Strategic Planning For the Future (Part 1)
Many pastors wants to jump ahead to planning and implementing change. But every church is unique in its history, vision, and opportunities, so there are no “one size fits all” solutions for getting back to health. Before we can make any progress in moving forward, we need to get a grasp on where we are today.
Stopping to assess where our ministry has been, where it is now, and where we might be getting stuck gives us the starting point for our roadmap—our strategic plan.
THE KEY ELEMENTS TO ASSESSING HEALTH
Assessment doesn’t just stop at the question “Where are we healthy today?” Good assessment also requires that we look at what isn’t working; what warning lights are starting to go off that we need to address before we move forward.
In Part 1 of our series on Strategic Planning for the Future, Amy and I are diving into the four key elements to assessing health:
- Clarifying your church’s history
- Analyzing key data metrics
- Unpacking your guest experience
- Identifying future opportunities for health
Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Register for the FREE “Finding Church Health Again” webinar on September 23
- Take the Vital Signs Assessment (free with code podcast)
- Take the [FREE] Unstuck Church Assessment
- Discover the Unstuck Process
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Assessing the health of your church in normal times can be complicated. Assessing the health of your church during a pandemic is a whole new territory. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy share insights into how your church can gauge overall health and some steps you can take if you identify problems. You know, churches that were healthy and growing before the pandemic and those that still are today have this in common. They aren’t just hoping for help. They’re planning for it. We want to invite you to join our Unstuck Team for a free, practical conversation around honestly assessing your ministry’s health today, making a plan for the future and aligning your team to the new strategy. In this one hour webinar on September 23rd, our team’s going to help you reframe your current challenges and inspire you to refresh how you think about your church’s next steps. You can learn more and register today at theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Tony, I’ve been looking forward to the series of podcasts because this is going to give pastors a clear understanding of how we help churches get unstuck, especially in this season. Before we dive into today’s topic, why don’t you give us an overview of the process and maybe a little bit about how it’s evolved over the years?
Amy, it’s kind of hard for me to believe that it’s been 12 years since we started The Unstuck Group. And in fact, last month we were able to celebrate with our 500th church that we’ve worked with, and it was Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Oregon. And I feel like we should like be sending them balloons and things like that and all kinds of fun things to celebrate with us. But 500 churches is really amazing. And one of the things that really jumped out to me from early on is just the different types of stuckness that we see. I mean, some churches that reach out to us, I would classify as kind of the stuck, stuck churches. In other words, they’ve recognized that, you know, something’s just not right. Maybe they’ve been in decline for a while, fewer people are saying yes to Jesus, maybe even giving has started to decline. And over time they’ve recognized the kind of the direction that we’re heading is just, it’s not a healthy direction and something needs to change. So that’s one type of stuckness that we’ve seen, but honestly, we’ve also had a lot of churches reach out to us that I would classify as being healthy stuck. In other words, if you were just to look at the church, you would say that is a healthy church, but the season that they’re in, they’re feeling like they need fresh vision or something about their ministry strategy needs to change, or it might even be something specific like they’re considering multi-site or merging, or really diving into a digital strategy. Or maybe they’re just feeling some of the constraints of their structure now because they have experienced health and growth. And as a result of that, they’re recognizing we need to make some changes to our staffing and our structure to continue to sustain this health moving forward. And so that’s another type of stuck church that reaches out to us. But as a result of that, through the years, what we’ve learned is there’s kind of a core process, regardless of the stuckness that a church’s facing. There’s kind of a core process that we need to walk through with a church. And over the last couple of years, what we’ve done is we’ve really looked at it. There’s a 90 day sprint that we need to guide churches through, and we need to facilitate a process over just those three months. And then we need to actually continue to walk beside pastors and leaders through an implementation phase. So that 90-day sprint includes three different phases. There’s an assessment, where we’re trying to evaluate where is the ministry today? What’s healthy and what really is stuck? Where are there opportunities for next steps? The second phase: we’re clarifying direction. We’re planning for the future. And this is where we do things like help clarify vision for the future and the ministry strategies that we’re going to engage. We try to clarify objectives and build specific action plans. That happens in the second part of the process. And then this third phase is about reviewing staffing and structure. And here we’re asking some critical questions like, does the structure support our strategy going forward? Are there any gaps on our team? Do we have the right leadership in place? Do we have the right people in the right roles? And all of these key conversations happen within this 90-day sprint. And on the other side of that, time and time and time again, we’re hearing from pastors, this is exactly what we needed for the season that we’re in. And what’s fascinating is we hear that both from the stuck-stuck churches and the healthy-stuck churches, but that’s really only the beginning of our process because at that point we kind of flip gears a little bit, and we really do become, I think really kind of consultant/coaches at that point to help pastors, to help leaders, actually follow through. And this is where we kick into implementation and really are trying to come alongside leaders with some accountability, coaching for follow through. We do quarterly check-ins. We annually, kind of just refresh the ministry plan to make sure it’s still in line with where God has the church going in the future. And we just, in this, it’s just kind of like you’re providing access to our implementation team. When you really need it the most, you get that access. And so Amy, that’s kind of a quick overview of the process, but over these next few weeks, I think we’re going to just plan to unpack, especially the first three phases of that 90 day sprint, just so that pastors can have an understanding of how we engage with churches. But my hope is that this may help you kind of identify what you need to do next in your leadership as well.
