Should a Church Set Goals?

Years ago I noticed a certain pattern in the ministry I was leading. Every summer our leadership team would meet to plan for the upcoming year. We set out flip charts and sticky notes. We would brainstorm, discuss, and even debate ideas. We put events on the calendar and talked about our roles and responsibilities—all the while praying for God’s guidance and consuming massive amounts of snack food. It felt like we were doing all the right things. Yet despite our best intentions, each year ended up looking and feeling a lot like the year before.

Until the summer we decided to set a goal. At the time, our ministry included a little over 100 young adults. We decided we wanted to reach 300. It wasn’t a magic number. It didn’t come from a particular verse or story in Scripture. It was simply a goal.

We didn’t know if it was the right decision or if God might redirect us to a different outcome along the way. But we committed to doing everything in our power to reach it. That one decision changed how we planned, how we prayed, what we said yes to, and what we said no to. It guided how we used our resources and helped us inspire and equip our leaders. It seemed so simple, and yet it changed almost everything.

Since that time, I’ve become even more convinced that setting clear and concrete goals is an essential part of ministry leadership. I’ve seen the evidence in numerous contexts and from a variety of leaders.

Great goals do not have to be related to attendance or revenue. But they should be measurable in some way and should be clearly connected to the vision or mission of the church or ministry. In other words, a goal is a catalyst for achieving your mission—it’s not the mission itself.

Yet some leaders resist setting goals because it feels less spiritual or even superficial. Are we imposing our will on God’s? Are we invoking self-reliance instead of trusting God?

While some are convinced leaders should “just do your best and leave the rest to God,” I want to share five reasons goals can change your leadership and your ministry for the better.

Setting a goal creates a dilemma you wouldn’t otherwise face.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and proposed that the United States should commit to sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely back to earth by the end of the decade. At the time, NASA lacked the resources, infrastructure, and technology to achieve such an end, and the Soviets were already ahead in the space race. Kennedy’s goal presented the nation with a seemingly impossible dilemma, a dilemma that sparked the innovation, sacrifice, collaboration and unwavering commitment to see the goal become a reality.

Jesus did something similar with his disciples long before space travel. One day, as Jesus was teaching a large crowd, the disciples pulled Jesus aside and said, “The crowds are hungry and we don’t have enough food.” To which Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat.” In other words, “I want you to feed 5,000 people. Make sure no one goes home hungry.” This was more than a task; this was a goal. You can imagine the disciples looking at each other, thinking, “How are we going to do that?” That one goal created a dilemma, which sparked actions that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, which eventually led to the miracle that changed thousands of lives.

Like those disciples, we need goals to stay engaged with the dilemmas of our day. We need to be constantly wrestling with the question, “How are we going to do something about that?” It could be planting a certain number of churches, recruiting a certain number of volunteers, or reaching a certain number of people. Being aware of the need is not enough. You need a goal to motivate change and action.

A friend of mine leads in a non-profit that serves at-risk youth. His team worked for years to curb the violence in their neighborhood. A unique breakthrough came when they set a goal to see kids in their program go to college. This sparked new initiatives, unique programs, including a music studio for students to practice and record music. More importantly, their students are going to college.

The church today faces more difficult dilemmas than ever before. Setting a goal to confront just one of the issues in your context might be the only way your ministry can become part of the solution.

Setting a goal leads to conversations you wouldn’t otherwise have.

One of the realities facing many church leaders is a lack of collaboration and feedback. I was recently talking to a leader who works at a church that offers a long list of programs to help people find community. They had small groups, Bible study groups, marriage groups, home groups, membership groups, Old Testament role-play groups. Well, maybe not that last one, but you get the picture.

The frustration she described was not about the number of programs, but the lack of conversation and feedback between the different teams. Of course, all the leaders shared a heart for Jesus and a desire to see people find community and grow. But they didn’t feel the need to work closely with each other because they didn’t share a unifying goal.

A few years ago, the leadership team I currently serve on felt God leading us to launch five new multisite campuses over a five-year period. Given our resources and infrastructure at the time, it was a daunting task. But the impact of setting that goal was amazing. It pulled our different teams and departments together to talk about what it would take to get there—and how we could only get there together.

A shared goal brings people together to share ideas and collaborate. A shared goal can help align teams that might otherwise feel separate or even in competition. A shared goal opens the door for the feedback about how we can improve or innovate. A shared goal means we won’t fail alone and we can only succeed together.

Of course, not all goals are created equal. A misguided goal can do more harm than good. One of the best ways to choose a wise goal is to start with the question, “What difference is God calling us to make?” to be followed by “And how would we know we’re closer to that one year from now?” Questions like that can spark a prayerful process of envisioning what God can do in your midst while also creating appropriate dialogue about where change or fresh direction is needed. The fruit of that process could be an exciting goal.

