In Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter underlines the importance of strategic planning for leaders when he writes, “If you want to make a difference as a leader, you’ve got to make time for strategic planning.” I believe that strategic planning involves both strategic thinking and acting. The writer of 1 Chronicles 12:32 puts it this way: “Men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Today’s strategic planning involves understanding of our times and knowing what to do in our ministries. The days when leaders could “fly by the seat of their pants” are gone. With the fast pace of our world, leaders of ministry organizations must think and act strategically if they’re to lead their organizations in the twenty-first century.

However, the process involves more than thinking about our world and how to minister to it. It also includes acting strategically or in ways that make a profound spiritual difference in your church or ministry community. I believe that such strategic thinking and acting best takes place in three phases that consist of several vital steps. I summarize these under the three Ps: preparation, process, and practice.

The Preparation for Strategic Planning

First is the preparation phase. Preparation for strategic planning must precede the process of strategic planning or failure is likely. The preparation phase involves five steps.

Step 1:  Secure the support of your ministry’s empowered leadership.

Every church or parachurch ministry has empowered leaders (I’m using power here in a positive sense). The key is that they must support the strategic planning process. If they don’t see the need, go no further.

What people make up the empowered leaders in most churches?  They’re the Senior Pastor, the ministry’s governance board (if they have one), its staff, and a patriarch or matriarch if the church has one. The preparation question that you must ask is: Who among these people support the process? If the majority of these people—especially the pastor—aren’t behind the process, it won’t happen.

Step 2:  Recruit a strategic leadership team.

The strategic leadership team (SLT) functions to lead the church through the planning process. This involves recruiting the key leaders in your ministry—whom I refer to as your “E.F. Hutton people” (in a church, they’re the Senior Pastor, board, staff, and lay leaders with strong circles of influence—including women). You also need to select a team leader. This could be the pastor, a talented lay leader, a staff person, or a strategic planning consultant. The advantage of the latter is that not only will he or she save you lots of time, but the chances of success increases significantly. I advise that you communicate your expectations to this team, and that they make decisions by consensus, not compromise.

Step 3:  Communicate constantly with the congregation.

The reason is they must trust the strategic planning process. One of our clichés at the Malphurs Group is:  “If they don’t trust you, you can’t lead them!” Rick Warren says that people are down on what they’re not up on. Keep your people abreast of the process through sermons, bulletin announcements, newsletters, a website, email, town hall meetings, and so forth.

Step 4:  Embrace a biblical theology of change.

Its purpose is to guide the process. A biblical theology of change includes the three Fs: function, form, and freedom. The church’s functions are concepts such as fellowship, worship, biblical instruction, evangelism, and others. They must never change. The church’s forms are the ways in which it practices its functions. An example would be a traditional or contemporary worship style. They must change if a church is to relate to its culture. And the church must keep in mind that the Bible grants it much freedom in how it does church (there is no biblical model for how you do church).

Step 5:  Analyze your ministry.

It serves to inform the process. You will need to create a church ministry analysis that asks basically two questions. The first is, “Are we growing, plateaued, or declining in our attendance?” The second asks,”What are our strengths and weaknesses as a church?”

Step 6:  Lead your strategic leadership team through a spiritual formation process.

It addresses various spiritual issues in the ministry and will undergird the process. The goal is to help your team establish a spiritual foundation upon which the process will build. A major portion of this process will focus on prayer for the team as it goes through the planning process. While this is the sixth step in preparation for the process, your ministry will not leave it behind, as your team will draw heavily from it throughout the process.

The Process of Strategic Planning

Once you’ve completed the preparation phase, you’re ready to begin the actual strategic thinking and acting process. I use the term process intentionally. No one, including a consultant, should attempt to “sell” you on any one of the many fine church or ministry models that God is blessing, such as the Purpose Driven Church or the Willow Creek model. Instead, you must work through the process that we believe they and others followed as God blessed and led them to their unique ministry models in building His church (Matt. 16:18). Remember that this general process leads to a unique model. If you follow what we believe is Christ’s “church building” process (Matt. 16:18,1 Cor. 3:5-6) as outlined in this section, the result will be your own unique ministry model that’s endemic to your ministry community. The process consists of the following four key steps.