Yeah, I think we’ll talk about the other phases of the process in the upcoming episodes, but I’d like to actually focus on that very first phase that you talked about, the assessment phase today, before we talk about what the planning process looks like. Why is it important do you think, Tony, to start with the assessment?
Amy, honestly, I don’t know if many pastors like it when we start with assessment. In fact, many times in early conversations, I think what I’m hearing is they want to jump immediately to planning or working on structure or taking action. And so rather than ready, aim, fire, I think many pastors would rather we skip the ready part and actually the aim part and just help them start firing new bullets. What we’ve learned, of course, is that doesn’t work. And I think the main reason why is that every church is unique. Every church is made up of unique people trying to reach unique people. And because of that, the visions, the strategies, the priority objectives, the structures, the action plans that work with one church, they could actually cause a lot of harm in another church. And that’s why we can’t skip the assessment step. It would be like your doctor prescribing a health plan for your body without evaluating your vital signs and taking some blood tests and understanding your family history. The same plan wouldn’t work for every patient. So here’s another challenge. Sometimes the initial presenting symptoms aren’t really the real issues. And so, you know, I’ll hear from pastors, we’re seeing such and such issue. What I don’t know, in those early conversations, are we trying to treat the symptoms without understanding the real underlying causes? What really is the issue? And if we treat the symptoms without addressing those underlying causes, the those symptoms that are we’re aware of could persist for a long time. So let me give you an example that we are maybe all too familiar with right now. Let’s say that you’re sick and your physical symptoms include a cough, a runny nose, a sore throat, muscle aches, a fever. Several of us have experienced this in recent months. You know, all of these symptoms may indicate that you have a cold, but it could mean you have the flu. And it could also mean you have COVID. So you ask your physician to prescribe a plan to get you back to health. The doctor really can’t do anything until he or she knows what’s causing the symptoms. So that makes sense when we’re talking about the physical body, but Amy, you’d be amazed at how often I’ve talked to pastors, who in some form or fashion are telling me we’re stuck. We want to return to health. Let’s skip the assessment phase so that we can quickly get to the necessary changes and put a plan into action. Of course, what they’re really saying is we want the shortcut to health. Just tell us what’s working in other churches, and we’ll do that. But let me say it again. The same strategies and the same structures that work in one church will not work in every church. And likewise, the solution for one church’s stuckness will not be the same solution for every church’s stuckness. Amy, there’s one more reason why I think assessment is so critical for churches, but before I go there, I’m trying to recall, have I ever shared the story about my Audi and the check engine light on our podcast?
You did, but it was years ago. It’s worth retelling.
