Strategic Planning For the Future (Part 2)
I recently spoke to Paul Alexander, Executive Pastor at Sun Valley Community Church and consultant at The Unstuck Group, about the healthy growth their church campuses are experiencing. I wanted to know why they thought they were still experiencing strong momentum during the pandemic when so many other churches were in steep decline.
Paul confirmed what I already knew: there are no shortcuts to becoming a healthy, growing, thriving church.
Instead, what we see in the churches experiencing the most success is a consistent determined commitment to ministry planning over an extended period of time.
This concept of “consistent strategic obedience” is not revolutionary. But in ministry, it’s easy to get distracted by the newest growth tactic or “hack” to health. It’s easier to look for the silver bullet than to work your strategy consistently over time.
THE CASE FOR STRATEGIC PLANNING
In Part 1 of our series on Strategic Planning for the Future, Amy and I broke down the four key elements to assessing health. After the health assessment has taken place, we can begin to develop a unique strategic plan–setting priorities, goals, and action steps for the future.
This week, Amy and I are making a case for strategic planning as the key to long-term healthy growth and exploring:
- Consistent strategic obedience
- The flywheel concept for thriving organizations
- Why churches struggle to maintain momentum
- Strategic planning as stewardship
Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Series Episode 1: Assessing Your Ministry’s Health Today
- Series Episode 3: Staffing for Your Strategy
- Good to Great by Jim Collins
- 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. There is no silver bullet to move at a declining church into a new season of health and growth. Instead, what we see in the churches experiencing the most success is a consistent, determined commitment to ministry planning over an extended period of time. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy share how your church can develop the focus strategic plan that will lead to a healthy, thriving ministry. If these conversations the last two weeks around assessment and planning for a healthy future are resonating with you, I invite you to join Tony, Amy and myself on September 23rd for our free “Finding Church Health Again” webinar. We’ll be diving deeper into the topics we’re discussing here on the podcast, like how to evaluate your core ministry approaches, reflect on your mission field with fresh eyes and how to align your organizational structure to fit your strategy. This one-hour webinar is happening on September 23rd at 1:00 PM Eastern. And you can register at theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony, last week we began a new series talking about the three phases of the Unstuck Process that we use to help churches experience health and have a greater kingdom impact. And last week we talked about assessment. Today, Tony, though, we’re going to focus on the strategic planning. Only today is less about how we engage strategic planning and more about why churches should embrace it. Isn’t that right?
That’s correct. I mean, last week we talked about how pastors, honestly, they want to skip the assessment and jump straight to what’s working in other churches, even though what’s working in other churches may not be the right direction, strategy or actions for their church. And, I think, you know, pastors really they’re looking for that silver bullet. So we talked about instead of ready, aim, fire, they’re actually actually asking for the silver bullet so they can fire, fire, fire. But today’s conversation, we’re really focusing on the aim part of ready, aim, fire. Eventually we’ll take action, but we need to clarify our aim first. If we do that well, the actions we need to take, they’ll almost prioritize themselves, Amy. So without clarifying our aim first our urgent things in ministry will always crowd out what’s most important for the longterm health and impact of the church. And so we’re looking in this process of strategic planning to get beyond what’s urgent, to identify what’s most important for the long-term health of the church.
Yeah. We can’t really blame pastors, though, for wanting to embrace what’s working in other churches, right? I mean, I remember I used to do that, kind of look left and right. What’s working?
No, absolutely not. That is a good thing for us to be looking outside at other organizations, and I’m trusting that that’s coming from a good place. I’m trusting church leaders just want to reach more people with the good news and help more people experience the life transformation, Amy, that you and I have experienced through a relationship with Jesus. So I’m trusting that that’s coming from a great place, but after helping more than 500 churches get unstuck over the last 12 years, I can assure you there are no shortcuts to becoming a healthy, growing thriving church, and maybe to give an illustration of this, several weeks ago, and by the way, I asked for his permission to share this, but I was having a dialogue with Paul Alexander. Paul is actually the longest serving ministry consultant at The Unstuck Group besides myself. His day job though, he’s the executive pastor at Sun Valley Community Church in the Phoenix area. Sun Valley is a great church. I mean, multiple campuses. I think they’re up to five or six campuses, Amy, several thousand people are part of the church, but like every church, over the last 18 months, it’s been a challenging season for them as well. But as they’re getting on the other side of this challenging season, Paul shared they, a week ago, I think it was two weeks ago, maybe, they had more than 700 new people connect to their church in one weekend.