Step 1:  Values Discovery. 

Your core values drive your ministry. They explain why it does what it does. They are at the very core of your identity and make up your ministry DNA. Your core values are so mission critical, that it’s imperative that you discover and evaluate them in light of a biblically-functioning, spiritually healthy church. For example, in Acts 2:41-47, Luke identifies five critical core values of a biblically-based, spiritually healthy church. They are evangelism, worship, biblical instruction, fellowship or community, and service or ministry.

Step 2:  Mission Development.

A vital question is:  Where is your ministry going?  What’s it supposed to be doing according to the Scriptures?  The answer is your ministry mission  is the Great Commission as found in a passage such as Matthew 28:19-20. You need to develop a clear, biblical mission statement that your congregation will never forget. Following are two such statements developed by churches that we’ve consulted with: “Our mission is to know Christ and make Him known.” Another is “To present Christ as Savior and pursue Christ as Lord.”

Step 3:  Vision Development.

The term vision is a key buzzword in today’s ministry world. We believe that vision is vital to your people seeing what could be—what our great God can accomplish through them (Eph. 3:20). Your vision is a snapshot of what your ministry will look like as you realize your mission. Consequently, you need to develop a vision that provides a clear, compelling picture of your ministry’s future.

Step 4:  Strategy Development.

Your strategy helps you to accomplish your mission and vision. It consists of several matters:

  1. Discover who lives in your ministry community—those who live within a three to five mile radius of your church. This will involve you in demographic and psychographic studies (much of this information can be obtained online from the Census Bureau).  This work will serve to provide your people with a strong vision for outreach into the community.
  2. Design a process that will mold those you reach into Christ’s disciples. The Malphurs Group uses a tool referred to as the “Maturity Matrix.”  It consists of a horizontal axis along which we list the biblical characteristics of a mature disciple. It also consists of a vertical axis along which you list your primary ministries—those that are essential to your disciple-making process, such as your worship service, Sunday school, and/or small groups. The question is: are your primary ministries accomplishing the maturity characteristics in the lives of your people?
  3. Align and develop your staff to maximize disciple-making. Are your primary ministries, mentioned above, staffed with your best people, whether full-time professionals or lay persons? Are those staff involved in leadership development?
  4. Evaluate your location and facilities in terms of reaching out to the people in your community. Are you located in the best place to reach the unchurched in your area? Are you about to maximize your facilities? A good rule of thumb is you can minister to around 150 people per usable acre of land. For example, you can accommodate around 1,500 people on ten acres of usable land. This is most important to a church; when you maximize your property, you’ll plateau and go into a decline.
  5. Finally, raise the necessary finances to support this strategy. You’ll need to develop a biblical strategy of stewardship that will help you discover and realize new streams of income. Steve Stroope and Aubrey Malphurs have just written a book entitled Money Matters in Church (Baker Book House) that will help you to “cover all the bases” of church finances.

The Practice of Strategic Planning

Third is the practice phase. Using the above process, you can develop a wonderful biblical model for your church. However, you must implement it or it will die a quick death for lack of action. The preparation phase involves two steps:

Step 1:  Ministry Evaluation.

Ken Blanchard wisely calls evaluation the “breakfast of champions.” Evaluation is key to incremental change. It provides vital feedback that helps your ministry to change and improve as it serves the Savior. Every church is evaluated informally each Sunday. Why not make it formal and benefit from it? Design and set up a ministry evaluation process that helps you find both your strong and soft spots as you think and act strategically.

Step 2:  Strategy Implementation.

This is “where your church happens.” Implementation closes the gap between your ideas and their execution. It serves to translate your thoughts into action. Most important to the planning process, it links strategic thinking with doing. It will aid you as you address where you begin to accomplish the strategy, when, and with whom. It involves articulating your goals that came out of the strategic planning, prioritizing them, communicating them to the congregation, deciding on deadlines for them, assigning responsible persons to carry them out, and providing the resources necessary to accomplish them.