The only good thing I can say about hurricanes is, unlike many other of nature’s forces, they give you some time to prepare. Preparation, however, means different things to different people—some stay, some evacuate, some shutter the windows, a few go without preparation and plan a party … but everyone intently tracks the elongated teardrop on the weather map that forms the “cone of uncertainty.” For those who live in or near the affected area, the hourly weather forecast is so much more than information—it is the word by which we plan our every step in the days leading up to a storm. Whether by television, radio, radar, laptop or smart phone, every means of communication possible is used to assess the uncertainty of the coming storm.

Unless you are one of the few (read: none) who can accurately foretell the future, you also have to deal with degrees of uncertainty in your personal and organizational uncertain future. Edward Cornish writes in his book Futuring: The Exploration of the Future, “We must think ahead if we are to cope with the hurricane-force changes now bashing at every aspect of life—our work, our homes, our education, our health, our amusements, our environment, even our religions.”

Choosing for the future

Did you catch that last phrase? Though God and His Word do not change, our religions—and all the plans that go with them—are subject to change over most of which we have no control. In the Beatitudes, Jesus taught with authority when He cautioned listeners to build their house, so “Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock.” Jesus offered good advice to His generation—plan for the storms because they will come.

Let’s unpack that bit of scripture. Because it is all in one verse, we have a tendency to see the storm and the house on the rock all as one scene … they appear in our minds together. Sort of, “Owner builds house while watching the storm clouds gather.” But life doesn’t work that way. The storm likely came some time after the house was built … a year or many years later. Maybe the storm never came in the lifetime of the original builder but while his children or grandchildren lived in the old homestead. The important point is that the builder, when making plans, foresaw the possibility of the storm and made the conscious decision to provide for a future need by acting today. Sadly, the other builder did not consider the possibilities and, when the storm did come (as they eventually do) the house built on the sand was destroyed.

Worst case not always the case

Somewhere between the balmy day and the perfect storm, there are an infinite number of possible futures. Only one will come to pass, but with so many possibilities, how can we possibly prepare for them all? The good news is, you don’t have to. You need to be aware of the possibilities and then watch closely as the future unfolds. As with a hurricane cone of uncertainty and the upcoming storm, we prepare for the most likely and make adjustments from there. It’s simpler than it seems. Consider this:

  • Plans may work out better than expected, or worse.
  • There will be some major unforeseen event, or there won’t.

These possibilities reveal that we should consider four possible futures, called “scenarios.” Futurists are not fortune tellers; they do not predict the future. They offer scenarios, uncertainties for us to discuss and for which we can prepare. With sufficient foresight, leaders can plan toward the most likely but watch for signs that will cause plans to change. On a white board, it would look something like this:

Many questions lead to a few answers.

This process is meant for a bigger question than the choice of carpet color or music style. As big as those may seem at the moment, these are not the game-changer issues that are like the Category-5 storm that rocks our world for the next three decades. Truly big questions come at us from outside our church walls and are outside the domain of our usual thoughts and conversations. The storms are out there. Will employment remain stable over the next three decades? Will the community age or will young families find it attractive? What are the big questions you have not asked yet?

Almost certainly, you cannot conceive some of the most important questions yourself. Ask around outside the church. Call your legislator, the factory owner, the banker and the school administrator. Find out what change might rock their world 10, 15, or 25 years from now. Consider Proverbs 24:6, “For by wise guidance you will wage war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (NASB). Seek out many counselors from many disciplines—do not hesitate, you are engaged in a serious battle.

With the help of these counselors you must diligently scan the horizon. Seek out all the possibilities that might affect your church’s future: demographics, finance, government, culture, economy, competition (not just other churches, but all the things that compete for people’s time and resources), legislation, energy costs, and the list goes on. Figure out which among these may prove either a serious threat or an opportunity not to be missed (oh, did I forget to mention that scenario planning can also reveal opportunities?) Then begin the process:

  • Ask, “What happens if things go better than expected, or worse?” and “What happens if there is some major unforeseen event, or not?”
  • Consider the possible scenarios.
  • Plan toward the likely future.

Plan to change your plan

Like storm preparation, scenario-based planning is not a “look once and forget it” event. Monitor your internal “dashboard” to see how things are progressing according to your plan. Continually scan the horizon, watch for trends that either change or become more pronounced. Frequently ask yourself and others, “What if …?” Don’t hesitate to adjust your long term plans in response to a changing future. Scan the horizon continually and, unless a truly huge change comes on your radar screen (think Titanic versus iceberg), revisit your plans once or twice a year.

One last word …

There may be some who object, saying such intense planning runs counter to faith. Aside from Christ’s admonition to build the house on the rock, there are other scriptural precedents. Consider David’s men of Issachar, who “know the times.” Apply scenario planning to the Lord’s return—what if He comes today, what if He tarries another 1,000 years? Planning of this sort is something we do all the time, we just don’t do it as intentionally as we should, and don’t always heed the direction we receive. The best plans are a call to action!

Be like the wise owner. Scan the horizon; see the potential for fair weather and the potential for a storm. Build accordingly.

See you in the future!