Strategic Planning Is Overrated
At nearly every bookstore, you can find a shelf filled with books promising the next great prescription for church growth and congregational vitality. “In seven easy steps,” they promise, “your congregation will grow by 1,000 percent!” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but you get the picture. Everybody seems to have an idea about what is needed to promote church growth and congregational vitality. Some actually do seem promising, while others project results that simply no program or scheme can predict.
I must confess that a few of those books are on my own bookshelf and the shelves in the library of my parish, Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Just after the two-year mark of my arrival at Trinity, the vestry began exploring ideas and programs that might inject a new sense of life and vitality in the congregation. From the beginning, we made a commitment to avoid the route of the traditional “Five-Year Strategic Plan.” You know…those plans that get written up and then sit on a shelf collecting dust while the parish carries on with business as usual.
So, we turned to some of the aforementioned books. And while some of the programs seemed viable, we knew that the success of one parish’s program didn’t guarantee a favorable outcome at ours. Context matters. And as each parish is made up of wildly different personalities, we knew that whatever program we pursued, it had to be consistent with who we are as a faith community.
A different kind of visioning
Enter ECF and strategic visioning. I came across the organization’s materials on the topic while perusing the Internet one evening. As we all know, the Internet is like a black hole…you go further and further in and can’t resist its pull. As often as not, you come out the other side and realize that you’ve spent two hours researching the history of Mickey Mouse.
But not that night. That night something began to stir within me as I read about strategic visioning. Even at first glance, I could tell this wasn’t the typical strategic plan model. Here was something else – something more organic, more personal, more (dare I say) spiritual.
At the next vestry meeting, I pitched the program to the parish leadership. They, too, were intrigued by what they read from ECF. It wasn’t long before we were in contact with an ECF consultant, and soon after, hosted the first retreat for our Discernment Committee.
A clear path and a process
From the earliest steps in our work with ECF’s strategic visioning process, the intent and trajectory were crystal clear. This would not result in a strategic plan birthed from a brain trust, after an afternoon locked away in a board room. It began with the members of the congregation, the very people who give of their time, talent and treasure to ensure a bright future for our parish.
To be sure, the clergy were involved. But, refreshingly, ours were not the primary voices. Even mine, as the rector, was just one voice among many. Nobody would monopolize the conversation. Our Discernment Committee was made up of a cross-section of the various demographics of the parish. Young and old, conservative and liberal, etc. Multiple voices committed to gather for the better part of a year to pray, talk to one another and dream about how God was calling our congregation forward.
Asking, listening and reflection
After a weekend retreat, where we prayed, ate and dreamed about the possible futures that God might be calling us to, we produced a series of ‘Listening Questions.’ These questions would be used to guide conversation in ten moderated small group discussions with parishioners. We also created an online version for people who couldn’t make it to one of the Listening Sessions.
Nearly 75 percent of the members of the parish participated in these gatherings. Their frank and honest answers to questions about parish identity, programs, authority structures and a whole host of other topics allowed us to get a clear understanding of what the congregation valued about our faith community now and the possibilities that excited them for our future.
From this data, patterns began to emerge. Ranging from what the congregation overwhelmingly identified as most life-giving to what they identified as needing work, these responses shaped what came to be known as our Core Values.
Soon after the Listening Sessions, we held another retreat. At this retreat, we began to prayerfully discern the goals and strategies that we would implement in our mission and ministry moving forward. Finally, almost a year after our first weekend retreat, the vestry adopted the Core Values, Goals and Strategies identified by our Discernment Committee. Furthermore, from the Core Values, we articulated a new Mission Statement for the parish.
A life-giving process
There is no way to capture in words how life-giving this process has been, but I’ll try. For years, our parish was comfortable with business as usual. But we knew instinctively that comfort in the ordinary was not what God was calling us to. By listening to the Spirit, by attending to the life-giving and liberating mission of Jesus, we knew that we had to grow beyond the ordinary.
The Strategic Visioning process drew on the imaginations and spiritual vitality of our parishioners in ways that generated real excitement throughout the whole parish. The Core Values and the Mission did not come from the clergy, who (let’s face it) often fall into clericalism and unhealthy micromanagement. I’ve been guilty of that before.
But thank God for ECF and the Strategic Visioning process. Because of this process, new leadership has emerged, new and inventive programming has been implemented and all our members now share a common language with which to talk about our mission and ministry.
One word keeps coming to mind when I reflect on this process: beautiful. This beautiful parish, full of beautiful people, came together, listened to one another, dreamed together and is now walking into a new, hopeful future. For this, I will be eternally grateful to ECF and the Strategic Visioning process.
Christopher Adams has been the rector of Trinity on the Hill since the summer of 2015 and Dean of the Northeast Deanery of the Diocese of the Rio Grande since early 2018. He is a native Texan, but came back to the Southwest after living in North Carolina for nearly 20 years. He studied philosophy at East Carolina University, theology at Duke University Divinity School and Anglican Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is passionate about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and cares greatly for the worship and liturgy of the Church. He enjoys reading, hiking, playing guitar and anything related to superheroes!
- Not What We Expect by Linda Buskirk, ECF Vital Practices blog, November 30, 2017
- From Vision to Action by Nancy Davidge and Susan Elliott, Vestry Papers, July 2015
- Strategic Thinking for Congregations an ECF webinar presented by Donald Romanik, April 23, 2015
- Strategic Thinking: How our biases impact our parish’s decisions by Erin Weber-Johnson, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 21, 2015