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Seven Good Reasons for a Church Strategic Plan

Whether you are a leader of a church or faith-based organization, there are plenty of reasons to revisit your current strategic planning process. Most importantly, if your faith-based organization has never gone through a comprehensive strategic planning process, it has never been a more crucial time to recalibrate the future. Strategic planning, if properly executed, increases sustainability, leadership accountability, and facilitates church growth. 

Making the decision to engage in the strategic planning process is often scary for clergy and top-notch nonprofit executives. Some of the justifications for avoiding comprehensive strategic planning include, “Things are changing so fast that our two or three-year strategic plan is no longer relevant.” “Why can’t we just produce an annual strategic plan and update it every year?” “We tried creating and developing a strategic plan, but it did not work.” Some church leaders may ask, “Why not just pray about it and be led by the Holy Spirit?” 

As a church consultant and faith-based researcher, I have discovered that church organizations do not consistently initiate, update, and share their strategic plan with stakeholders. Could this be the reason why some churches have lost more than two-thirds of their congregations while others have maintained high retention rates even as the pandemic death rates subside? The research data concerning church attendance proves that many Protestant churches were experiencing declining affiliation and participation well before the pandemic arrived.  

The Pew Research Center reports that both evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants experienced declines in religious affiliation. According to the study, only 24% of U.S. adults describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants (down six percentage points since 2007). Also, there is a 6-point decline in the share of adults who are Protestant but not born-again or evangelical. 

Lifeway research reports that the average Protestant church has attendance at 74% of what it was prior to COVID-19. “At the beginning of last year, 31% of churches were at less than 50% of their pre-pandemic attendance levels, including 8% of churches were below 30%. Now, 14% are below 50% attendance, and only 1% still say their congregation is less than 30% of what it was before COVID-19.”  One of the key performance indicators of the survey suggests that most churches did not grow during the pandemic. Although Lifeway’s report indicates that smaller churches (those less than 50 congregants) are most likely regain attendees at pre-pandemic levels, only 18% of this group say they have grown numerically during the pandemic.

Depending upon the organization’s structure, pastors typically gather with church board members and voting congregations to review the annual budget and make decisions about how resources will be allocated. Well-meaning church leaders host budget meetings to demonstrate transparency and accountability, and they should be applauded. However, planning through the budgeting process should never replace the rigors of developing and executing a strategic plan. The following list provides Seven  reasons your church needs comprehensive strategic planning:

1) To evaluate where your church fits within its organizational life cycle.

An effective strategic planning process will assist church leaders in evaluating where they are within the church life cycle. The concept of church life cycles was first coined through the seminal work of Dr. George Bullard. Since that time, others have elaborated on his framework. Simply put, the church life cycle resembles a bell curve with four core operating principles that determine how it takes shape. These four organizing principles include your church’s mission, relationships, programs, and management or maintenance. 

Evaluating where your church is on the life cycle is crucial to accessing the level of change that needs to happen before the organization can move into a healthy growth cycle. The major takeaway from this analysis is to determine if your church is plateauing,  declining or spiraling into a death cycle. If it is declining, a comprehensive strategic plan can help you initiate and navigate the change that is needed to disrupt the cycle of decline. Take a look at this short video as Dr. Andy Lunt describes the church life cycle.

Dr. Andy Lunt

2) To discover strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).

Losing a large portion of the congregation can be a humbling experience, even though it may be for reasons that are out of a pastor’s control. Engaging in the strategic planning process will not only reveal old and new challenges but it also allows leaders to identify the church’s strengths. It is from the foundation of an organization’s strengths that leaders can begin to build a pathway to revitalization. Beyond this, detecting weaknesses does not have to be a defeating activity. 

Contrastingly, discovering weaknesses provides leaders with an opportunity to innovate. Opportunities and threats analyses are used to create effective strategies to navigate change. For example, prior to the pandemic, only 2 in 5 churches said they neither live streamed  their service nor posted the sermon online later. As of January 2022, more than 9 in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors (94%) say their churches provide some type of content video, including 84% who live streamed their services.

