Strategy 101: Ten Simple Planning Mistakes to Avoid

This is an often-requested article I wrote over ten years ago.  I reprint it here, hoping it still offers value to a new audience.

Musicians become true artists by first playing scales. Star athletes exercise daily and practice the same plays time and again so that they can respond in any given situation without thinking. Anyone who ever mastered a craft did so by first learning the basics. Unless you master the basics, you’re likely to make mistakes when it matters most.

Strategic planning is every bit as much art as science. What is true for athletes and musicians is true for leaders as well. If you don’t attend to the basics, you’re likely to make errors. Most strategic planning efforts in local congregations fail, not due to poor work or lack of knowledge or commitment, but due to simple mistakes. Here is a list of the top “don’ts” when planning for your congregation:

1. Don’t waste time being right.

2. Don’t assume concurrence.

3. Don’t gather paper.  Instead, gather information from people.

4. Don’t hurry.

5. Don’t over-plan.

6. Don’t write mission and/or vision statements.

7. Don’t “publish” your plan.

8. Don’t generalize.

9. Don’t plan “for” other people.

10. Don’t be too serious.

Don’t Waste Time Being Right

Working with a mid-size midwestern congregation, I found that it had been stuck in the planning process for more than a year. When I asked the pastor to explain the impasse, he remarked, “Well, we don’t want to change anything until we’re sure we’re on the right path.” Further probing revealed that the leadership team of the church operated under the illusion that there was one correct path to follow. The trap hidden within this mindset is that you will never be certain that you’re on the right path. Certainty is not a part of strategic planning.

When I work with conferences and congregations I always offer one piece of advice up front:

“Doing it right is not as important as doing it well”

In any given situation, there are a variety of beneficial paths to follow. God rarely provides just one option for faithful discipleship. The key to a successful plan for improvement is not in making sure you’re doing the right thing, but in doing a good thing with integrity. Holding an honest appraisal of your current situation, setting critical objectives with measurable goals, delegating responsibility with accountability, and following well-formulated timelines are the primary factors in effective strategic planning.

Don’t Assume Concurrence

Definitions Critical objectives – The priority accomplishments, initiatives, and innovations that will provide the greatest improvement and transformation to the congregation. Measurable goals – The markers and milestones along the way by which you can evaluate how effectively you are reaching your critical objectives.

Prior to my meeting with a large Florida congregation, I met with the pastor and lay leader who spoke glowingly about the strategic plan for their church. The church council had worked for months hammering out a growth strategy for the congregation. The results were sent out, and I was present to facilitate the first open congregational meeting to discuss the plan. It was a disaster. Arguments erupted, tempers flared, and point-by-point the plan was challenged. Finally, a woman rose and asked, “What made you think we wanted a big, new church anyway?” The pastor, shocked and confused asked, “Doesn’t everybody?”

This story illustrates the most common error of all — assuming we know what is important to other people. Most people in church leadership operate at a different level of commitment to the congregation than those sitting in the pew. Often we adopt what is known as “the normative perspective.” The normative perspective assumes that everyone sees an issue in exactly the same way you do. For example, if you were to teach a class, you would face all the students. Your view of the room and the class is accurate, valid, and true. So far, so good. But what if you declared that your view was the “right” view or the “best” view, or the “only true” view? Immediately you see the problem. No two people occupy the exact same space, so no two people hold precisely the same view.

In strategic planning, it is imperative to communicate so that assumptions are tested and true concurrence may emerge. Effective communication can solve many mistakes, but poor communication will create them.

Don’t Gather Paper; Do Gather Information — from People

Effective planning requires the best communication. Dialogue and face-to-face conversation is much more effective than monologue and impersonal contact such as letters, e-mails, and surveys. Make certain that your need for information doesn’t become someone else’s burden. It is the job of the leaders to gather the information, and the way we initiate contact is vitally important. When we engage in dialogue and conversation, the responsibility for communication remains with us — we initiate the communication and are actively engaged from start to finish. When we send a letter, e-mail, or survey and expect someone to respond, we shift the burden of the communication to the receiver. This is poor leadership, resulting in poor communication.

Congregations face this communication issue all the time when they send out letters for financial commitments or collect “time and talent” surveys. The response is always less than one would hope, and the information gathered is questionable at best. If we need to know what people think, feel, care about, or will support, we must make the effort to speak with them directly. Anything less will not provide what we want.

