strategic planning is stupid
Friday July 29th 2005, 4:35 pm
Filed under: thinking...

years ago, in omaha, i learned a process of strategic planning for churches called “master planning” (wow, say that fast a few times and it really sounds like you’re saying something else — which is frightfully close to being a synonym). i took to it, baby, like a fish in water. mmm — it seriously turned my crank: filling in all these little boxes with immediate (6 mo), short-range (1 yr), mid-range (3- 5 yr), and long range (5 - 10 yr) goals. the nine pastors used to meet once a week (for a couple months) in a room set up with tables to “work on our master-planning arrows”. with a background in drafting, i decided to make mine look extra-bitchin’ cool, and used chisel-point hand-lettering to fill in my final set-in-stone (hint: foreshadowing) strategic plan. ooh — did i ever get atta-boys. the senior pastor asked me to make copies of it for the whole elder board, as a good example. i smiled like a 5 year-old being licked by a puppy, folded my beautiful strategic plan, and filed it in my desk: pretty much never to look at it again.

sidebar: this is the church that fired me. guess my stunningly-lettered strategic plan wasn’t quite enough!

at my next church, after the senior pastor hit the fan (hanky-panky with another pastor’s wife), and the wheels started to come off, the elder board asked 5 of us to be a “strategic planning team”. our task was to meet for hours and hours and hours, argue about lots of stuff we couldn’t do anything about, and come up with a ridiculously detailed “prescription” for the future of the church. well, at least that’s how i remember our charge — the elders probably didn’t quite say it that way. it’s certainly what we did. we presented our blisteringly-thought-through plan to the elder board and were told: that’s all good, but, we think we’ll just wait for a new senior pastor to tell us what to do.

sidebar: the two guys who lead the “strategic planning team” both went on to be senior pastors in other churches in the next 6 months — both were hired because of their obvious skill in strategic planning. both split their churches down the middle within a year.

ok, just one more story: a former veep of ys was constantly — and i mean constantly — asking us to develop a new “strategic 5-year plan.” by this point, something had changed in my willingness to develop what i’d previously loved, and i — to my shame — passive-agressively pushed back, avoided and mocked the requests.

churches in america (anyone from the uk, aus, nz, malaysia, anywhere else, want to chime in ?) have been enamoured of business practices for years. not all of this is bad; but much of it is. and while many in the business world are realizing that strategic planning — in it’s traditional mind-set of a goal-setting practice of defining THE path to the future — is a waste of time in this day-and-age. SO, EVEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH CHURCHES MODELING THEMSELVES AFTER BUSINESSES, YOU SHOULD REALIZE THAT THE BEST BUSINESSES NO LONGER USE STRATEGIC PLANNING AS THEY DID IN THE PAST. but most churches still do. well, to be fair, that’s probably an exageration. many do.

in the business world: planning is still good! but strategic planning has given way to the ancient-future story-telling-based approach of scenario-planning. good strategic planning and good scenario planning start at the same place(s): an awareness of a need for change (or a desire for growth), and a clarification of current and future values (of course, bad strategic planning and bad scenario planning can be done without clarifying values!). but, here’s the difference: strategic planning assumes the future can be known and quantified, and that static goals can be set now that will hold true for the years to come. strategic planning assumes not much is going to change that we don’t make change. scenario planning, on the other hand, assumes change is constant in this world; and — for the most part — the future (even the reasonably immediate future) is unknowable enough that setting 5 year goals becomes an exercise in futility and lunacy. the 5 year goals won’t be taking into account any number of variables you don’t currently see. scenario-planning develops possible stories for the future, taking into account the variables we are currently aware of (positive and negative), and prepares the org to be responsive, rather than reactive.

at the risk of picking a fight with the a-team: scenario planning is more about asking the right questions than it is about predicting the right answers.

ok, now let me take it a step further: we should, inherently, understand this in churches (in christianity). we should understand (should believe) that anything is possible. we should believe that the holy spirit is unpredictable. we should understand that growth in numbers isn’t always good, and isn’t always a sign of health. but, modernism convinced us that the future is knowable, or at least, almost-predictable. add calvinism to modernism (sorry, a few of you were with me until this sentence!), and many church leaders have settled into a mindset that resolve is in our grasp, theologically at least - which can easily spill over into dismissing the unknowable-ness of god and the mysterious ways of the holy spirit.

all this to say, stragetic planning is stupid.

read: , , , and all the Seth Godin books (especially and ).

