I’m going to think out loud here, about strategic planning at my church, Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) in Toronto.
I’ve been pushing for strategic planning for a few months. But I’m apprehensive. I’ve been part of enough strategic planning exercises to know that they can easily generate lots of cynicism about top-down planning. I also know that you can’t count on supporters and stakeholders to somehow lead you to the Promised Land. I’ve seen lots of strategic plans barely limp along or fail.
But at LPCC it is time. In this post I’ll offer some thoughts on why it’s time, but also some on why strategic planning is going to be tough. I’d love to hear from others who have gone through the process and met with some success with it in the years following—or not.
Why is it the time right? Well, for starters, there is no strategic plan in place. This isn’t all bad. LPCC knows what it is about, mostly. We are a liberal congregation that invites reflection rather than insists on answers. The community here is really warm—especially for those who have been long-time members. The renovated sanctuary—though simple—is almost breathtaking, too. The classically oriented music program, including a choir with professional leads, is excellent.
But—and this is critical—not having a strategic plan also means that we keep doing whatever we’re doing without reflecting much on it. That includes the programs that don’t work. We are also not thinking about how the world, the neighbourhood, and its own membership are all changing.
The world has pressing long-term crises on its hands. Climate change, religious fundamentalism round the world, reliance on military solutions, population growth and poverty. Fixing these problems is like quitting smoking. You know its a good idea, but the promised benefits of quitting are so far in the future that it’s hard to get motivated to try.
Today’s world problems are like that. If the church wants to be spiritually relevant, it can’t go with the lackadaisical flow our culture has adopted to solving these issues. But if the church does focus on mobilizing spiritual resources to deal with such world issues, it also risks alienating membership that is more interested in comfortable pews than activism.
The Neighbourhood. In the sixty years since the church was built its neighbourhood has become quite exclusive. Mercedes and BMWs are everywhere. Nannies, private schools and school uniforms, mansions, exclusive health and fitness and golf clubs—they’re all part of the scene too. Not all members of LPCC live in the neighbourhood anymore. But many do. I am not one to condemn people for having money or being upwardly mobile. But I do realize, more and more, that—as with every other demographic—it takes a lot of wisdom and insight to speak meaningfully to this niche. What’s our strategy?
Our membership is aging. Sunday morning is the wrong time for many youth to do church stuff. Sunday morning is generally taken by hockey and other sports. For slightly older teens or college students, late Saturday nights make Sunday morning church difficult. Younger people are doubly suspicious of all institutions. Young families are over-scheduled, under-resourced, and used to not going to church ever since they started college. Traffic is a killer.
LPCC has some strengths. Attendance is stable and slowly growing. The leadership ran a successful stewardship campaign last year. We have some expert leaders with corporate and NGO experience who can help us with the strategic process—if they have time. Members are very committed to the church, and a core of them are willing to work endlessly for the church.
But we have weaknesses too. It’s hard to find volunteers for a whole host of good, understandable reasons. The membership is quite happy to leave most church matters in the hands of paid, professional staff. Ownership of strategic and leadership matters is left to fewer and fewer members. Our classically oriented music program appeals to a smaller and smaller societal niche. Contemporary Christian Music, an obvious alternative, will never, ever fly, including not with me.
It is also increasingly hard for us to get heard in the neighbourhood. Where once LPCC was one of the key uniting institutions in our twenty block area, it no longer is. The future of LPCC, while always being rooted in this neighbourhood, is going to have to embrace a larger geographic area, and perhaps the large hospital and (French-speaking) campus across the street.
And at the heart of the complicated process we’re about to begin, there is this nagging core question too. What are we ultimately about? What is our “good news?” Our current tagline, while catchy, also seems on balance a bit negative: “united, unlimited, unorthodox.” And what does that mean, anyway? So LPCC needs a core mission to rally round, one that responds to the deepest felt needs of our society, and one that is congruent with our liberal Christian theology.
So, as I said, I’ve been thinking out loud. Who will tell me, and our church, what to do and what not to do at this critical moment? I’d love some good advice!