Wow. That’s amazing.
It really is. And Paul said that on average, they’ve been seeing 200 to 300 new people connecting to the church every week. And this was his quote. And I love this cause this is we’re celebrating, if it’s Sun Valley or any other church, but he said this, “We’re seeing more new people attending services, serving others, getting in groups than we have in a long time.” And, Amy, when we see God moving in great ministries across the country, I want to know why, because I want to be able to share what they’re learning with other church leaders. And so naturally I asked Paul what’s driving this momentum that the church is experiencing right now. And here’s what Paul said about what’s happening at Sun Valley. He said this, “Man, I wish I knew, or I wish I could share a silver bullet, but I really believe it’s just us consistently working the plan. It’s the flywheel concept. And we’ve been practicing consistent, strategic obedience over time. And I really do believe it’s that simple.” And then he said, “It’s simple, but it’s not always easy.”
Yeah. Paul has led his church through the Unstuck Process probably since he started with you, Tony. Every year, he fires it up for all campuses. But you did, you mentioned the flywheel concept. For those who might not be familiar with that principle, can you explain what that’s all about?
Yeah. Absolutely. In fact, when I was, kind of preparing for today’s conversation, I went back and looked. That flywheel concept comes from Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great.” And what’s funny, Amy, it feels like every leader, even church leader, in my generation read “Good to Great.” Amy, do you realize that book came out 20 years ago now?
No way. Wow.
And so, my son was visiting a couple months ago and he said, dad, I’d love to know when you were my age, what were the books that you were reading? And one of the books that I pulled off the bookshelf was, “Good to Great,” and I let my son borrow it. And so yesterday I had, when I was trying to outline some of the thoughts for today’s conversation, I couldn’t find my book because my son’s reading it. And by the way, if you are a next generation leader, it’s an old book, but you need to go back and read that book. It’s just full of great insights on leading healthy organizations and healthy leadership. If you did pick up the book though, you would read about the flywheel effect, and until you do, this is what Jim Collins shares about this principle. “No matter how dramatic the end result, good to great transformations never happen in one fell swoop. In building a great company or social sector enterprise,” so think about churches as an example of a social sector enterprise. He says this, “There is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary, lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough and beyond.” Or Amy to put it in another way. There are no silver bullets. In fact, Collins wrote about comparison companies. So think about these are the companies that didn’t go from good to great. These are the companies he was comparing them to that were stuck, if you will. And he said, these companies tried to find and fire new silver bullets over and over again. In fact, here’s an excerpt. This one comes straight from his book. He said this. “Instead of a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done and then simply doing it, the comparison companies frequently launched new programs, often with great fanfare and hoopla aimed at motivating the troops, only to see those programs failed to produce sustained results. In other words, they sought the single defining action, the grand program, the one killer innovation, the miracle moment that would allow them to skip the arduous buildup stage and jump right to breakthrough. They would push the flywheel in one direction, then stop, change course and throw it in a new direction. And then they would stop, change course, and throw it in yet another direction. After years of lurching back and forth, the comparison companies failed to build sustained momentum and fell instead into what we came to call the doom loop.” So I was reading through that last night, Amy, and I was just thinking, this sounds so familiar to me and maybe it does to you that are listening as well. But here’s what came to mind to me. Let’s try contemporary worship and then no breakthrough, but let’s try multiple styles of worship and no breakthrough. Let’s try small groups. Let’s try multi-site. Let’s try church planting. Let’s try emergent church. Let’s try missional church. Let’s try a digital ministry strategy. Let’s build a new building. Let’s build another new building. Let’s go back to what worked in the past. All of these kind of new programs, new initiatives, some of which really could work by the way, we try and we go back and forth with all these new new programs hoping to experience breakthrough. And we never experienced the breakthrough. Instead, how did my teammate, Paul, put it? He said they have practiced, consistent strategic obedience, and now they are experiencing the breakthrough.
