Who Does the Planning?


Who participates in strategic planning in the large congregation? We all know that the overall responsibility for creating a strategic plan resides with the governing board. The board is responsible for the strategic leadership of the congregation. But when it comes to actually formulating the plan, who is involved? Does the board as a whole facilitate the planning process, or is it delegated to a committee? What role does the staff team play? How is the voice of the congregation represented? How much influence should the voice of the senior clergy leader carry? 

I suppose the answer to these questions depends upon your theological perspective about where vision resides in the life of a congregation. Most of the clients that I work with believe that the vision of the congregation, and consequently the strategy that supports the vision, ultimately reside in the hearts and minds of congregational members.

The senior clergy person can articulate a vision on behalf of the congregation, but if the congregation doesn’t resonate with that vision there isn’t much hope that the vision will take hold.

The staff team operates as the organizing managerial center of the large congregation.  However, it is the role of laity, not the staff team to claim the overall strategy. The viewpoints of staff must somehow be incorporated into vision formation. Staff members have their hands on the pulse of ministry and can often name the challenges and opportunities that inform what happens next. How are the voices of staff honored in strategic planning, without being overly influential in the work that belongs to lay leadership?

Most boards find that if they try to facilitate the self study that undergirds a strategic plan, they end up losing focus on their oversight responsibilities. The process of strategic planning (from the ground up) can be a daunting and time consuming undertaking, taking anywhere between six to twelve months to complete. Most large congregations find that they need to form a separate planning team/committee that is accountable to the governing board. These committees are charged with fully engaging congregation members, board and committee members and staff members in a collective dialogue about the future of the congregation.

I am frequently asked to talk about who should serve on the planning team and to describe the team’s role in decision making about strategy. Let’s talk about role first. Once the role of the team has been defined it is much easier to figure out who should be serving on the team.

A planning team operates best when they understand their role as facilitators of dialogue, not decision makers about strategy. The planning team is charged with designing and facilitating a self study process that will create meaningful venues for the congregation to discern, register opinions and explore options. This is done through a carefully crafted process of data gathering that often includes: a congregational survey, listening circles, demographic studies, community leader interviews and congregational visits. The planning team doesn’t need to personally conduct the entire data gathering process, but they do need to design the overall data gathering framework and recruit leaders who can assist.

Once data gathering is complete, the planning team works to facilitate discernment and decision making conversation with congregational leaders. It is not the role of the planning team to “decide” what the strategy and vision should be on behalf of the congregation.  It is their role to make meaning out of the data and to present digestible summaries of the data to the leadership of the congregation. Finally it is the role of the planning team to convene leadership gatherings that invite the articulation of core values, strengths to preserve and the new strategic initiatives. The team synthesizes what it has heard and prepares a planning document to present to the governing board for their final discernment and approval.

The planning team needs to be made up of congregational leaders who can organize people and data, while keeping the larger picture in view. Planning team members should be good process designers, good strategic thinkers and well connected in the life of the congregation so that they can invite widespread participation. Planning teams should be selected on the basis of their ability to represent the entire congregation. They should not be selected based upon their ability to represent a particular constituency or point of view. They should not be selected based on their ability to fund the new initiatives. Teams that are appointed with a representational viewpoint in mind always end up in turf war debates. Teams that are made up of the moneyed members of the congregation often don’t engage in very effective process.

Hands down, the best strategic planning team that I have worked with was made up of the senior pastor, the executive director (pastor), the current church moderator (president), and the four previous church moderators.  Every member of the team was a good strategic thinker, operated on behalf of the whole congregation, and was well connected to congregational communication channels.

How do you engage planning in your context?

Photo Credit: Veeder73 at flickr.com

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