This is also true of demographic information. Research companies assemble comprehensive demographic reports, print them in full-color, package them in fancy binders, and offer them as planning resources. This valuable and essential information is one means by which a congregation or conference can build a comprehensive plan, but it is only one means — a tool, and nothing more. I cannot begin to count the number of congregations I work with that have incredible reports bound in durable binders gathering dust on their shelves. The problem with demographic studies has nothing to do with the materials themselves, but with our inability to use the information they contain. Demographic surveys do not provide us with answers; rather, they help us formulate the best questions. Demographic reports reveal trends and tendencies within a specific area. They show us what appears to be happening. It is then up to us to find out what the trends mean. We do that… by listening. Once again, we talk to people — face-to-face or by phone, but not by letters and surveys — to confirm what the demographics indicate. An old Buddhist proverb says, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.” Demographic surveys are like fingers pointing where we need to look, but they are not the objects of interest.

Don’t Hurry

One principle of strategic planning is, “When the demands of change require that you go faster, slow down.” This counterintuitive instruction is critically important. A hurry-up mentality in the face of fundamental and important change is a sure recipe for disaster. The dilemma we so often face is that we delay change until we are in crisis. It is in crisis times that the coolest heads prevail. Think about crossing a stream with a strong current. As the current crashes along, it is vital to make sure each step is stable and secure. Rushing in without good footing is a good way to drown. Strategic planning requires that we control the process rather than letting the process control us. Hear this loud and clear: If your planning process is driven by clock, calendar, or budget, it is probably doomed to fail!

Effective planning requires that critical objectives and goals drive the process. Anything else will guarantee a poor plan and even poorer results. Good leadership holds an objective view of the whole planning process and refuses to become reactive.

Remember: If it took us years to get where we are, it will probably take more than a few months to get somewhere else…

There is no shortcut to improvement. The best route to our destination is rarely the shortest or the quickest. Good leaders stay the course in the face of pressure from all sides to do things quickly.

Don’t Over-Plan

In light of the instruction not to hurry, this advice may seem like a contradiction; but too much time in planning may eventually rob the group of all energy and enthusiasm for putting the plan into motion. Taking too long to set critical objectives and measurable goals undermines the best creativity, commitment, and morale for a plan. Remember that getting it right is not as important as doing it well. No planning group will ever know all it needs to know to create a foolproof plan.

One myth of strategic planning is that it happens around a table. Although a planning team will need to hammer out ideas and details around the table, the real work of strategic planning is in interaction with other people. Listening to people to find out what they know about the congregation, what they hope for the future, and where they believe God is leading the church cannot happen behind closed doors. Communicating ideas, building awareness of the need for change, creating understanding about the benefits of change, working to involve the entire community of faith in the plan — these activities pull us out of the meeting room and into the community. We never really have the luxury to plan, then do. Strategic planning is a dynamic cycle, not a linear process. Each time we move forward toward a goal, new information emerges that inflluences our thinking. As we grow close to one critical objective, new critical objectives appear in the distance. With the attainment of each measurable goal, we set new goals. In manufacturing, they speak of the Shuart Cycle — PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act). Plans lead to actions that yield results for study and reflection; then adjustments are made that call us to reassess and reevaluate the planning. Although it is important not to over-plan, it is also true that planning never ends. The most effective plans are comprehensive in their inclusion of many tiers of critical objectives with multiple measurable goals. At no time does the plan hang on any one objective that might stall the plan or take too much time and energy to complete. The adage to “think globally, act locally” translates here to “think big picture, but plan small, achievable tasks that lead to the big picture.” In essence, keep moving and don’t get unnecessarily stalled on the details.

Don’t Write Mission and/or Vision Statements

This piece of advice gets me in more trouble than any other, but that doesn’t make it any less true. If you have to write it down, it probably isn’t worth remembering. Mission statements are statements of purpose — why we exist. Our reason for being should be short, simple, easy to remember, and shared by all members of the group. The mission of The United Methodist Church — “to make disciples of Jesus Christ” — fits this rule wonderfully. Certainly, it is incomplete and requires quite a bit of interpretation, but that is what vision is all about — what does the mission look like lived out in this place, at this time, by these people? A mission is a clear phrase that says, “This is who we are.” If a mission statement needs to be written down to be remembered, it is too long, too complex, and it doesn’t “sing” in the hearts of the community. Keep it simple, be direct, and don’t fret if it is incomplete. Organizations that periodically wrestle with the full meaning of their mission stay fresh and vital in the work they do.