My favorite car that I’ve ever owned, and by the way, I’m not a big car buff, but I enjoy driving quality cars. And so my problem is I’ve been in ministry for way too long, and I can’t afford new, quality cars. So I ended up buying very used quality cars and this particular car, again, favorite car I’ve ever owned. It was an Audi, but when I purchased it, it was probably eight, nine years old. And initially, I mean, it was a sweet ride. It was the best, best ride I’ve ever experienced in a vehicle. Absolutely loved it. But in this era of Audi’s, they were kind of notorious for the check engine light constantly coming on. And initially it was just, you know, minor sensors that would cause it to come on, but they would always come on. I had to go to the mechanic. The mechanic would deal with the issue, and he would work his magic and turn off the check engine light. And this would happen and happened repeatedly. I’d get it fixed. The check engine light would come on. And ultimately, I just got frustrated with this. And so one day I walked out to the garage. I found a black piece of electrical tape, and I covered the check engine light in my car. And for a time in my mind, at least, that fixed the check engine light. And actually it lasted for, you know, maybe two or three weeks. And then one day I went out to turn on the car, and the car wouldn’t even start. Had to get it towed to my mechanic friend. This time my mechanic friend said, I’m sorry, Mr. Morgan, but this time in order to turn off your check engine light, it’s going to cost you several thousands of dollars. It was more than the car was even worth. And so that’s how my favorite vehicle met its ultimate demise, Amy. But all of that, it’s a little bit comical to think about trying to fix a check engine light by covering it up with electrical tape. However, it’s a very vivid reminder for me, hopefully for us, that we don’t just drift back to health. When we see warning lights coming on, if we don’t pay attention to that, we aren’t going to over time, drift back to health. And it’s interesting. I see this in my physical life. You know, if I start to jump on the scales and the warning light is going up because my weight is going up, I don’t just drift back to a healthy state. Emotionally, mentally, if I start to see some warning signs in my life, and I don’t pay attention to that and embrace a new plan for health in that area, I just don’t drift back to health in that area. We see it all the time in our personal finances. If we start to see a trend in our checking account, where the balance is going lower and lower and lower, we don’t just drift back to financial health. The crazy thing is in churches, I think many times we see the warning lights going on, and we just assume if we pray harder sometimes, if we have more faith that eventually over time, we will drift back to health. And Amy, you and I have seen way too many times, that’s not the answer. And so for us, what we’ve learned is this assessment phase is really about identifying not only where’s the health currently, but where are the warning signs starting to go off so that we can begin to address specifically a plan to move forward, so that we’re not just hoping that we’ll drift to health that will actually move towards health in the future?
Oh, well, that’s really great. And with that as a foundation, Tony, let’s actually talk about how we approach the assessment phase in The Unstuck Process. I think it’s important to maybe talk through some of the conversations that we have and kind of unmask it a little bit. So when you walk us through the various elements of that process?
Yeah. So what I love about the process is we’re providing a fresh and frankly honest perspective on where the ministry has been, where it is now and where the church may be stuck. And this really then becomes the roadmap for where to strategically place focus when we get to the next phases of our planning process. But let me just, you know, emphasize that honest part. I really do think this, it’s now it’s kind of part of our Unstuck way at The Unstuck Group that we bring that honest perspective. And it kind of goes back to even early on in ministry. It’s my sense of discernment that I really think is a gift from God. And gosh, when God’s in control of that, it’s been fun to see how he’s used that gift in my personal life. Not only for me personally and where I am and my family, but also how that’s carried over to ministry. And so early on, I just decided at The Unstuck Group, we’re not going to try to sugar coat. We’re gonna just give honest perspective to the churches that we’re serving so they know where they are: square one. And where the starting point is so that they can move forward. In fact, one of my friends in ministry years ago used to say, Tony, the way you present your perspective, it’s interesting. You present it honestly, but somehow you present it in a way that almost makes me feel good about hearing this honest perspective. And he said, Tony, because of that, I kind of view you kind of like the velvet brick. You’re hitting us with the hard truth, but you do it in a way that makes it feel like this feels good. It’s good. We’re just getting an honest reflection of where we are. That’s kind of how we approach this whole assessment process, and it does include some key elements. One of them being clarifying the story of the church. And this is where we try to glean a bit of history of where the church has come from in the past. And I just have always felt like there’s so much we can learn about what God’s blessed in the past in our ministry and where we’ve gotten stuck in the past in our ministry. There’s so much from our history that can help us shape where we need to go forward. And so we are, we’re asking questions like what has led to health in the past of our church? What has created stuckness in our past? And what’s fascinating is on the other side of these types of conversations, how often, Amy, we hear from those on the team that are part of even the leadership. I didn’t even know that that happened in the past. I had never heard that story or comments like, so that’s why we do such and such in this way. Don’t you hear that?
It’s often one of the most favorite conversations that some of the team members have because they’ve got new people on the team who just get brought into that story, and then to actually look back at it and talk through what they’ve learned over the years, what God has already taught them and shown them, it’s, like I said, of the favorite exercises some churches go through.