That’s so good. “Good to Great,” good reminder to go back and read that. With that as a foundation, then Tony, let’s start to talk about how our Unstuck Process helps churches determine where they should focus their consistent, strategic obedience, knowing that that’s going to look different from church to church, but unpack what that process looks like.
Yeah. So coming out of the assessment conversations that we’ve talked about last week’s episode, Amy, we get on site with the church leadership team, and we spend two full days of facilitating conversations and exercises to either confirm or clarify, for the very first time, things like our mission as a church. In other words, we want to find agreement on the church’s purpose and answer the question, “Why does the church exist?” We take a look at the church’s mission field. In other words, we’re trying to determine where has God placed the church? And then beyond that, who’s in our mission field? Who are we trying to reach? How do we connect with people we’re trying to reach? We also take a look at growth engines. And so we want to help churches identify what’s the ministry strategy they’re going to use to connect with people who are currently outside the church, and many times, Amy, outside the faith. In other words, we want them to have a reach strategy, and that’s critical. We also talk about discipleship. So once people connect to the church, how do we help them move from where they are to where God wants them to be? So these are, you know, we’re asking about spiritual formation. How do we encourage that in the people that are a part of our ministry? How do we help people become more like Jesus? We also talk about vision. So we talk about where the church is today and where we’re sensing God’s taking our ministry into the future. What direction are we heading? What are the God-sized dreams that we want to pursue? And by the way, Amy, just as a side note here, what I see way too many times is that pastors, they do the hard work of confirming why the church exists. In other words, they’re clear on their purpose as a church. They’re clear on their mission. There’s a mission statement that they’ve developed to articulate this is what we’re about. I think one of the big challenges that I see in church leadership is we assume because we’ve articulated a clear mission and everybody understands the mission, that we don’t need vision. We don’t need that direction for where we’re heading into the future. We don’t need to have clear clarity on those God-sized dreams that we’re pursuing. And because of that, even though there’s a clear mission, people are still left guessing where their priorities need to be today as the church moves forward. We also go through a process related to this of clarifying future goals. In other words, we’re trying to help the church build a dashboard with ministry goals to help focus effort, and then also to monitor long-term health of the church. And so these are critical questions, like how will we know whether or not we are winning when it comes to our mission? And there’s all kinds of aspects of that part of our process. And then among other things, the final thing that we work towards is action. We want all of that conversation to come together and then to help the leadership team prioritize where they need to focus their attention today. What do we need to be taking action on today? And so we help the team create a plan for action and then ultimately follow through. And in fact, I mean, I was just working with a church recently, Amy, and very healthy church, very successful church. I think they would agree maybe a little bit stuck right now, particularly in this season. We went through this full process and developed a priority action plan for them. We just identify three key initiatives that they’re going to focus on in the next coming months. And we put target dates and deadlines around all of these action plans. And I’m meeting with the leadership team, and they’re acknowledging this is the first time in the history of their church they’ve ever had an action plan with that level of accountability for follow-through built in. So, Amy, based on our experience, we, of course, share what we see working and not working in other churches, but we don’t prescribe the answers. And why don’t we do that? Because, of course, we’ve seen different visions and different strategies, and different action plans work differently in different churches. No two churches are alike, and mainly that’s because every church is made up of unique leaders with unique gifts, trying to serve unique communities with mission fields consisting of unique people. But our objective in the Unstuck Process really is to bring clarity in each of these key areas so that the team can begin practicing that consistent, strategic obedience that Paul Alexander referenced. It’s really about helping the team experience full alignment around the foundation of who they are as a church, the direction that they’re heading and their priority action plan, or to put it in the words of another Paul, this is from the apostle Paul. Our objective is to help churches be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.
Tony, I’ve heard you liken strategic planning to practicing good stewardship as well. Can you explain that for us?