Vision, by definition, is a picture, an image, a view, or even a metaphor. Writing down a vision removes it from the realm of the visual and conceptual. Vision is dynamic and evolving — take a walk down any street and keep your eyes focused ahead. As you walk, the scene changes. Distant images come into focus as you move forward, some images are left behind, new objects appear indistinctly in the distance. As you walk, you can shift your gaze to the things right in front of you to things far off. You can swing your gaze from side to side and even turn around to see where you have been. All of this is part of the vision. A vision statement can never be more than a mere snapshot of one particular view from one particular perspective. Most congregations find that after they spend six months carefully crafting a vision statement, within weeks most people don’t remember what it says, and it really doesn’t reflect the thinking of the congregation anyway.

Do not misunderstand: Mission and vision are critically important — which is why we must not reduce them to statements hanging on the wall!

What mission and vision offer a congregation is powerful. Our sense of purpose and the picture that emerges of the ways we might best serve God and neighbor define our identity. Where mission and vision hold the power to transform lives and whole communities is when they are written on people’s hearts. The most effective churches openly converse about their mission and vision without ever unfolding a piece of paper. And the person sitting in the pew can articulate the mission and vision as well as anyone holding a position of leadership.

Don’t Publish Your Plan

I have in my office two dozen beautifully bound, professionally printed, exhaustively constructed strategic plans for local congregations. The work is impeccable, the love and devotion given to their creation immense. These are monumental publishing achievements. Unfortunately, they are works of fiction, because nothing contained within them ever came to pass.

A strategic plan is always a work in progress. The moment it is placed in a binder, it loses vitality. The plan ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end in itself. I meet with church councils that proudly parade their plans before me with multicolored tabs in binders that section the work of teams and sub-teams. As I flip through the binder and ask questions about what has been accomplished and how well the plan is unfolding, I generally meet with awkward silence. Nine times out of ten, the work that unfolds has little or nothing to do with the plan on paper. Early in the process, some unanticipated problem arose, and the original plan no longer worked. Often, I receive calls from pastors and lay leaders who tell me that in their church library are four or five binders of past plans that never succeeded. One Delaware pastor quipped, “If our vision for ministry was to publish long-range plans every five years, then we would be the most successful church in the conference.”

While strategic plans will inevitably require quite a bit of paper, it should be paper that is constantly being worked and reworked. Strategy requires flexibility, creativity, constant modification, and the development of contingencies. A good strategic plan is actually “strategic plans” — with lots of options and multiple pathways from the current reality to the desired reality. Most written plans imply that movement into the future is a straight line and that nothing untoward will happen to slow us down once we begin. This is “best-case scenario” thinking, and it is wonderful when everything falls into place just as we plan; but experience tells us that this rarely happens. Into every plan some rain must fall, and you can count on pitfalls and obstacles along the way. A written plan cannot account for every possible contingency, so don’t invest too much time in publishing your strategic plan. Think less about your “plan” and more about your “strategy.”

Don’t Generalize

Perhaps generalizing should be the number one mistake listed in this article. Most congregational plans fail because they are too “fuzzy” — the critical objectives are too global and ill-defined. While a mission statement may be general, and a vision may lack a certain degree of detail, a strategic plan will provide very specific instructions about how the vision will be realized and the mission fulfilled. Here are some examples of objectives that are too general:

“We will love everyone as Jesus loves us.”

“To change the world for the better.”

“To be the best church in the county.”

The first objective — “we will love everyone as Jesus loves us” — is very subjective and hard to measure. The second objective — “to change the world for the better” — is too large for one congregation and, therefore, disempowering. The third —– “to be the best church in the county” — begs the question of mission and calls the question of “best church.” Each of these objectives could conceivably be a mission, but they offer no clarity of what they would look like lived out. How will we love people? What specific acts lead to a better world? What standards for improvement could make us the best church? One lay leader of the church that set its critical objective as “loving everyone as Jesus Christ,” said, “Everyone I talked to interpreted this goal as ‘be nice’ to other people. We’re already nice, so many people felt satisfied that we could fulfill our plan and not have to change or do anything we weren’t already doing.” A few examples of specific critical objectives — and the goals that support them — follow:

“To improve biblical knowledge throughout the congregation by offering a wide variety of Bible Study and adult education classes.”

“To connect each member of this congregation to a meaningful ministry of service.”

“To clearly tie spiritual formation with daily Christian living.”

The first objective — “to improve biblical knowledge throughout the congregation” — became a priority in a congregation that developed a plan for study and learning over a three-year period of time. As they approached the end of the three years, they envisioned the next level of spiritual development in covenant fellowship groups that practiced traditional spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and fasting.

The second objective — “to connect each member of this congregation to a meaningful ministry of service” — resulted in a plan to help express church members’ faith and devotion to Jesus Christ in concrete acts of service throughout the community. They stopped holding as many programs at the church and began offering to meet people’s needs throughout the community.