15 Comments so far
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1) Are you saying we should never set 5 year (or more) goals? It seems to me there’s nothing wrong with setting long-term goals. The problem has to do with our flexibility in reaching the goals.

2) I sincerely don’t understand the repeated attacks on Calvinism and linking it with Modernism. Mr. McLaren made some beyond ridiculous claims about Calvinism in A Generous Orthodoxy. Why?

Comment by Roger N Overton (Murdock of The A-Team) 07.29.05 @ 6:56 pm

i am so sick of the a team…. i’m sorry… it had to be said…..

Comment by brian 07.29.05 @ 7:08 pm

roger — first of all, let me be clear that my comment about the a-team was really and truly meant in good-spirited fun. i hope you know i’ve mentioned you guys as a group who actually want to engage (in previous posts).

as to your questions:
1. it’s just that i don’t think 5-year goals are helpful. really. it’s about more than flexibility.

2. sorry, i do have my issues with hard-line calvinism (and some of it has to do with growing up presbyterian). i do think — and i’m comfortable agreeing to disagree here — that a good connection can be made between calvinism and modernism. but, hey, modernism sure isn’t (wasn’t) all bad. calvinism ain’t all bad either.

Comment by marko 07.29.05 @ 7:14 pm

Brian, thanks for the deep insight.

Marko, no worries, I took the comment in good-spirit. 1) I agree in general with your comments in this post, except I do think it comes down to flexibility. Let’s say I want to start a ministry at my imaginary church that in two years is consistently feeding 100 families in the city. It may take less, it may take longer, there will inevitably be challenges I can’t account for. But what’s the problem with setting such a goal which motivates me to get it done?

2) Are your problems with Calvinism or Calvinists? Honestly, one of the reasons it took me awhile to become a Calvinist is because of Calvinists I know. Some of them aren’t great people. But I do know plenty of Calvinists who are good people and act out of a sincere heart for the lost- like Richard Mouw and Greg Koukl. I know this is probably baiting a fish too big to catch, but I’m incredibly curious about what connections you see between Calvinism and modernism.

Comment by Roger N Overton (Murdock of The A-Team) 07.29.05 @ 7:31 pm

yup, plenty of wonderful calvinists out there. i’m related to a few!

Comment by marko 07.29.05 @ 7:35 pm

I hear your call from Malaysia. I will try to respond later after a whole weekend of ministry :-)that was planned but as always I would be surprised by unplanned elements.

BTW, Prof. Scot has some interesting stuff on his journey with Calvinism …

I saw this book at Borders that day
Why am I not a Calvinist
and I think it would be great to read the companion book
Why am I not Arminian

Comment by Sivin 07.29.05 @ 10:34 pm

Another good book is “Escape from Church, Inc.” by E. Glenn Wagner. I became so frustrated with the corporate mentality at my last church that I actually gave it to all the elders and the senior pastor - which didn’t go over to well with the pastor. On the other hand, I think there have been times when youth workers have labeled people as using a CEO mentality to explain away their own lack of work. Holding someone accountable to their use of time and responsibilities is biblical; requiring them to sit in an office all day when all their office work is done so they’ll look professinal is too much business and not enough shepherding. Having a direction, purpose and goals is healthy … spending all your time focusing on them, or viewing them as some sort of divine inspiration is dangerous. Having no plan or direction is also dangerous - it’s a recipe for winging it and imbalance. Sheesh … this post is becoming a bunch of random thoughts and reactions. I fear at times that I was so badly burned by a corporate mentality at my previous church that now I swing too far the other way in my thinking at times.

Comment by Matthew McNutt 07.30.05 @ 10:53 am

I so agree with the thrust of this posting, Marko - maybe the kilt is actually making you smarter. It reminds me of a koan/joke that I love:

What does God do when she hears our plans ?
She laughs.