One of the best ways to avoid setting a superficial or myopic goal is to expose the idea to ample feedback and potential from the appropriate leadership team or governing body. Some goals may require elder consent or even a vote by the congregation. Understanding your context is key to discerning how to lead a goal-process forward.

But know that no amount of prayer or processing can eliminate all the possible risks. Almost any goal can become self-serving, just like any leader can become self-absorbed. Equally important to choosing the right goal is being open to what you will learn along the way.

Setting a goal provides opportunities to learn and grow.

A professor of psychology at Stanford University, Carol Dweck, wrote a book called Mindset, in which she suggests that individuals see themselves in one of two ways. The first, a “fixed mindset,” means I assume my intelligence, capability, and potential are basically fixed assets. Setting a goal is therefore something to avoid because if I fail, it means I didn’t have what it takes, and therefore I’m a failure. The second mindset, a “growth mindset,” means I view my potential as something that is constantly expanding as I learn and grow from both achievements and mistakes. Setting a goal is exhilarating because, even if I fail to reach it, I’ll learn from it and be better next time.

There’s a powerful lesson here for churches and church leaders. Too often we avoid setting goals because we know we might fail to reach it—and we fear that failure will define us. This “fixed mindset” not only limits our God-given potential but also runs counter to the very gospel of grace that we say we believe.

If you commit to setting goals in your church or organization, you’re not always going to reach them. And that’s a good thing. Because the church can only be what God calls it to be when we are willing to learn, when we are able to change course based on outcomes and feedback. A church that sets out to reach new families in its neighborhood might discover that local families find its current ministries irrelevant to their daily lives. That’s not a pleasant discovery, but it’s an essential one if reaching those families is what you actually want to see happen. But the only way you can learn this lesson is to set a goal to reach those families and be open to learning what may be getting in the way.

Ministries that grow aren’t necessarily more polished or professional, they simply have a growth mindset. They set clear objectives and aim to learn as much as they can along the way. Churches that have a fixed mindset need goals to help break free of the fear of failure and step into their God-given and God-empowered potential.

Setting a goal provides focus you wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

One of the greatest challenges facing a church leader today is how to stay focused. Every day something that seems quite urgent lands on my desk or in my inbox. It could be a complaint, a request, a question, or a conflict about the color of napkins in our fellowship hall. You know the drill. There are enough demands on my time and energy to fill every hour of my day—and still not get to everything. Which is why I keep a card on my desk with our church’s big goal written on it. It reminds me every day of what matters most and therefore where I should spend my best energy and effort.

Without a goal, leaders live at the mercy of what feels urgent in the moment. If you lack focus, you’re at the mercy of whoever is loudest or who’s been at your church the longest. Maybe you’re not sure when to say yes and when to say no. These are often symptoms of a church or ministry without clear goals. The result is not just disappointing outcomes. Leaders stop enjoying their work.

The desire to make a difference that led them into ministry gets lost in the fog of indiscriminate church activity. Break out of the fog—set a goal.

Setting a goal leads to life change you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Not long ago, our church decided not only to count baptisms but also to set a goal to baptize at least twice as many adults as we did the previous year. It was a dilemma for our staff that sparked a ton of conversation. It revealed, sometimes painfully, some of the reasons we weren’t seeing people come to faith. It eventually helped us focus on connecting in new ways with people who didn’t know Jesus. But none of that compared to actually hearing real people share their story of finding new life in Jesus—stories that we might never have heard if we didn’t set that goal.

One of the great challenges around this conversation is the potential superficiality of any goal or metric. Sometimes we have to confess we have aimed for a target that is more about our glory than God’s—and we must change our ways. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid goals or stop counting. In Acts 2, we are told that about 3,000 people were baptized in response to Peter’s sermon. Which means someone was counting. Because every number is a person and every person counts.

That’s why goals matter. That’s why leaders must take the time to prayerfully discern and commit to goals that break them out of their routines, catalyze new conversation and creativity, and ensure the coming year won’t be just like the last one. Because Jesus didn’t tell us to just do church or run programs. He told us to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he commanded. That’s not only a commission, that’s also a goal. All nations. Everything he commanded. Sounds almost impossible, doesn’t it? That’s the point. It’s the dilemma that, if taken seriously, could spark the innovation, sacrifice, collaboration, and, God-willing, the unwavering commitment to see that amazing dream become a reality.

It’s not exactly to the moon and back. It’s so much better.

Scott Scruggs is executive pastor and teaching pastor at Menlo Church in the San Francisco Bay area.

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