So, I’d really like to see my church, Lawrence Park Community Church, grow and thrive! Among the many other things that churches do, we are embarking on a Strategic Planning process. I wrote about that in my last post.
I’ve done a lot of strategic planning in the past, both as a participant and as a facilitator, for churches, denominations, magazines, schools, and other NGOs. As I prepare for Lawrence Park’s process, however, I am becoming increasingly nervous. I think this is why I’m nervous.
Basically, the problems we face as church in today’s society are so large and pervasive that I’m not sure we’ll find a winning formula by doing Strategic Planning. One aspect of strategic planning, in particular, has me scratching my head.
Most discussions of strategic planning insist on the importance of consulting stakeholders early, often, and authentically if you want the process to succeed. That makes sense, in part. We need a high level of buy-in from the members of the church, so we need to bring them along as a part of the process. We’ll have congregational meetings, surveys, focus groups, and so on.
But here is the thing. Do I really think that this consultative process is going to reveal the insight our strategic planning process needs to really make a difference for LPCC? I worry that the answer is “no.”
Let’s face it. Churches are under intense pressure. The knock on mainline churches is that this is their peculiar issue. But attendance is dropping all over the place. I just read John S. Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession for example. He documents a similar decline—twenty or thirty years later—in Evangelical churches throughout the USA.
The thing is, this broad and significant decline in attendance suggests that the issues the church faces defy easy or obvious solutions generated internally. Sure, bad preaching or ineffective youth programs or an uninviting congregation will not thrive. But the crisis the church faces isn’t just local. It is much broader and deeper than that. After two thousand years, most people are not convinced the church has a track record worth pursuing. Some of the roots of the church’s current decline are also matters not related to the church’s record. So, for example, people don’t read much anymore. People are suspicious of institutions. People are stuck in traffic. Kids play soccer and hockey. People have bought the media-driven suggestion that life is about having fun and consuming things, not about sacrifice and charity or trying to follow a first century Jew.
So, given the many layers of the complex situation my congregation and every other congregation faces, why would I look to the membership of my congregation for the key insight that will change everything? If making the right choices was as simple as polling the congregation, why are so many churches—including ones that did lots of strategic planning--failing?
To me, answering the question of “where is the insight we need?” is key. We must avoid the trap of thinking that the consensus ideas the congregation comes up with are the ideas that we need. One more SWOT exercise is not going to suddenly remove the blinders from our eyes (even if due diligence requires such exercises). But where then do we look for that insight we crave, if not among the members? An expert? A facilitator who will help us dig deeper? Do we read lots of books? Is there another kind of process that will unleash the congregation’s creativity?
Right now, I don’t know.