Failed Strategy Execution

I’m frequently asked to consult with strategic planning teams as they formulate their process for self study and strategy formation.  In my first meeting with church planners some version of this question inevitably surfaces. “What assurances can you give us that we will actually execute the strategy that we claim during this self study period?”  Following the question is typically a long recital of the congregation’s past failures in executing strategy. Congregations are pretty good at having conversations about planning. They are not as good at executing the strategies that they plan. Why is that?

Strategy formation is one thing. Strategy execution is another. Here’s my “top seven” list explaining why large congregations fail at strategy execution.

  1. Claiming too many strategic priorities.  Look over your congregation’s latest strategic plan. How many initiatives does the plan include? If it’s more than 2-3, it’s too many! Many large congregations create plans that cover the full distance between their present reality and the church that they hope to be when the full reign of God arrives on earth. In five short years they aim to close the gap between their present reality and a vision of their best selves. When leadership claims too many strategic priorities they may as well decide not to do any of them. Too many claimed priorities allow every leader (staff and lay) to pursue whatever they feel most passionate about in the moment, all under the guise of having fulfilled the strategic plan. The congregation loses focus when this happens. 
  2. Not learning to say NO. This reason for failure is closely linked to the first. Once a leadership team has identified their priorities they need to learn to say NO to good ideas that just aren’t in alignment with the claimed direction. This is really hard for large congregations to do. Good ideas and the capacity to bring them to fruition abound.  We want to honor the spontaneity of what may be a Holy Spirit moment. We want to embrace a vision of empowered lay leadership. The challenge is to create a planning process that honors the movement of the Holy Spirit in the plan itself, and honors the passions of the laity in the formation of the plan. If we engage an effective planning process we can feel more comfortable with our “No” because there is a more urgent “Yes” within the plan.
  3. Housing the ownership of the plan someplace other than the governing board.  The governing body of the church is the only body that can effectively own and oversee the plan. A committee of the board can’t really do it on the board’s behalf, because the committee doesn’t have the decision making authority of the full board. The board engages in decision making that takes the congregation away from its strategic focus because they are not as fully immersed in the plan as the committee is. The staff team can’t do it. It’s the job of the staff team to operationalize/manage the plan, but not to provide oversight. The senior clergy leader must have firm ownership of the plan but her role doesn’t have the scope of leadership authority to keep the entire congregation focused. This task belongs to the board. 
  4. Absence of articulated goals, strategies and metrics. Many congregations, as they formulate their strategic plans, pay a great deal of attention to defining the identity of the congregation in the form of a mission statement, vision statement, core values and strategic priorities. They pay lesser attention to translating that strategy into operational goals that can be observed, evaluated and measured in some meaningful way. If the plan hasn’t been “operationalized” it’s likely to fail. The plan needs to be detailed enough so that all of leadership has a shared understanding of “what we will look like if we have executed our strategy effectively.” 
  5. Failing to incorporate the strategic priorities into the performance goals of staff members.  Each member of the staff team should have perfect clarity about what their role is in the execution of the strategic plan in any given year. The collective performance goals of the staff team, if accomplished, should significantly advance the plan.  Staff members should not be allowed to set their own performance goals without consideration of the strategic priorities of the congregation. 
  6. Failure to sunset programs that no longer fulfill the congregation’s mission.  I’ve never engaged a planning process in a large congregation that didn’t surface a need/desire for more programming.  Large congregations love programming and they are always convinced that the way to be more effective in engaging their mission is to offer more/better programs.  Staff teams in large congregations are dying for want of some good program pruning. There is an outer limit to how many programs any given congregation can support with resources and/or participants.  Leaders need to develop a discipline for deciding which programs will end in service to emergent programs that better serve the missional identity of the congregation. 
  7. Failure to allocate resources in accordance with the plan.  In addition to carefully focusing the resource capacity of the staff team, leaders also need to focus the capacity of operating budgets, building usage and administrative support. The day to day decision making that is driven by an operating budget, the allocation of admin staff, and the scheduled use of the building should reflect the strategic priorities identified in the plan. If there isn’t alignment at this level, the plan is likely to fail.

Photo Credit: Greg See at

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