The Importance of Strategic Planning

Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 101

Strategic planning is critical for churches that want to make a kingdom impact. Indeed, churches that fail to plan are likely to suffer. 

Before we dive into three reasons why strategic planning is important, we should address the most common objections: is strategic planning in the church biblical?

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Strategic thinking and acting is no stranger to the Bible. When I state that it is biblical, I mean that it is found in the Bible. References to and examples of it are generously sprinkled throughout the Old and New Testaments. Numerous leaders in the Old Testament thought and acted strategically. Moses in response to God’s mission to lead Israel out of Egypt led them strategically through the wilderness as recorded in the Pentateuch. In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, challenges him to think and act strategically in his counseling of individual Israelites. The leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua, was most strategic (Josh. 6:1–6; 8:3–23; 10:6–9). The writer of 1 Chronicles notes that the men of Issachar “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron. 12:32). Nehemiah thought and acted strategically as he led God’s revitalization project in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3–6). Proverbs presents God’s wisdom and role in planning (Prov. 14:15, 22; 15:22; 16:3–4, 9; 19:21; 20:18; 21:30).

In the Gospels, Christ informs the church of its mission—the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20; Mark 16:15) and in Acts 1:8, he gives the church its geographical strategy and direction. The Book of Acts records how the Holy Spirit used the church strategically to implement this mission, especially through the missionary journeys (Acts 13:1–21:26). Paul did not wander aimlessly but appears to have carefully and strategically selected the cities he visited for ministry while on his missionary journeys. For example, he located in Ephesus because it was the gateway to Asia Minor (compare Acts 19:1 with 19:10). Even the Godhead thinks and acts strategically according to Luke (Acts 2:23; 4:28). In Ephesians 5:15–16, Paul encourages the Ephesian church to live strategically.

It becomes obvious, then, that God has sovereignly chosen to work through strategic thinking and acting to accomplish his divine will on earth. Accordingly, churches must be careful of those who advise them to ignore any planning and simply “let go and let God.” This does not mean that we should trust our strategies and ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in the process. Proverbs 19:21 is clear that God’s purpose will prevail regardless of our plans. And Proverbs 21:31 reminds us that while it seems like we are the ones doing the planning, it is God who is working behind the scenes to grant us success. John 15:5 warns that without Christ we can accomplish absolutely nothing. In Zechariah 4:6, the prophet reminds us as well as Zerubbabel, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” Letting go and letting God must work in conjunction with strategic thinking and acting. I tell my seminary students and my readers to hold their plans before the sovereign God of the universe in an open hand.

Now that we have established that strategic planning is biblical, let’s dive into three reasons why strategic planning is so important for your church.

Strategic Planning Does Make a Difference

One is that strategic planning really makes a difference. I addressed the importance of strategic planning in the introduction to this book when I made reference to the research of Mike Regele and Mark Schulz in their “10 Best Practices of a Robust Congregational Development Effort.” In addition, Researcher Kirk Hadaway writes, “Does a planning process which involves evaluation and a long-range plan correlate with church growth? The answer is yes. Survey results show that 85 percent of churches which have grown off the plateau have reevaluated their programs and priorities during the past five years, as compared to 59 percent of churches which have remained on the plateau. Similarly, 40 percent of ‘breakout churches’ have developed a long-range plan, as compared to only 18 percent of continued plateau churches.”

My experience as well has been that many if not most churches that are making a difference for the Savior are led by or at least staffed with strategic thinkers who if they don’t have a plan in hand (articulated on paper) have one in their heads.  A case in point is my pastor-Steve Stroope. He is the pastor of Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas, and I am currently serving on the board with him. Thus I am able to observe him up close. He was called to pastor the church when it consisted of only seventeen people. He has remained at the church to navigate it through several strategic relocations, numerous capital funds projects in the context of a clearly articulated mission and vision for the church. Today the church is up to 7,000 people and its strategy includes a multi-campus approach. 

Strategic Planning Affects the Long Term Life of the Church

A second reason for its importance is that strategic planning is key to the long term survival of the church. Its ministry circumstances are constantly changing. To survive churches must change and adapt their ministry methods, using strategic planning  as their vehicle. Two metaphors will help us to understand this.

The church is like a ship that attempts to cross a body of water destined for some port. Just as the ship encounters numerous navigational hazards along the way (tides, currents, wind, flotsam, low water levels, false buoys, and so on), so a church encounters its own navigational hazards (difficult people, a changing community, lack of leadership, poor congregational mobilization, and so on). Church leaders like a ship’s navigators must have a process (compass) to plan strategically (chart a course) to reach its destination (port). Though a limited few can do this intuitively (they are natural born navigators), most cannot. They need training to be navigators.

The second is a map. If you are trying to drive to a particular location in your town or city and you do not know the direction, then you need an up-to-date map or you may get hopelessly lost.  Lots of leaders in our churches are navigating their terrain with outdated maps (those drawn up in the 1940s and 1950s) and are totally lost. Some of those in their churches advise that they simply need to redouble their efforts-to work harder. The result, however, is that they get hopelessly lost faster. Others advise that they simply sit back and give it a little time because eventually everything will return to the way it was. The result is that things change even more and waiting merely increases the odds against survival.

Strategic Planning Addresses Alignment Issues

A third is that strategic planning addresses a number of concepts that require alignment. You will discover in this book that strategic planning is a process that involves the critical alignment of a number of elements such as a church’s values, mission, vision, and so forth. I have observed a number of churches that have missed this and suffered diminished returns as a result. For example, churches engage in capital funds projects to raise monies for a new facility or for adding on to an existing facility. Many without knowing it are following what I refer to as a “Kevin Costner Theology”-build it and they will come.

What they do not realize is that understanding and articulating strategic planning concepts is the critical first step to funding and building. People inherently need to know who they are, where they are going, why they are going there, and what that looks like before taking out their wallets or reaching into their purses. To ignore this often results in falling short of funding goals and erecting facilities that become nonfunctional and obsolete in just a few years. I should note that those in the construction phase (the design-build side) are increasingly becoming aware of their need to help churches do strategic planning before building.   I suspect that churches will see strategic planners working closely together with architects and contractors in the future as they attempt to translate vision and mission into facilities.

Strategic planning in the church isn’t an easy task. Leveraging a proven process and tools tailored to the ministry context can help your church immeasurably. Our Strategic Envisioning process has helped hundreds of churches clarify their vision and develop a plan for the future.

You can download a sample proposal for our on-site process by visiting the Strategic Envisioning page on our site. Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Dr. Aubrey Malphurs book Advanced Strategic Planning, 3rd Ed.

BONUS: Get a free Team Discussion Guide in the video description on YouTube.

Dr. Aubrey Malphurs (1944-2022) was the Founder of The Malphurs Group and a retired senior professor of leadership and pastoral ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Malphurs was an award-winning author of more than 25 books with titles focusing on strategic planning, leadership development, and organizational strategy.

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