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Getting everyone to agree on a strategic plan can be like herding cats. Image by Sebastian Ganso,

Image by Sebastian Ganso,

Strategic planning or herding cats?


By the Rev. Teresa Angle-Young

If strategic planning with your church feels like “herding cats,” listen up!

Clergy from around the country share with me that strategic planning can be one of their most frustrating processes, for the following reasons:

  • Getting leadership and/or staff to agree on strategy can feel like herding cats. As one pastor shared, “If we have 12 people in the room, that means there are 24 opinions on every issue.”
  • The strategic planning process results in too many ideas and priorities, so that the church tries to do too much and spreads itself thin.
  • After the leadership ratifies the strategy, the church doesn’t have the bandwidth to execute it, and so the strategy sits on shelf.

Strategy doesn’t have to be stressful. You can get your leadership aligned and in agreement about your church’s strategy. You can set up accountability structures so that your team implements the strategic plan. And you can do all of this while building your church’s capacity to be stewards of your mission and vision.

To begin:

  • Answer the most important strategic questions to set your church up for realization of its mission;
  • Choose only the right number of priorities required for success; and
  • Put in place accountability and a structure to make sure that your strategy actually gets implemented.

Let’s break those down a bit.

Answer the “big” strategic planning questions.
The big questions include: Who is our mission field and how can we better serve them? What do we do best and how can we build on that edge? How can we prepare our church to seize opportunities? What are potential scenarios that we need to consider for the future, and how will we prepare for them?

Unfortunately, many churches debate these issues with academic discussions and confusing jargon. They are like philosophers trying to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. At the same time, some churches come up with brilliant answers to these questions, but can’t quite take them to the point of clear initiatives that get done.

The big strategic planning questions are worthless if they don’t result in a few clear, compelling strategic initiatives to strengthen the church.

Set a few clear priorities and an overall strategic theme. 
The most important outcome of the first part of the strategic planning process is to identify the most important priorities for the church. Starting with a long list of potential priorities, the leadership discusses the relative value of each, and hones in on only a few key priorities. This discussion can also lead to greater clarity about the big strategic planning questions, especially about what the church should do best. No church can be everything to everyone. What makes your church special?

Once a list of no more than three to five priorities is agreed upon, the team can come up with a strategic theme. This is a one-line statement that conveys the overall strategic push for the organization. Examples could include: “Pay off building debt!” “Expand to a second campus.” “Start a new student ministry.” “Increase membership by 20% in 18 months.”

During this phase, many churches settle for a long list of priorities. This has the benefit that nobody feels excluded or insulted. However, it makes it highly unlikely that the church will get anything done completely.

Implement your strategy.
The biggest complaint we hear about strategy is that it never seems to get executed. There are a few reasons why:

  • Neglecting to commit essential resources to the strategy, including capital, training, technology, and people.
  • Failing to take things off the plate of busy staff and volunteers, and instead just stacking more work on them.
  • Having lack of will to stop old initiatives that compete with the new, even when the old ministries are no longer fruitful.
  • Not setting clear roles, responsibilities, accountability, and rewards systems for volunteers.
  • Giving up after a few setbacks or initial resistance.

A sound strategy spends as much time on implementation planning as it does on the more glamorous work of answering the key strategic questions and setting priorities.

Which of the above areas is weakest in your church? Some churches are strong at asking the big picture questions, but fail to follow up. Some set too many priorities, and can’t say “no” to good ideas, despite limited resources. Others are strong at executing, but lack the vision to develop compelling strategic initiatives.

A strong and focused strategic process gives everyone in your church a common language for talking about strategy, so that everyone is included and can contribute. It draws on the knowledge and expertise of your leadership and members. And it’s laser focused on a few key initiatives.

Download a Strategic Planning Assessment Tool.

Angle-Young is Director of Local Church Resources at United Methodist Communications and is a certified clergy coach. 

— This article originally appeared on the Clergy Coaching Network Ministry Blog.