Church Strategic Planning: How to Create a Planning Rhythm

Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 85

At its core, good church strategic planning is not an event—it is a process of continuous improvement.

Most churches fail to make plans. Or, at best, they will put ideas on paper but fail to follow through. The tyranny of the urgent takes over, and church leaders get trapped on the Sunday-to-Sunday hamster wheel. So how can your church turn that hamster wheel into a flywheel and start to gain real momentum?

The solution is to re-conceptualize church strategic planning as a healthy habit rather than an event. Good strategic planning is no more a one-time occurrence than the benefits of a healthy diet can bring results after eating a single salad. The salad is good, but a long-term habit of good food choices is what brings results. Likewise, embedding a strategic planning rhythm into your church is the only way to glean the benefits. 

In this article, you’ll learn the five moments—think of them as beats—that define a healthy rhythm for church strategic planning. We will explore these through the lens of the approach we use in our Strategic Envisioning process. However, you can adapt the core principles of this rhythm to develop your own church strategic planning habit.

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Here are the five “beats” for developing a good church strategic planning rhythm:

Beat One: The “Long Range” Plan

Approximately every five years, your church needs to take an intentional look at the five fundamentals of church health: mission, core values, discipleship pathway, vision, and strategy. To be clear, your church won’t write a new mission statement or new core values credo every five years. But if your church has never done this or it’s been more than a decade, it may need an overhaul. 

If you’re following the every-five-years approach, you’ll merely need to assess to make sure that there has not been “mission creep.” You also want to ensure that there are no unconscious core values that are sabotaging your healthy values. 

In regards to your discipleship pathway, your process is unlikely to change—but the programs that drive that process may need shifting or adjustment. Programs have a shelf life, and thrive best when leaders regularly assess them. Long range planning gives you a chance to look at your ministries objectively in ways that are difficult to do outside of your day-to-day operations.

Of course, one of the key benefits of the Long Range planning process is clarifying a shared dream for the future. Many churches have in-fighting and conflict about minor issues but fail to recognize that the fundamental disagreement is at a deeper, vision level. By clarifying where the church wants to go over the next five years, your church can experience deeper and truer unity.

Our Strategic Envisioning process at the Malphurs Group is an affordable long range planning process that your church can leverage if it’s been five or more years since you’ve done something like this. Connect with us. Your church can get from this first beat to establishing the rest of this strategic planning rhythm within three months.

Beat Two: Yearly Planning

Assuming that you’re not in a Long Range Planning year, what should you do in the in-between years? Once per year, your church needs to update two key aspects of your long range plan: your measures and your strategic objectives.

In Strategic Envisioning, we use the term Vision Indicators for measures. Essentially, we ask the question, “How can we know we are effective in our mission and making progress towards our vision in the next year?” In our process, churches will identify three to five metrics to track throughout the year to judge their progress. You must update these metrics or Vision Indicators annually. Last year’s performance should inform your dashboard for this year. Your vision progress may lead you to choose new or different metrics as standards for success. In non-long range planning years, your leadership team must still take at least a day to meet and update your dashboard.

Additionally, your team should also establish new strategic objectives. In Strategic Envisioning, we ask churches to take on three to five strategy projects above and beyond the normal course of ministry that drive them towards their vision. These projects are never soul-crushingly difficult. In fact, we intentionally ensure that they are doable while balancing the duties of running the church. We call this the “Six Yards of Progress” principle. Your church doesn’t need to get a strategic Hail Mary every year. You simply need to move the ball six yards every year. By defining strategic projects that bring six yards of progress each year in three to five specific areas, you’ll never be in fourth down as a church and you’ll be in the end zone (achieving your five-year vision) before you know it.

Updating your dashboard and strategy projects can occur in a one-day retreat with senior leaders. As with the long range planning, creating these yearly updates in the interim years builds unity and helps your church gain momentum.

Beat Three: Quarterly Planning

Strategy projects are just ideas unless you give them substance in the form of detailed action plans. We have found that breaking your projects into 90-day chunks is a key way to ensure the team stays on track and doesn’t get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project.

Start by mapping out four key milestones. In broad terms, what needs to be accomplished within each 90-day period? Once you have defined the milestones, you can spend one meeting each quarter reviewing and updating specific action steps for the next 90 days.