The third objective — “to clearly tie spiritual formation with daily Christian living” — led to a comprehensive plan to help people take what they learned in the church into the world, helping them to transform behaviors and live as ministers of the gospel seven days a week.

Each of these objectives gave rise to measurable goals and specific activities that moved the congregation from its former reality toward its desired reality. By being specific in their objectives and clear in their goals, these congregations developed dynamic strategic plans for ministry.

A final note on generalization: effective churches do not try to do a little of a lot of things, but they do a few things very well. Most congregations in The United Methodist Church have limited human and material resources. It is the rare church that can maintain an excellent quality across a wide range of ministries. Faithful stewardship requires us to manage wisely and well what God has given us, not to attempt to compensate for what we lack. The servant with the two talents was rewarded for doing well with two, not for trying to be like the servant with five talents. We honor God with a more faithful stewardship when we are specialists in what we are gifted to do, than when we are generalists in all things.

Don’t Plan “for” Other People

Plan with, not for— that’s the rule. You want to launch a service to reach young adults? Plan with young adults. Want to improve your youth group? Include youth in the planning. Want to offer a meaningful initiation of new members into the fellowship? Have recent new members plan the experience with you.

Many strategic plans develop around new ministry frontiers — doing something we’ve never done before. Those who succeed are those who work with the groups they want to serve to develop the plan. Nothing fails more readily than a plan conceived in a vacuum.

A corollary to this idea is, “Don’t get your plan from someone else.” The hidden trap here is that you can get a plan from somewhere else — what you cannot get is strategy. Strategy is contextual. A good strategy must take into account our history, our values, our needs, our hopes and dreams and desires. Someone else’s plan will not meet these criteria. If we can’t plan for others effectively, others cannot plan for us, either. I work with so many churches that send a team off to this mega-church or that teaching church, and they finally consult me because what they learned isn’t working. The very simple reason that the plan doesn’t work for them was that it was designed as a strategy for a completely different context.

Don’t Be Too Serious

Have fun. Strategic planning can be one of the most complex, grueling, contentious, demanding, divisive, exhausting, frustrating, annoying, thankless, — it sounds like fun, doesn’t it? — jobs you will ever have. (It is also the most interesting, exciting, fulfilling, and inspiring jobs, but you usually experience that part of it in retrospect!) Lighten up whenever and wherever possible. The very best planning teams that I know share meals together, go out to a movie, play badminton or miniature golf, or come to each meeting with a joke to share.

Every group dealing with strategic planning is dealing with change, and change is stressful. We cannot hope to be a faithful church, living with integrity in relationship with an ever-changing world, without dealing with change. Stress can do damage, but one of the best remedies for stress is laughter. The key to keep in mind is: As you do this most serious work, don’t be too serious.

Conclusion

These ten mistakes are common, but can easily be avoided. The reason they happen so often is that we take for granted that they are “non-issues.” However, these simple mistakes can absolutely destroy even the finest planning process. Be on the lookout for these — and any other — mistakes along the way. Strategic planning is vitally important to our congregations. The more faithfully we attend to the basics — using the sheer commonsense God gives us at our birth — the better off we will be in the long run.

Recommended Resources

Morrisey On Planning — A Guide to Strategic Thinking by George L. Morrisey, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Morrisey On Planning — A Guide to Long-Range Planning by George L. Morrisey, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Morrisey On Planning — A Guide to Tactical Planning by George L. Morrisey, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

9 replies

  1. Great points Dan. I was wondering, on a different topic, can you recommend any books dealing with models of organizational structure for the local church?

    • No, and yes. I have never found a good book on organizational structure for churches. In fact, those that have been written focus on unrealistic models — abberations and excpetions, rather than true models — and I am right there with Christian Schwartz (Natural Church Development) that we need principles, rather than models, anyway. That said, I know of three books on organizational theory in the mainstream business publishing world that I find extremely helpful when applied to changing/redesigning/kick-starting a local church culture:

    • Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal
    • Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture by Kim Cameron & Robert Quinn
    • The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization by Peter Drucker and others
    • I cannot help but think spending some time with these resources wouldn’t spark literally dozens of feasible ideas within almost any local church. I hope this is helpful.

  2. Good stuff, and at first I thought it might be good for the Leadership Team but I think it is too long. This is what I think we need to remember on Saturday:

    “Faithful stewardship requires us to manage wisely and well what God has given us, not to attempt to compensate for what we lack.”

    BC

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Good advice! I’m presenting a seminar soon to the congregation about how to improve your communication skills…and often overlooked problem that might inspire: “Don’t assume people understand what you say”.

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