November 2017
Vision and Planning

Five Pitfalls of Strategic Thinking

As your congregation tackles daily ministry in a rapidly changing neighborhood, challenging financial climate, or perhaps in a different language – the prospect of strategic planning may seem too daunting. Traditional strategic planning, with its focus on producing a detailed mission statement, setting ambitious goals, and its longer time horizon (often three to five years) can discourage you before you even get started.

That’s why the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) encourages congregations to undertake a strategic thinking process rather than a traditional strategic planning or visioning process. Working through strategic thinking, a congregation articulates its core values, missional identity, and vision – that hopeful future picture of the congregation and community when it accomplishes its mission. Strategic thinking trains leaders to apply a strategy filter to identify and set only those goals that are aligned with the congregation’s core values and vision, and make informed, real-time decisions that help bring that vision into being.

Although strategic thinking can be a user-friendly and encouraging process, it’s not without its challenges. ECF’s Strategic Solutions leadership recently reflected on several common pitfalls they’ve observed as they’ve worked with congregations.

1. Thinking you know the answer before you start.

“Congregations discussing their future are sometimes influenced by those who wistfully present the ‘if only’ list,” Linda Buskirk, an ECF Consultant based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says. “‘If only we had a youth minister, then we could attract families.’ ‘If only we had a new organ, then more people would attend worship.’ ‘If only we had more money,’ ‘If only we had a gym,’ etc.”

But strategic thinking, Linda says, “calls us to set aside the ‘if only’ list in order to take a deep breath and think beyond the daily routine’s worries and burning fires. It offers the opportunity to listen deeply as people of the congregation describe what they love to do with their gifts, and what they truly want to share with others. The result is a vision for the impact of the church’s ministries, which in turn inspires participation and energy. All that can be missed if only the presumptive ‘solution’ is sought.”

2. Thinking only the vestry needs to participate.

Donald Romanik, ECF’s President and a member of the Strategic Solutions team, advises against keeping strategic thinking information too tightly held. “While the rector and vestry need to lead the process and be held accountable for its success,” Donald says, “any visioning and planning initiative is doomed for failure without the participation and buy-in of the broader congregation.”

“While you need to create an open and inclusive listening process, at some point it has to end and the leadership has to move forward with actual planning and implementation,” Donald cautions. “Often, there is a gadfly or a ‘bomb thrower’ who is going to try to sabotage or thwart the process every step along the way. While rectors have a critical role in helping to articulate observations, common themes, and experiences, they need to step back and become an active listener. There will be plenty of time for the rector to chime in and make it happen.”

3. Ignoring constituencies.

“Several years ago, I received a panicked call from a senior warden in a parish in the Northeast,” Erin Weber-Johnson, Senior Program Director for Strategic Resources and Client Services, recalls. “This small parish’s vestry internally engaged in a traditional visioning process which was limited to the vestry alone – without consulting the broader congregation or ministry heads of leadership. The visioning process ultimately led to the determination that a capital campaign was necessary to live into the vestry’s vision for the parish. They engaged an expensive architect and sub-contractor to redesign the parish’s small kitchen space. A plan was developed. The vestry was surprised when, after taking the plan to the congregation, they learned there was little support. In fact, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) were very angry. One woman noted, ‘I was not asked my opinion and I spend all my time in this space. Doesn’t God speak to me too? Why is it that I’m only approached now when they need money?’

“This cautionary tale reminds us of why it is important to include everyone in a broad listening process,” Erin says. “In the Episcopal Church, we believe God still speaks today through the Holy Spirit and this Holy Spirit speaks to us individually and collectively as a faith community. Asking ‘What is God calling your faith community to do or be?’ requires a commitment to ensuring all voices are asked and heard. This requires developing an intentional plan for including all members through multiple listening opportunities.

Erin continues, “There’s an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.’ A visioning process can be life-giving for your faith community when all are included.”

4. Forgetting God in the vision.

The strategic thinking process can seem very practical and task-oriented, so it’s crucial to keep God in the forefront of the vision. Jeannette McDonald, an ECF Consultant based in New Hampshire, acknowledges that “often we are driven by our agenda. We are quite good at getting things done, crossing this and that off the to-do-list, but when it comes to listening and being still so we can hear God’s voice, it just doesn’t come easily.”

Jeanette notes, “The foundation of strategic thinking is listening to the wisdom of the whole community as it has been revealed through the love and wisdom of God.”

5. Approach-avoidance – because it’s never the “right time.”

“Congregations often don’t like to face their shortcomings,” notes Janet Lombardo, an ECF Consultant. “They think, ‘If we just keep doing what we are doing it will all work out.’ The question becomes ‘Why are you doing what you are doing and how long have you been doing it this way?’ This is where strategic thinking can be very helpful. God calls us to ministries and missions for a time. Few things are meant to last forever. If a congregation refuses to take a close look at what they are doing and why, they will lose their relevance with the community around them. Strategic thinking helps to refocus your energy on where God is calling you now. Today. When we work where God calls us to be, the work itself will be life-giving and our witness to our community will be strong. No more excuses!”

If you’d like to learn more about ECF’s strategic thinking process, visit ECF’s website. You can also learn more by viewing ECF’s “Strategic Visioning and Planning for Congregations” webinar.

Susie Erdey is Program Director for Strategic Resources and Client Services at ECF. In this role, she supports the broader responsibilities of this program area, especially in the areas of relationship management, customer service, outreach and coordination with the other program teams. Susie is a non-profit management professional with over 20 years of service to Episcopal Church-related organizations, including dioceses, schools and seminaries, and parishes.


  • ECF First Step, an assessment tool for congregations seeking to grow in strategy, leadership, and finances
This article is part of the November 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Vision and Planning