Absolutely. Another core part of this assessment process is analyzing objective metrics. And I mean, I don’t, I don’t mean to brag, but I actually think this is actually a huge strength that we bring to churches. We’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of churches through the years. And with all of these churches, we’re collecting all this information. And so we can really help the churches we’re serving get a clear understanding of where they are in dozens of different areas of ministry, to know where they have strength, where they have health and where they may be stuck. And so some of that does come through the vital signs that we’re tracking. There are a couple dozen different data points that we’re looking at, and we’re helping the churches we serve look at trends and kind of comparing what we’re seeing in other churches. And part of this is just going through The Unstuck Church Assessment, where we help the church identify which of the seven phases of the life cycle is the church in today because, you know, that’s an important part of assessment because each phase has a distinctive potential next step coming out of it. And so that’s the second part.
And it might be worth saying, you know, we celebrated at the beginning of the podcast that we’ve served our 500th church. That’s the 500th church that we’ve been on the ground with and engaged this entire Unstuck process with. But these metrics that we’re getting, or these assessments, The Unstuck Church Assessment and vital signs, we have thousands of churches that have taken this assessment. So just for clarity, it’s very rich data. It’s very broad and wide with the types of churches. So just in case listeners were wondering.
Yeah, Amy, thanks for clarifying that. So the third area, and this is actually what we hear from pastors many times what they look forward to the most, and that’s unpacking your first-time guest experience and, you know, call it a secret shopper. I don’t know, but it’s basically someone from our team going in. We try to keep it as secret as possible, but sometimes that’s difficult. But just to kind of get that unfiltered perspective of what somebody who’s attending your church for the very first time is experiencing. And so we go in. We experience a weekend service. We look at it through the lens of someone who’s visiting for the very first time. And then on the other side of that, we deliver a very detailed report that evaluates the experience from someone who shows up at your campus, you know, parking lot, all the way through the first time guest experience, what they encounter, all the way through the Sunday morning service itself. And so it includes a pre-visit assessment of the website, assessment of facilities, signage, guest services, children’s ministry environments, worship experience, message. And this is where sometimes it really is revealing some eye opening feedback for the churches. And by the way, in most cases, there’s just a lot of good news in that feedback, but it does highlight, almost always, one or two areas where some, just some key shifts could happen, and sometimes very easy shifts, to create a better environment for those that are showing up for the very first time. One of the interesting outcomes on this, and maybe the most eye-opening feedback though, is part of this is we’re actually telling the church here’s who we think you’re trying to reach based on what we experienced on Sunday morning. I mean, have you noticed that Amy, that sometimes that’s what’s most eye-opening, I guess, in that, in that part of our process?
For sure. Well, there’s a lot of it that’s eye opening. I mean, I think it’s worth saying when we secret shop, we kind of put on that persona of not only am I not connected to your church, but I’m may be not even connected to faith. And so, in other words, I’m not a church person that’s looking for a new church. I’m a person from your community that got invited or found your church, and I’m just wondering what it’s all about. And when you come in with that persona, there’s a lot of things, churches do that outsiders don’t understand. And we habituate to our environments, you know, we don’t see the stained carpet anymore. We don’t see or listen to our language. So anyways, I was just talking to a pastor I was with doing staffing and structure work, and he was reflecting back on the health assessment, and they’re a multi-site church. And so the site that he is not at, he doesn’t get to see very often. And the feedback was a little bit of a gut punch, he said, but he said it was so good because we needed to understand, you know, why maybe we weren’t experiencing the health that we want to experience there. And one church I was working with recently, I did their secret shopper, and this is a fantastic church, but their biggest miss was in their attention to new people. All the language they use was designed for people already connected to their church and faith. And as they reflected on that, because by the way, I said, who are you trying to reach? Based on my experience, it really was churched people, you know, who understand the Bible and all of this. And anyways, they said, we used to be really good at that. You know, we used to be really good at bringing in language that outsiders would understand, but then we had COVID, and we had to pivot, and we just didn’t come back to those fundamentals of speaking to new people. It was just missed. And so it’s so easy, it’s such low-hanging fruit. But it was a great aha for them. So, yeah, that’s the first-time guest experience is such a great primer for the planning time, because as part of this assessment visit, once you see your church through someone else’s eyes, you start to experience it differently yourself in the weeks to come.
