘Vision Statements’, and all the rest? Can’t we make ‘glorify God’ our Wildly Important Goal and ‘prayerfully proclaim Christ’ our Key Strategy, and just get on with it (like we’ve been doing pretty effectively for the last three decades)?!”
I have these thoughts and feelings, I have to confess. In fact, it’s because of these thoughts and feelings, and the current state of play in the CBS ministry, that I’ve come to think that it’s just the right time for us to do some strategic planning. Just as Nixon was the right president to go to China, so it is anti-pragmatist, Bible-obsessed, sovereignty-of-God-loving strategy-sceptics like us who are just the right people to do some strategic planning.
Let me explain why, and why you should possibly do some strategic planning too, if you’re sceptical enough about it.
First of all, what is ‘strategic planning’?
‘Strategic planning’ is just ‘planning’, except more so.
Planning is leaving work early and taking a slightly different route so as to get milk at the servo on the way home. Strategic planning is the work that the milk corporation did to get that bottle of milk into that servo, positioned and marketed in such a way that you chose to buy it.
'Strategic planning’ is just like other planning in that it considers our present situation (milkless), looks forward to some future desired state of affairs (avoiding wifely wrath upon returning home milkless), and then formulates a plan of action that hopefully achieves that outcome (detour via servo). In the currently popular jargon, all planning consists of asking Now? Where? How?
'Strategic planning’ is just a bigger, more complex and more far-reaching version of the everyday planning we all constantly do. It considers the current state of play more broadly and deeply, looks further into the future to articulate some goals or outcomes, and then works out a co-ordinated plan of action that encompasses a larger, more complicated mesh of people and resources. It’s not just looking at how one soldier might prevail in one personal fight but at how the whole army is going to work together to win the war. (In fact, that’s where the word ‘strategic’ comes from. As Gus from My Big Fat Greek Wedding might say, “is come from the Greek word strateuo, which is mean ‘to wage war’”).
So strategic planning of some kind becomes necessary the larger and more complex any enterprise becomes. If we’re going to avoid working at cross-purposes, or setting up little independent fifedoms, it’s really useful to articulate clearly what we’re trying to achieve together, and the main priorities or approaches we’re all going to focus on in order to do that.
And that’s where it gets interesting for us evangelical Calvinists.
We say, “Yes, Yes, we understand all that. But isn’t the diagnosis of our current circumstances, and the outcome we’re shooting for, and indeed the main strategies for achieving that already given to us by God? Our Now is this present evil age, our Where is the glory of Christ in making disciples of all nations, and our How is to prayerfully proclaim the Word. And besides, isn’t God in control of the future? Isn’t it the height of folly and arrogance to declare that we are going to achieve outcome X in three years time?”
But none of this actually obviates the need to think through what we’re actually going to do together over the next two or three years (i.e. ‘strategic planning’). It just disciplines and determines the kind of ‘strategic planning’ that we do as evangelicals.
It means, for example, that the diagnosis of our current circumstances will start with the Bible’s description of the world, the flesh and the devil as unavoidable realities of our ‘Now’. What are the particular characteristics and manifestations of the ‘present evil age’ where we are ministering, and what difficulties and possibilities does it present?
It means that our ‘Where’ will be some particular, localized version of a theologically determined purpose—‘making disciples who make other disciples, in ever increasing number’ (or something like that). Given the circumstances and people and opportunities God has given us, could we articulate some concrete expression of God’s purposes—something that would help us all work well together?
And it means that our ‘How’ will be working out in exactly what manner we’re going to speak the Word prayerfully together in order to work towards those desired outcomes—because there are an almost infinite number of different ways we could use our time and resources and gifts to proclaim Christ faithfully. We could hold church meetings seven times a week and twice on Sundays. We could go door-knocking every afternoon. We could cancel all church programs except the Sunday service and a monthly all-night prayer meeting, and release the congregation to make more non-Christian friends and evangelize. And a million other possibilities.
It’s unavoidable that with our limited time and people and resources, we have to make some choices about exactly how we are going to proclaim Christ together to the glory of God. We aren’t at liberty to use any other method or approach than proclaiming Christ, nor would we want to. But we still have to say yes to some things and no to others—to figure out the particular time, manner, people and circumstances that will come together in order for biblical ministry to happen. Our finitude requires it, even as our finitude also means that the goals we set and the particular approaches we plan are subject to the sovereign rule and judgement of God.
As James 4:13-16 reminds us, we are very finite and temporary. It’s not that planning is inappropriate—but plans that do not acknowledge our finitude and God’s infinitude are arrogant and boastful. We can agree on a ‘desired outcome’ together, and work hard towards it, but it is always a ‘desire’ that we are earnestly seeking under God, not a goal that it is within our power to achieve. (I quite like the phrase ‘desired outcome’.)
All of this means that ‘strategic planning’ may be a necessary and desirable thing to do in the world that God has made—but only if we do so in the way that Proverbs and Ecclesiastes urges us to seek wisdom. Like all wisdom, wise and godly ‘strategic planning’ must begin with the fear of the LORD, and proceed with a deep awareness of how flawed, frustrating and unpredictable our world is (and we are). Good planning needs the optimism of Proverbs to seek good outcomes through wise action in the good, orderly world God has made, as well as the humility and pessimism of Ecclesiastes that all such efforts take place under the sun and will in some measure fail.
It’s very possible to love strategic planning too much—to be too optimistic about our ability to understand all the variables, to see into the future, and to devise the brilliant strategy. And the opposite of course is also true—it’s very possible to unreasonably avoid strategic planning because it exposes us to the reality of failure (and we find that difficult).
But as soon as things get larger and more complex, some form of co-ordinated forethought becomes necessary—and that’s all that ‘strategic planning’ really is. Campus Bible Study is definitely big and complicated enough to need it. I strongly suspect your church is as well.
And pausing every now and then to do so is very useful. It does us good to look up from the weekly grind, to look around at what is happening, to look forward to what we might achieve together by God’s grace, and to think through together just how we might go about doing that. Very often, we discover that we’ve drifted off course or off message, and need to re-affirm together what God’s purposes for us are. And very often, just the exercise of each person trying to articulate what they’re currently doing and why can be extremely illuminating. (“You thought THAT was our big priority? I’ve been on the church staff for three years and I’ve never even heard that mentioned!”)
So we’re going to give strategic planning a go, and perhaps you should consider it too.
But only if you don’t really want to.
What’s your tendency? Do you love planning and strategizing, or do you lean more towards being intuitive and flexible? And what strengths and weaknesses are there in each tendency?
And if you’ve actually done some strategic planning recently, why not share with the rest of us how it went and what you learned in the process? (Put it in the comments section, or send me an email and I’ll share it around.)