Action plans should include the following components:

  • Action Steps – What specific actions need to be completed?
  • Deliverables – How do we show that the work is completed?
  • Action Owners – Who is responsible for ensuring a task is completed?
  • Deadlines – When does an action step need to be completed?

Additionally, each quarter your team needs to identify any “tent pole” events that require additional planning. Obvious examples include Easter and Christmas. But your church may have other tent pole moments like VBS or Back to Church Sunday. Many churches fail to fully leverage these tent pole moments because they wait too long to begin strategically planning for them. 

As we will explore in a moment, your leadership teams that are working on your strategy projects should meet once per month. The Quarterly Planning meeting is not in addition to these monthly meetings. Instead it is an expansion of one of the monthly meetings. So instead of meeting for 90 minutes, the team may meet for two hours to get the additional planning work completed

Beat Four: Monthly Planning

The backbone of a healthy church strategic planning rhythm is what we call the Monthly Implementation Review. Hosting this meeting once-per-month at the same time every month is essential to success. We often say that the churches that keep meeting will keep working. Those that stop meeting stop working. This is an undeniable fact that we’ve seen played out in countless churches over the years. 

So what should happen during the Monthly Implementation Review? The meeting is divided into two chunks. The first part of the meeting is spent as sub-teams (we call them Implementation Teams) that are working on the strategy projects. They walk through a meeting guide that has team members report on:

  • Completed tasks
  • Tasks that are started (or about to start)
  • Tasks that are at risk of falling behind (and what’s needed to fix it)
  • Any challenges that the team needs to resolve

The second half of the meeting should be spent as a combined group for the purpose of cross-functional communication. Discuss how different teams can help each other. Share prayer requests and praises. Ensure that teams won’t step on each others’ toes, and that church-wide communication is clear as different initiatives are rolling out.

Generally, these monthly meetings last between an hour and 90 minutes. In our experience, these are some of the most fruitful meetings churches conduct.

Beat Five: Weekly Planning

This final beat of a healthy church strategic planning rhythm will be contingent on the size of your church and staff. In single staff churches, there is no need for a weekly staff meeting! In churches that have dozens of staff, a weekly all-staff meeting would be unproductive and would be replaced by a department meeting. The advice below about staff meetings is geared towards more average churches with a staff between three and twelve people.

Weekly staff meetings are essential for church health. Some teams meet only every other week or monthly for staff meetings. This is a mistake. Weekly staff meetings are an opportunity for tactical decision-making. The team needs to discuss what’s happening in day-to-day operations and managing systems like guest follow-up. Additionally, senior or lead pastors should leverage the weekly staff meetings to define strategic priorities for the week. This ensures that staff stay on target and steward their time in the most efficient and productive ways possible.

All churches, regardless of staff size, need to leverage clear and consistent communication with volunteer teams. The best way to improve team performance is the use of good communication. Therefore, think through the best ways to communicate with your volunteers. Consider moving away from email for team communication and leverage tools like Slack or church-centric tool like FaithStreet

Strategic Planning Isn’t Just for Businesses

One of the biggest challenges to the church strategic planning process is convincing people that it is biblical and necessary. Despite the fact that God himself is a planner (He has a plan for your life!), many feel that planning restricts the Spirit or feels business-y. While these feelings are understandable, they’re not ultimately grounded in Scripture. Don’t take our word for it, do the work. Explore the examples of Nehemiah, the advice of Jethro to Moses, the planning of the temple by David, or the strategic vision of the Apostle Paul. We feel confident that the more you study the lives of Biblical leaders, including Christ, you will see the precedent for planning.

Ultimately, what is the alternative to planning? 

As the adage goes, those who fail to plan are planning to fail. In the words of the Bible, people will do what is right in their own eyes. This is what is meant by the famous verse, “Without vision the people perish,” (Proverbs 29:18). When the people do not have a clear, Biblical direction, they are aimless and perish. Churches that don’t take the time to discern God’s vision and invite the Spirit into the planning process will decline and fail to live up to their full potential.

We believe God has great things in store for your church, and if you develop a healthy strategic planning rhythm, you’re best positioned to make the greatest possible impact.

Need help getting started?

Connect with us to discuss our Strategic Envisioning process. The Malphurs Group is a non-profit with a gold seal of transparency from GuideStar. Our experienced team can help your church develop a healthy strategic planning process at an affordable cost.

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

Got questions? Meet with our team for a free Discovery Call.

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