"For the first time, I think I really understand what it means to be an elder." Those were the words of the newest member of our board, at the end of our first "Annual Strategic-Planning Retreat." Some of the other board members nodded in agreement, and I felt a certain sense of triumph as a pastor.
For several weeks, I had been listening to lectures on strategic planning by leaders such as Boone Powell (CEO of Baylor Hospital), Howard Hendricks (director of the Center for Christian Leadership in Dallas), and Don Geiger (then pastor of Reinhardt Bible Church, also in Dallas). They shared the concept of working with a board to develop a vision (and the strategies to implement it) in the local church, and I began to think about the small church I serve.
On one hand, I was excited: if we could develop a team vision, rather than one I'd cooked up, there would be more commitment to it. And the process could catapult our board into a true position of leadership.
On the other hand, I wondered if our board would go for it. I wondered if our congregation would accept such a practice and follow whatever direction the board might set. And, to be honest, I wondered if I could pull off facilitating such a process.
But I decided to try.
Selling the board
At the next board meeting, trying to put things in the best light, I explained that our church needed direction, a sense of mission, a vision tailored to our congregation and our community. I also explained that I didn't want to come up with such a vision myself; I wanted it to be our vision.
The board was surprisingly positive about that, so I decided to play all my cards. I told them I had learned a new method of developing a team vision called strategic planning, and I suggested we set a date for a half-day retreat and try it. They were downright excited.
Setting the stage
To give the meeting a sense of importance, we rented a business conference room-small, cozy, and elegantly furnished-at a local restaurant. Lunch was served for us and coffee and tea were available at all times, so we didn't have to be interrupted. This might seem a trivial point, but working in nice, businesslike surroundings set the right tone.
After small talk and lunch and a brief time of prayer by all the members, I laid out three ground rules:
1. We were to be entirely open with one another. This seems self-evident, but in my experience, church boards are not necessarily characterized by hearty and honest sharing.
2. Creativity and dreaming were encouraged. For my group, this was not something they were used to. In a small town, it is normal to think small and not dare to dream. However, for this day, we committed ourselves to think big thoughts.
3. We would operate on consensus. The goal was the development of a team vision, so there had to be agreement.
The board agreed, so we went on to set forth what might be called the "general vision" of the church from Scripture. We reviewed the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) to remind ourselves that whatever we came up with had to be consistent with the vision of Christ: to make disciples or multiply them. Other churches may express the general vision differently or base it on different passages of Scripture; however, there does need to be some overarching vision for the developing of a local one.
Step 1: Assessment
We had to discover where we were. Each person was given a stack of 3 x 5 cards and asked to list five strengths of our church, five weaknesses, and five opportunities for growth or ministry. Each person shared his list with the group, and I wrote them on the board.
Some of the strengths: good preaching (guess who was glad he had asked for this retreat!), nice building, family atmosphere, smallness, and committed people.
Some of the weaknesses: lack of finances, smallness, poor communication network, a gap between those who had been in the church for a while and newcomers, and a dwindling youth program.
Opportunities: an increasing number of young couples in our community, ministry to the aged (a common opportunity in a small town), and reaching out to youth.
We then tried to set priorities in each list-which strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities were most important right now. Each person looked at the master list we'd created, and on a separate card listed what to him were the five top strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. We had each person then read his lists. Each time a topic was mentioned, it received one "vote," and we simply kept a tally. By this simple math we determined the consensus strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. We now had three lists that represented agreement as to where we were as a church.
Step 2: Vision
The second question: Where did we want to be? We began to dream about what we wanted to see happen in the next year (we felt a year was as far as we could go the first time). The point was to take a couple of strengths and build on them, a couple of weaknesses and improve them, and a couple of opportunities and seize them.
Ideas ranged from wanting to see more growth and improving our financial situation, to rebuilding our youth program and creating ministry aimed at the young couples in our community. Again we went through the process of establishing priorities for these. This would serve as a "Provisional Vision" for the church year.
Step 3: Setting objectives
If we know where we want to go, how do we get there? This is, as one leadership trainer put it, the how of the what. In my opinion, more church boards bog down at this point than any other. It is fun and exciting to dream and come up with a shared vision (a la the process above); it is another thing to think specifically and practically about how to achieve that.
We tackled this step in two phases. Based on our newly stated vision, we created four major categories: finance, outreach, fellowship, and youth (yours, of course, will be different). Then, under each category we brainstormed specific things we could do to reach the goals in that area. (Basic rule: There are no "bad ideas" in such a brainstorming session.) For example, under finance, we wrote "Encourage the people to increase their giving by informing them of the needs of the church," and "Attach a board member to the finance committee." Under outreach, we wrote "Begin a men's breakfast" and "Begin at least one home Bible study." And so on.
To be sure, these are things many churches are already doing. We could have just copied the ideas from them. But by going through the process, the entire board decided the ideas were important based on the direction we wanted to go, rather than just the practices of other churches.
Step 4: Taking responsibility
If we really had arrived at a consensus of vision and objectives for the year, members of the board should have been ready to take oversight of the areas. They were. In a short time, each area was covered by a leader ready to see that his area goal was reached.
The meeting ended with prayer and a commitment to share these ideas and goals with the church.
A year later
We are now planning this year's planning session. The board members remember how much fun we had, and they see how every goal that we set was met!
Some things I will do differently. For one thing, we failed to consolidate our vision (determined in Steps 1 and 2) into a mission statement, a brief sentence that accurately captures the goal. Such a statement can be immensely helpful in communicating the vision to the church, as well as keeping it before the board.
I would also work for longer-range planning. One year is a good place to start, but the world is moving too fast for that to be effective for very long. I would like to work in terms of three or five years.
One more thing I would do differently. I would throw out the fear and hesitation. The process is fun, and it works. Even if it did no more than cement our board together, it was worth it. But it did much more.
-Michael R. Baer
Faith Wesleyan Church
Caddo Mills, Texas
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.