Strategic Discernment, Not Strategic Planning … by Susan Brown Snook

I have participated in four separate strategic planning processes in various churches.  They each followed a different methodology, and each had similar results:

A group of dedicated people got together and worked very hard over several long meetings to create a plan.

  • A facilitator led us through a well-organized set of exercises to encourage everyone to contribute her or his ideas for the future.
  • With the facilitator’s help, we took a world of information and reshaped it into a set of goals and priorities, with timelines and responsibility assignments.
  • A beautifully packaged plan was created, summarized, presented, and affirmed by vestry vote.
  • In each case, we looked at the final product and felt in some unidentifiable way that something vital was missing.
  • The plan went onto the shelf and, after some initial attempts to follow up on identified action steps, was never seen again.

I know that the “shelf” is a common destination point for strategic plans in all kinds of organizations, not just the church.  But after the last time I experienced this life-draining process, I started thinking: maybe the church, of all places, is not the place to be doing strategic planning.

This is not to say that the church should just drift along and let happen whatever may.  That’s how we fall into bad habits and start believing that the church exists for the benefit of its members, and everyone who should be a member already is a member.  Our natural human tendency is to serve ourselves before we serve others; it takes vision and planning to remember that we have a broader mission to accomplish.

But the church is uniquely a Spirit-led organization, or should be.  And the Spirit is full of surprises we can’t anticipate or plan for.  It would be difficult to imagine the apostles in Acts 7 sitting down for a strategic planning session and determining that the next logical step would be to go out to the Gaza Road and wait for an Ethiopian eunuch to come along.  Who would ever think to do that?  Who would imagine that that young man holding the coats while Stephen was stoned in Acts 7 would turn into the greatest evangelist in world history in Acts 9?  Who would have suggested that Peter go to sleep and arrange for a dream involving unclean animals on a sheet descending from heaven in Acts 10?

In my church experience, most of the great steps forward I have seen weren’t planned.  They happened: the right person came along, the right location became available, someone heard a call from God they couldn’t ignore.  Yes, we channeled those outpourings of the Spirit in organized and planned directions, but they came to us as gifts from God.

This is why, as the church plant I lead is entering into a vitally important new phase (a move to our first permanent building), we are not doing strategic planning.  We are doing strategic discernment.  Where is God leading us? is the question we are asking.  We are not asking for a list of ideas, or a list of problems to solve, or a list of good stories that highlight the strengths we want to build on.  We are praying and discerning.

The process that we have designed starts with an extended period of meditative prayer (as opposed to what I have often experienced before – a perfunctory one-paragraph petition for God’s guidance before we get down to the real business of the meeting).  It continues with an extended “African” Bible study of Luke 10:1-12 (one of the classic passages on evangelism).  It then proceeds with some creative exercises to encourage people to use right-brain powers to envision God’s plan for the future.  Only after all those exercises do we start working on goals, priorities, and problems.

In other words, this process is our attempt to let our own thoughts and plans take a step back, and ask God to open our minds to God’s thoughts and plans.  It is a process of strategic discernment, not strategic planning.

You can see details of the process we have followed on my blog.

I am not saying that this process is the best possible way to do visioning in the church.  But we have had good results so far.  The group leaders (who are ministry leaders working with their ministry groups) report terrific, Spirit-filled visioning sessions.  The groups have come up with amazingly coherent plans that, without much effort on the part of the vestry, naturally highlight three or four clear, over-arching priorities.  Every group has, in one way or another, identified evangelism and discipleship growth as a clear strategic priority.

How have you done strategic discernment in your congregation?

How should we do it churchwide?

The Rev. Susan Brown Snook is Church Planter and Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, Arizona.

11 thoughts on “Strategic Discernment, Not Strategic Planning … by Susan Brown Snook”

  1. This is a great idea. I am curious if this could be done in worship as a response to the Gospel or a part of the annual parish meeting. Last year we made a decision to end the typical meeting. The meeting is more celebration and dreaming about the coming year. How could I incorporate this idea into that format?

    1. That’s a great idea, Everett. The annual meeting has the potential to be so dry and dull, but yet it’s one of the only opportunities to get the whole congregation together, thinking and dreaming about the future. I would love to hear other folks’ thoughts on this.

  2. I describe this as “an idea whose time has come.” I have seen evidence of this spirit-filled and led discernment over and over in my parish setting. And yet, I and others still are tugged into doing that more strategic planning type method. We have to continue to challenge one another to do the intensive prayer, Bible Study, and deep listening, and trust that the right person, the right idea, the idea whose time has come, will happen. Like Everett above, we are dividing our annual meeting up into two parts – January will be the business meeting, and April will be the voting, the celebration, the dreaming. I can’t wait to try that!

    1. That’s really interesting, Beth, to divide the meeting into two parts. Especially since in April, it will be Easter season, and we will be reading from the Book of Acts. It gives you a chance to spend a few weeks concentrating on how the Spirit leads the church in discernment and mission. And Everett’s idea of incorporating discernment into worship could come into play then, too.

  3. Thank you for this. After considering a strategic planning effort some 18 months ago, I and our Vestry realized that we weren’t really into that kind of exercise and didn’t believe it would be fruitful for us. In fact, I presented the notion that the Baptismal Covenant is probably the best “strategic plan” for the church, and we have begun some intentional discernment at the parish and Vestry levels to determine how we might best live that out in our context. We used the Acts 8 Moment to guide us at a recent Vestry workshop, and are in the process of determining spiritual practices that will keep us open and connected to the Holy Spirit. After all, in the Greek NT, the bookk of “Acts” is called “Praxis”. Thank you, Susan.

    1. That’s great to hear, Cynthia! Thanks for suggesting the baptismal covenant as a framework for strategic discernment – what a hopeful and inspiring approach!

  4. I think one of the reasons strategic plans hit the shelf and stay there is that they are not, as you mention so eloquently, a church phenomenon. They’re a tool imported from the business world and they work to the extent that church leadership structures mirror business leaderships structures. In non-Anglican churches, often the business structure is imported wholesale, so strategic plans and business-guru advice fit well and work nicely. But when you’re working within an ecclesiological tradition that pre-dates today’s business climate, with canons that would fit the 17th century as well as they fit the 21st, and in existing congregations with all their local traditions and leadership, finding an authoritative place for that Strategic Plan is almost impossible. The Plan’s niche is right up there on the dusty shelf alongside the mission statement, anything done in the way of “congregational development” more than three years ago, old pictures of previous Rectors, and the other fads of the last 50 years.

    1. I agree, John. Business leadership expertise is all the rage these days, and I have found some helpful things in business books. But it’s important to remember that the church has a fundamentally different purpose than a business. Our purpose is to join with God in God’s purpose, which makes discernment a unique challenge for us. You can’t plan what the Spirit is going to do, though you can plan to make room to listen for the Spirit and follow the guidance you receive.

  5. Have you read Peter Block’s book “Community:The Structure of Belonging”? Your strategic Discernment process seems to fit very nicely with his thinking. I am going to use your process at our parish advisory board January retreat. Thank you for posting it!

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for commenting! No, I haven’t read the book. I will put it on my Amazon wish list – thanks for the tip. And I am very glad our process will help you! Blessings and I hope it goes well. susan

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