Yeah. If you’re a Christ-follower, and particularly a pastor, you’re probably practicing and actually advocating for biblical stewardship practices in many areas of your life and the life of others in your church. I mean, just think about your physical health or relational health, particularly around healthy marriages, or renewing our minds or financial health or spiritual health. And we talked about this a little bit last week, but in all of these areas and more, we don’t just drift toward health. Pretend someone is engaged to get married, as an example. They want a healthy marriage. I’m assuming they do on the front end of their dating and their courtship. And eventually the wedding ceremony and the beginning days of their marriage, they want a healthy marriage. But if all they do is pray and hope for a healthy marriage, but never engage in practices to steward their marriage well, their marriage will never flourish. We decide in advance to commit to a healthy marriage. And then we develop a strategy to protect our marriage and to help it thrive. And then we actually put that plan into action and we engage in practices that strengthen our marriage. And over time, if we steward that relationship well, we increase the odds that we will end up in a healthy, thriving marriage. Let’s look at financial health. Financial health works the same way. We can’t just hope and pray for financial health while not embracing financial stewardship practices, and trust that we will magically become financially healthy. That doesn’t work. No matter how much we hope and pray for financial freedom, we’ll never experience it if we continue to spend more money than we earn or rack up credit card debt or fail to practice generosity with our finances. Instead, we have to decide in advance and commit to becoming financially healthy. Then we need a strategy. And by the way, I recommend that includes a budget to pursue financial freedom. And we need to actually put that plan into action and begin exercising healthy financial stewardship muscles. Then over time, if we steward our finances, well, we increase the odds that we will end up experiencing financial freedom. So, Amy, if you want to experience health in any area of life, you need to decide in advance and commit, develop a strategy, a plan to experience health. You need to put that plan into action, and then you need to commit to consistent stewardship practices. And if you do that in any area of your life, you’ll increase the odds that you’ll experience health. And by the way, I highly recommend that you do begin with hope and prayer. And don’t forget to take the before and after pictures too, by the way, in all of these areas, because you’re going to want to take the time to praise God and celebrate with others when that good stewardship ultimately leads to new health. And so here’s what I believe to my core. God wants our churches to engage our mission with a similar mindset. He wants us to steward the mission well. So we could just hope and pray that God will continue to help our ministry thrive. But I also think we need to decide in advance and commit to putting into practice what it means to be a good steward of the mission God’s called us to. We can’t just do what we’ve always done and expect that somehow magically we’re going to experience different results. We have to develop a strategy or plan for our churches to experience health and have a greater kingdom impact. And then we have to put that plan into practice so that we’re taking steps toward health even before we actually experience the health. In other words, we have to act like a healthy church before we become a healthy church. And then over time, if we steward our mission well, we increase the odds that we will end up experiencing the fruit of being a healthy, thriving church.
Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Amy, do I sound a little bit passionate about this topic?
You do, and I know you are.
Yeah. I mean, again, I believe to my core the church has the greatest mission in the world, and I want church leaders to steward that mission so well, and as we discussed, there’s no silver bullet for ministry to become healthy, thriving, for you to experience growth in your church. However, there’s one thing that comes pretty close, and I think it is this commitment to practicing consistent, strategic obedience until you experience the breakthrough. And by the way, if you’re looking for an easy next step for discovering what that consistent, strategic obedience could look like for your church, we’ll be diving even deeper into this topic in an upcoming webinar on September 23rd. It’s called “Finding Church Health Again,” and Amy and I will be joined by Sean Bublitz from our team for a really practical conversation around honestly assessing your ministry’s health today, making a plan for the future and aligning your team to the new strategy. And you can register for this free one-hour webinar by visiting theunstuckgroup.com/webinar, or if you’re ready to move forward in creating your strategic plan today, you can begin the process by reaching out to our team at theunstuckgroup.com/start.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, don’t forget to register for our upcoming webinar on “Finding Church Health Again” on September 23rd at 1:00 PM. You can learn more and register at theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast and it’s been helpful for you in some way, we would love your help in getting the content out further, and you can help by rating and reviewing us on your favorite podcasting platform. Next week, we’re back with week three of our series. So until then, we hope you have a great week.