Many Christian leaders equate God’s direction with spontaneous insight designed to give general directions, not specific instructions. While that might work when making minor organizational changes, it will not work when leading major change. Major change requires carefully formulated, clearly written, formally adopted strategic plans.
Christian leaders are not always comfortable thinking strategically or writing “business plans.” Those shortcomings have to be overcome by leaders who want to lead major change in a ministry setting. Major change requires strategic thinking, strategic planning, and the creation of strategic documents to give form to the process.
Strategic Document Myths
One reason Christian leaders shy away from developing strategic documents is a wrong idea of what they are. The best strategic documents are relatively short. They are not huge notebooks with reams of detailed plans. Good strategic documents articulate an organization’s mission, vision, values, goals, action items, financial summaries, and general time lines. I learned this lesson the hard way after one of my worst leadership failures.
Before trying to relocate the church in Missouri, we tried to develop a strategic plan for the future. We needed, it seemed to me, a re-formation of our church. We had broken systems and disorganized programs. We lacked long-range focus toward the future. While moving the church to a new location might come later, first we needed a dramatic change in ministry direction. We created a Long Range Planning Task Force to chart our future, and they went to work.
After many months of meetings, we produced a mega-notebook of detailed goals, action items, budget allocations, and specific time lines charting our path for the next several years. Just getting the notebook finished took a lot of arm-twisting and personal pressure. When we presented the plan to the church, to say it was not well-received is a kind understatement. It resulted in the worst church meeting so far in my ministry. Almost thirty years later, a friend who was at the meeting confirmed to me it was also his worst church meeting in sixty years of church involvement. It was really bad! People saw the plan for what it was—an overreaching attempt to force the church into a straightjacket of future commitments they could not fulfill. They rejected it outright, with well-placed frustration, anger, harsh words, and a resoundingly negative vote.
What went wrong? Besides my insecurity and immaturity driving me to micro-manage the process, the biggest problem was the report went far beyond “strategic direction” to “operational control.” The level of detail was impossible to consider in a public forum. A good plan would have contained one or two pages of goals directly connected to our mission, along with an outline of a process for the details to be determined incrementally by appropriate decision makers (as needed and as progress was made). The report died a quick but bloody death. While discouraging in the moment, this plan’s rejection kept the church from unduly limiting its future options. After a few months, everyone had recovered emotionally and spiritually. About two years later, using a very different approach, we successfully started the relocation project, which ultimately resulted in a new future for the church.
When we shifted the convention from a church-services to a kingdom-expansion organization, the strategic document was only one-page—even with graphics. When we started the Oregon church, the entire strategic document was again only one page. The strategic document to move the seminary was more detailed, but not the notebook you might expect. We summarized the strategy in a few pages. The potency and specificity, not the length, determines the value of strategic documents.
Writing strategic documents is challenging because it is easier to write long documents than short ones. A longer paper can go on and on, explaining every detail and delving into interesting (but not always pertinent) information. Writing a shorter, more specific document forces leaders to write what they really mean. It also forces them to think through what they really plan to do, how it can be done, when it will be done, and how decisions will be made along the way.
Some leaders mistakenly think a longer presentation always carries more weight. Not necessarily true. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—only 272 words—is still more powerful today than thousands of longer political speeches given by lesser leaders. Shorter can be better than longer.
Some leaders are reluctant to write strategic documents for another reason: accountability. When something is written, it becomes more permanent. It can always be changed, but those changes must be made intentionally—often involving permission from others like a board or leadership team. When a plan is written and publicized, it adds gravitas to the ideas. It also intensifies responsibility as leaders hold themselves accountable and are held accountable by others.
When people are asked to support a major change, their willingness to make it happen and their capacity to navigate the transition are strengthened by a confidence-inducing plan. When followers can see the whole picture—where they are being asked to go and a reasonable plan to get there—they are more likely to embrace the change and endure the transition. Their losses become more manageable because good strategic planning crystalizes hope and projects real future possibilities. Managing transition is made easier when change is initiated with sound planning, not just with spontaneous impulses by a charismatic leader.
Excerpted with permission from Leading Major Change In Your Ministry by Jeff Iorg. Copyright 2018, B&H Publishing Group.