You said gut punch, but it was good that again, that value of bringing honest, but helpful perspective. So I’m glad to see that value being carried through, Amy. The last area, this part of the assessment is really about identifying those great opportunities for the church. And this is where we facilitate some conversations with the leadership team. I’m always just so encouraged how leaders oftentimes have great perspective. We just need to ask them the question to draw out that healthy perspective, because many times maybe they don’t feel the freedom to talk about it, or just because ministry is happening at such a pace they never take the time to process together. So leaders often know the opportunities and the challenge. I mean, they feel it in their gut, and then when you give them the time to process out loud, it gives them just encouragement to verbalize it. And it helps to bring confirmation to some key areas that need to be addressed. So through all this assessment process, you know, we really do get a fairly comprehensive view of what’s happening across the life of the church. And through the process, we’re able to provide some additional perspective to help the team identify the key opportunities for further conversation during the strategic planning process. And we’ll of course get more detailed about that process in next week’s episode. But Amy, I’m just curious, which what’s your favorite part of this assessment phase of The Unstuck Process?
Boy, it might be what you just said. Honestly, when I work with a team of 10 to 12 at this assessment visit, and I watch them come together and unite, even though they might agree, disagree throughout, you know, the three, four hours that we’re talking, it is amazing how they leave so energized. Like I’m so glad we had this conversation. We’ve never done this before, or it’s been so long since we paused and thought together as a team that it just brings some unity and a great kickoff to The Unstuck Process.
Yeah I love that.
Yeah. Well, Tony, you mentioned that many times pastors are ready to jump to tactical changes, skip the assessment process, but you know, once the church actually goes through this assessment phase, what are some of the reactions you hear from pastors on the other side of that?
Yeah. Yeah. So I just, I went back and just kind of thought about the conversation after this assessment process and some of the themes that I hear. So one of them, I didn’t realize there was so much that is a part of our story that even my leaders didn’t know it. And so I’ll hear that theme come out in the conversations with senior pastors. Another theme, it was good to have the perspective of the team leaders. They identify the opportunities and the challenges, and I didn’t have to do that myself. So what the pastor is communicating is now the team has buy-in to help find the solutions. They’re not feeling the pressure of having to identify all the solutions themselves. Another thing, I’ll hear something like this. It was good to have someone who is not emotionally and relationally attached to our team helping us process some critical questions and facilitating honest conversations. And that’s true. I mean, although we try to develop relationship with the teams that we’re working with, no doubt, we aren’t there on a daily basis. We’re not in the room. We’re not at the church. And so because of that, we’re not as emotionally and relationally attached. And it allows us to have maybe a more of an impartial look and facilitation of the conversation that needs to happen. Another thing — Thank you for helping to confirm what I, as the pastor, was feeling in my gut. That that may be the most common theme that we hear coming out of this. But I think pastors deserve to have somebody fighting with them in their corner, that they can process stuff like this and just kind of hear from somebody else. I’m not crazy. What I’m feeling is really true. And now we need to deal with it. And maybe on the opposite side of this, in the what do we rarely hear category, it’s maybe something like this. That came out of left field. I was completely not expecting to hear that. And in other words, what I’m saying is, I think the process is designed more for confirmation rather than surprise. And so I can’t remember the last time a pastor said, I’m just, I’m shocked that you found that out. So it’s really more about confirmation than surprise. The key is that this process sets up the next phase of the process so well. We get such a great picture of the churches that we’re working with by going through this assessment step. And that helps us provide much better coaching when we get to strategic planning and then taking a look at the staffing and structure.
Well, great, Tony, I think we’ve drained the assessment visits, but any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah, Amy, I just think this is such a critical season for churches. I mean, generally trends weren’t looking very promising for many churches before COVID, and I’ve said it before, but I don’t think anything we’ve experienced over the last 18 months is going to cause churches to drift towards health. I mean, if anything, it’s likely accelerating many of the challenges churches were facing. So with that in mind, you don’t need to wait to hear the next couple of episodes in this series. Many of you heard enough today to prompt you to at least start a conversation with us about coming to your church to begin this process with your team as well. I mean, this is what Amy, our other ministry consultants and I do almost every week. We work with churches like yours to assess, to plan for the future and to help you structure for what God has next for your ministry. And if you’d like to start that conversation, please reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com/start.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to sign up for the upcoming webinar on Finding Church Health Again, on September 23rd. You can learn more and sign up today by going to theunstuckgroup.com/Webinar. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast and it’s been helpful for you, we’d love your feedback. You can share that with us by rating and reviewing us on your favorite podcasting platform. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode in this series. So until then, we hope you have a great week.