This past spring, I got a call from a medium sized congregation in a medium sized Midwestern town. “We’ve had a strategic plan for two years, but we haven’t done anything with it.” Think of the time and money that was spent on that process! They sounded defeated, but ready to move forward.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to review hundreds of strategic plans, so I took a look at theirs. It was both vague and complex, without clear assignments and end dates. The plan was too complicated to implement, so it sat on the shelf. After a two hour conversation, we cut it down to the most essential parts and assigned leaders to do each part. 30 days later, the congregation’s leadership had a much different tone. “We’ve moved forward more in the last month than we have in two years.”

I used to be surprised with how many strategic plans congregations would create and never use. Over the years, I have noticed six primary reasons why it happens.

  1. They weren’t designed for your people. I’ve seen plans as long as 64 pages, yet have less than a handful of usable recommendations and action steps. Many plans come packaged as a list of brainstorming ideas with no priorities, no timelines and no specific assignments for individuals or teams. The plans gathered important and very helpful information but it wasn’t used to make strategic decisions, test assumptions or outline specific ways to move forward.
  2. They majored in the minors. Strategic plans should be strategic. They should help leaders “do what matters” and have long-term transformational impact. Many reports focus on “low hanging fruit,” addressing what’s easy rather than what’s most important. If the plan doesn’t address the congregation’s most pressing issues, it’s a half-baked plan. If it doesn’t lead to the fulfillment of the congregation’s mission, the plan becomes a hindrance rather than a help. Don’t allow your plan to siphon off the best efforts of your leadership team on things that really don’t matter.
  3. They fail to understand that “less is more.” I create plans that are as long as 15 pages in length with all the supporting data, but the working document that all leaders are expected to regularly review and act upon is never longer than four pages. The first page usually provides an overview and rationale for the plan. Another page contains a few visuals to help people understand and embrace the plan’s overall direction. Then there’s usually one or two pages that specifically describe how the plan will unfold in the upcoming months, and what each design team is responsible for and by when. Do everyone a favor and cut the “noise” and eliminate the non-essentials of your report so that the most important items get the attention they deserve.
  4. The plans were set in concrete. By the time a strategic plan is introduced to the congregation, they’re almost always partially obsolete. Without ongoing updates to the plan, they become increasingly irrelevant. The best plans are dynamic, constantly updated, and serve as working documents that focus people’s efforts and upcoming meeting agendas. Some congregations email their leaders an updated plan every month after their Council meets that reflects their current progress and any modifications or what they call “course corrections” to the plan.
  5. No one was assigned to maintain the plan and report on its progress. One of the first questions I ask leaders seeking to create a plan is, “How will the plan be used after it’s completed and who will monitor its progress?” Understanding the everyone is busy and that most people have too many irons in the fire, it’s critical that at least one person is tending to the status of the plan on a monthly basis. I’ve seen great plans wither away due to lack of attention and I’ve seen so-so plans be truly transformational due to having someone be responsible for keeping the plan “front and center” in the minds of congregational leaders. I often ask the vice president or vice-chair to play this role since they often have fewer commitments than other Board members.
  6. The plan is not discussed at staff and board meetings. Strategic plans are designed to align a congregation’s assets, actions and conversations around what matters most. If elements of the plan are not being regularly discussed at team and leadership meetings, then something is wrong. Either the plan is not relevant or helpful, or else the leaders are choosing not to think and act strategically. When I read Board meeting minutes, I’m seeking to discover what was discussed, decided, and acted that was related to the strategic plan. If there seems to be no connection between the plan and what was discussed at the meeting, then we usually spend time reframing future meeting agendas.

Is your strategic plan gathering dust?  Is it helping or hindering you progress?  What might you do in the future to make this  planning tool to LIVE for the sake of vibrant faith?

Learn more about Vibrant Faith’s congregational leadership coaching, and put your strategic plan into action. 

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