I was struck, not by the Calvinism thread (hey I’m a mutt with very little of that breed in me), but by your use of the term stupid. My handy dandy dictionary defines stupid as:

Slow to learn or understand; obtuse.
Tending to make poor decisions or careless mistakes.
Marked by a lack of intelligence or care; foolish or careless: a stupid mistake.
Dazed, stunned, or stupefied.
Pointless; worthless

One click beyond this sense of stupidity is the idea that this is actually irresponsible of a church leader, lay or ordained. These planning cycles are so often a distraction, an easy way to ignore thhe sense that we are inadequate to bear responsibility for where the Spirit of God moves in our communities, be they housed in shiny, happy churches or in any holy places like bowling lanes or coffee bars or barber shops.

I wonder if, instead of stupid or irresponsibible, if the right word to call this obsession with planning is actually insane. In popular culture, something “insane” is something extremely foolish, while persons may be deemed “insane” if their behaviour strongly deviates from accepted social norms. The term is typically negative, but departure from established norms may also be seen as a positive quality; in this case, being “insane” is being daringly unconventional or individualistic. This use of insane is illustrated by the following quote from Henry David Thoreau’s A Plea for Captain John Brown:

Many, no doubt, are well disposed, but sluggish by constitution and by habit, and they cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher motives than they are. Accordingly they pronounce this man insane, for they know that they could never act as he does, as long as they are themselves.

Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That capture at least 99.98% of all strategic planning I’ve evr been a part of - and at least 99.99% of all church planning I’ve evr been a part of.

Comment by bob c 07.30.05 @ 12:16 pm

great post. in addition to all you said about it being too fixed an outcome, for me, one of the problems with stregic planning is that it is pretty much impossible to be organic. its usually (as you described in your examples) one guy, or a team of guys sitting in a room making decisions for an entire community. this tends to cause problems because it is the work of 5 people instead of the work of the community…

joe myers acutally has some great thoughts on all this. he’s become pretty well read in the area of architecture and organic order…i wish he would redo his website and make it a little more useful!

Comment by Todd 07.30.05 @ 1:49 pm

Every night we sleep and our mind runs in dozens of directions. It scans our predictions of the coming world and in a short sub-conscious moment we live the next day through more scenarios than we could consider in a waking moment. Without this mechanism we would have no capacity to cope. This process “pre-scans” what may happen and pre-selects what we want to discover in the waking hours ahead. The truth is that none of the scenarios come true. That is, not in their complete reality but rather they come to reality in glimpses that feel like premonitions that give us the capacity to choose as if we had previously lived the current moment.

Strategic planning can be very helpful but statistically it is more that highly unlikely that the plan will come true. The benefit of scenario planning is to consider multiple ways that our lives, churches, or businesses could possibly face. The benefit of strategic planning can be to wrestle down what is important to us as individuals or as teams.

The downside of strategic planning is that it becomes the master and we become subservient to it. This robs us of our organic nature and desire to have and unpredictable life more than a predesitined existence.

From another angle no plant or living organism needs or uses a strategic plan. I suppose that poses a paradox of how much we need to feel in control to feel alive.

Mark Dowds

Reading list:

A Simpler Way by Margaret Wheatley
On Dialogue by David bohm

Comment by Mark Dowds 07.30.05 @ 10:04 pm

“Vision” is not a strategic plan!

Comment by greg king 07.30.05 @ 11:04 pm

You could be busy reading for months with all the book titles we’re all throwing at you! : )

Comment by Matthew McNutt 07.31.05 @ 10:32 pm

[…] rch leadership consider it to be sacred, it was a good wake up call. See what you think: Strategic Planning Is Stupid

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Pingback by Think Christian » Blog Archive » Is strategic planning good, godly or stoopid? 08.10.05 @ 10:44 pm

I’m a ministry strategic planner, so you can guess where I head with this–but you might guess wrong. I’ve found that planning is extremely helpful and valid as long as we don’t view it as making tomorrow’s decisions today, but as making today’s decisions in light of our view of today and our vision for tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, we’ll have to make those decisions fresh, in view of the current “today.”

Comment by Tom Gilson 08.11.05 @ 1:57 pm

Good post! Reminds me of resonating to a comment made by Ricardo Semler (the fearless leader of the Brazilian phenomenon called Semler SA, and author of among other books, Maverick!) at a lunch one day when he said something about a business plan being an “extrapolition of wishful thinking.”

Comment by thebloke 08.11.05 @ 10:21 pm

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