166. Strategic Planning in your Board — a Spectator Sport?

In spectator sports the fans cheer as the team plays the game. When it comes to strategic planning, church boards often wonder whether they are the “fans” watching another “team”, i.e. pastoral staff, play the strategy game, or is the board part of the team? If they are part of the “strategy planning” team, what is their role? Is the chairperson coaching the team or the lead pastor? Is the lead pastor the team captain? Perhaps we should not try to push the analogy too far, but I think the key point is clear — what is the role of the chairperson and the church board in strategic planning?

In Carver’s world of governance boards set ends, but CEO’s create means. He would include both ends and means as part of strategic planning with respective role differentiation. If this model is applied to church boards, then the chairperson guides the board members in discerning the ends which the congregation needs to meet in order to advance the mission and achieve the discerned vision. The pastoral staff through the lead pastor are given the authority and resources to discern and implement the means to achieve the ends, within defined limitations. However, where the church board members are also elders, it is important for them to also have some input into the discernment of appropriate means. Conversely the lead pastor (and perhaps other ministry staff) should have voice in identifying the ends. Such discussion is a dialogue with each group understanding who has the responsibility to make final decisions. The board may choose to bring its definition of ends to the congregation for their review and ratification in order to gain broad-based support. The important point is that the leadership team, inclusive of board members and key ministry staff need to be involved in strategic planning.

If your church board is composed of deacons, then more weight may be placed on the ministry staff to help the board identify the ends necessary for the vision to be achieved. The deacons may not feel entirely competent to make such decisions. However, if the members of your board are elders, then more weight should be placed upon the board for the identification of ends from the standpoint of spiritual giftedness.

Rendle and Mann in their book “Holy Conversations” define strategic planning as a structured conversation about choices based upon discerned values. But who should be involved in this conversation and at what points in the process? The church board needs to define the process, growing out of the vision-casting led by the board. The board may choose to be the strategic planning task force or delegate this role to another adhoc task force, accountable to the board. However it may be led, at a fairly early stage in the process the congregation needs to be invited into and involved with the process. Their voice must be heard carefully. And probably as the process nears its conclusion the congregation once again needs to be consulted before things are finalized.

The New Testament documents the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the development of the early church. Today church boards similarly need to discern the Spirit’s direction in key decisions related to vision and strategic planning. Such discernment arises from reflection on biblical stories, on the congregation’s theological commitments, on the congregation’s own history and journey of communal faith, and considering of present strengths and future opportunities. Prayer will be a significant part of this conversation. It will be important for board members, especially the lead pastor and chairperson, to listen carefully to one another as this discerning proceeds.

Board members will come to such discussions from diverse perspective, based upon experience, understanding of the mission of the church, professional competence, and their personal spiritual journey. Their contributions will be mixed, but all need to engage the strategic planning process with vigour and commitment. This is one place were a board member’s duty of disinterested passion for the mission has to become visible. It is disinterested because each board member comes to this discussion with advancement of the mission as his/her key concern, not a personal agenda.

Evaluation of potential risks and the identification of potential resources to support the strategic plan have to be part of the process. This is not to eliminate the element of faith, but to build confidence with the congregation that the plan can be achieved without unduly threatening the health of the congregation.

Conversation between board chair and lead pastor will have to be rather extensive and ongoing during a strategic planning process. Both need to be on the same page as much as possible and understand the respective roles each plays in the process, as well as the role of the church board and ministry staff. Once a strategic plan gains definition responsibility shifts to the lead pastor for implementation and reporting progress to the board. The board for its part focuses attention on evaluation. The chairperson will be scheduling into the board annual agenda a session at which the ends are reviewed and as necessary updated.

Recently the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada issued a revised set of standards for the governance of federally regulated financial institutions (January 2013). Of course, there is a great difference between church boards and the corporate boards of banks and insurance companies. What I found interesting, however, was the specific guideline that these boards had responsibility to discern short-term and long-term enterprise-wide business objectives, strategy and plans and to make sure they were being implemented in ways consistent with corporate objectives and values. I would suggest that church boards fill the same role in their congregational contexts.

In a recent article by Bhagat, Hirt and Kehoe entitled “Tapping the Strategic potential of boards” (McKinsey Quarterly) three key questions were suggested to stimulate board-management engagement concerning strategic planning. I have adapted their questions to the church board context:

1. Do the members of the church board understand the dynamics internally and externally influencing congregational life and development today? How can board members be a “step ahead of issues rather than always feeling a step behind”?

2. Has there been enough discussion between church board members and pastoral staff before a specific strategy is proposed? Laying a foundation of shared knowledge and understanding is a critical step to the discernment of strategic directions.

3. Have the church board members and the pastoral staff discussed all strategic options and wrestled them to the ground? It is one thing to identify influential factors in congregational development or societal shifts or cultural dynamics, but this represents only the beginning of debate, not the endpoint. The pastoral staff should be encourage to develop several options, rather than just one, so that robust, spiritually-informed debate within the board can discern the best among several good directions.

In my opinion a church board and its chairperson have to be part of the team which does the primary parts of the strategic planning function in a congregation.

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