A robust strategic planning cycle would have, more than likely, detected and initiated a strategy to address live streaming before the pandemic disaster struck. In fact, Lifeway’s survey reveals that “half of pastors interviewed say that the pandemic revealed weaknesses at their church.” Consequently, it could be argued that live streaming for at least 2 out of 5 churches was a reactive and not proactive choice.

3) To strengthen the articulation of church mission, vision, and core values.

Although the mission of the church-at-large is making disciples, the church leader must cast a compelling vision to inspire its leaders and congregants to action. The vision articulates the dream in such a way that it describes what success looks like for a particular organization. Core values define the priorities and characteristics that guide all levels of decision-making. Accordingly, church core values appropriately communicated can shape local church culture. 

4) To evaluate the potential for increasing financial support. 

As a top-tier fundraiser, I have garnered six and seven-figure dollar gifts, raising millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations annually. One of the most important principles of fundraising is to present a compelling case for support to potential donors. Since the pandemic, philanthropic dollars are shifting to other causes such as climate change and social justice. Please note that I am not claiming that these issues are unimportant; however, I cannot help but wonder if some these funds are in competition with church giving.   

As a theologian and minister of the gospel, I am keenly aware of the biblical principles that undergird financial stewardship in the Kingdom of God. Having said this, I still see much room for improvement in the solicitation and fundraising strategies of most churches. It could be argued that in addition to strategic planning, many churches are not familiar with the art and science of fundraising. Most small and medium-sized churches have limited budgets and cannot invest in the sophisticated tools of fundraising. Nevertheless, an investment in strategic planning can help begin the process of introducing development planning. 

5) To create institutional alignment with church mission and strategic goals.

The most significant outcome of developing a robust strategic plan is to create alignment among current and potential stakeholders. I have found that when comprehensive strategic planning is not part of the organizational culture, staff, volunteers, and congregants are often in conflict. The reason for the conflict is the absence of leadership. Leaders must clearly articulate the direction and strategy even if it does not make sense to the followers. Change is not easy but necessary for progress. 

If you are a church leader, I am certain you can think of many biblical examples that affirm the legitimacy of strategic leadership. The one that comes immediately to my mind is in the old testament Book of Esther. Queen Esther received Godly counsel from her uncle Mordecai concerning Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews. Esther, in turn, developed strategies to foil this plan and preserve the lives of the Israelites. Space and time do not permit a full treatment of the biblical texts that support the strategic nature of God. It goes without saying that church leaders need to be prayerful about which strategies are in alignment with the will of God. 

6) To identify market positioning within the greater community. 

It is worth mentioning that your church will not appeal to everyone. Therefore, it is important to ascertain which segment of the population you are called to serve. Market segmentation is the business term that is used to describe this process. Naturally, this must be accomplished according to biblical standards. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commissions the  disciples “to go and make disciples of all nations.” Therefore, the local church should reflect the diversity of God’s mission for the body of Christ at-large. 

Comprehensive strategic planning should include strategies that reach unchurched or unsaved populations and those who are racially and ethnically diverse. Marketing segmentation should be unbiased and focused on those who resonate with the leader’s calling. If the church leader’s approach is ethnically or racially motivated, it is not in alignment with the mission of the Kingdom of God. My upcoming book addresses how to achieve racial and ethnic diversity in the local church.

7) To provoke leadership accountability for God’s mission and vision.

Finally, the achievement or failure to accomplish strategic goals should provoke leaders to take responsibility for the results. Accordingly, strategic goals should incorporate all the characteristics of “SMART Goals.” SMART is an acronym that describes effective goal setting as specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. For more information on SMART Goals and how to develop them, Click Here

Strategic planning can be a difficult but rewarding endeavor when the pastor and leadership team are willing to commit to the process. I recommend that church leaders engage an outside consultant who has a deep knowledge of theology and church culture. Also, knowing how to equip leaders for the process of change is pivotal during the implementation phase. 

Attempting to do it yourself (DIY) often produces biased results and resists meaningful  change. Insights Plus Consulting (IPC) has helped churches and faith-based organizations navigate through this process. 

To learn more about how IPC can help, contact us for a free consultation. Click Here .

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