Thriving churches require effective strategies that respond to real-world challenges and opportunities.

A sign indicates "Dead End" at the end of a snowy road, overlooking the waters of Georgian Bay, Ontario.
Credit: Nelson Cruz, Flickr, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Published On: January 18, 2017

On the wet, West Coast of Canada, where I live and work, we have grown accustomed to the decline of the mainline church, particularly The United Church of Canada. We now whine very little about the unfair playing field of a consumer society, soccer on Sundays or undisciplined Christians.

The sod has settled over the grave of Christendom. The church and its leaders no longer carry the clout that existed when many current leaders were in their youth.

Camps and congregational properties are being liquidated, often with deep and profound grief. Leaders attempt to re-allocate resources in ways that acknowledge, if not foster, the need for innovation. All of this has been painful and very hard work for leaders.

In many mid-sized, and the few remaining large-sized, congregations leaders attempt to turn the ship, although the bigger the vessel the longer the arc. Those with resources are able to shield themselves from the new reality longer until, “overnight,” a crisis such as the need for a new roof or an engineering condemnation of the wing of a property injects a massive dose of urgency. Smaller congregations generally feel the front wave of the tsunami of the new reality and have long been struggling with matters of paid leadership, finding alternate revenue streams to maintain the property and programs that are poorly attended and under-funded.

One leadership response to this new reality is, as some evangelicals might say, to “cast a vision.” Mainline types lean towards rhetoric aimed at encouragement.

The word “mission” has become current. People are exhorted, encouraged, sometimes even verbally whipped and shamed to get on the mission bandwagon. “If we’re not talking mission, what are we doing?” Some use the word “innovation” in the same way.

Other leaders expand the lexicon and hope that if their people could only learn the differences between adaptive and technical responses, plus some other key phrases, the bow of the ship would begin to change course.

I am all for inspiration and encouragement - especially on Sunday! Every leader and member occasionally need to have the tires pumped back up. But, as Richard Rumelt, points out in his helpful book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Mattersexhortation is not a strategy. Too many leaders have felt inappropriate discouragement because they gave their best sermon and nothing happened.

Similarly being ambitious - in a churchy, Canadian, way of course - is not a strategy. One can aspire to have the best congregation in the city, the liveliest, most engaging worship service ever encountered by a Millennial, or the best bulletin ever produced but it is not the same as developing a well-thought out strategy. And perhaps therein lies the problem.

Developing effective strategy is hard work. Effective strategies arise from doing the disciplined work of identifying the underlying challenges and opportunities and developing, step by step, real-world plans to address those challenges and opportunities.

Why don’t we do it? Once we get past the tiresome refrain - “but we weren’t trained for this!” - at least five reasons for our reluctance come to mind.

1. Most trained church leaders prefer the abstract language of theology. Learning the language is, in part, what helped us gain our credentials. We have worked hard to discover and learn language which resonates with our spiritual life and helps us make sense of the world. Too often, though, in response to particular situations of challenge or opportunity, we default to obscure or esoteric theological jargon. Many a congregational member has left with a puzzled look when, in response to their question about the budget, the lack of Sunday School teachers or declining attendance, the minister has replied, “Well clearly we need to focus on mission!” Or, “we just need to be alert for the movement of God in our midst!” All may be true but it is not strategic thinking. Rumelt calls this the use of “apparently esoteric concepts to create the illusion of high-level thinking.”

2. We are afraid of the challenge. We are more comfortable with abstract and large-scale analysis - “boo” on consumerism and the sense of generational entitlement! - than with sitting with the hard questions of “So what exactly is the challenge? And what are the concrete steps we are going to take to address that challenge?”

Sometimes an arrogance underlies the fear - “if, as the leader, I don’t know how to respond to this challenge, how could the congregation?” Other times it is simple challenge avoidance. Church leaders are generally very busy - someone always can use a visit, Sunday is on the horizon (again) and the bulletin is still not done. It takes hard work - and time - to accurately name a challenge and opportunity, much less work with a congregation on strategic thinking.

3. Rumelt names one flaw in the business community as the growing tendency to mistake goals for strategy. The same holds within the church. Goals, as wonderful as they are, do not constitute a strategy.

Rumelt’s research reveals a trend among organizations to use boilerplate thinking.

“The current fill-in-the-blanks template starts with a statement of “vision,” then a “mission statement” or a list of “core values,” then a list of “strategic goals,” then for each goal a list of “strategies,” and then, finally, a list of “initiatives.” …

Often these exercises produce high-sounding sentiments but “they do not identify and come to grips with the fundamental obstacles and problems that stand in the organization’s way.”

4. One of the most powerful reasons church leaders and church councils/Board/Executives does not engage strategic thinking is because designing strategy means making choices. And making choices means that some things will not get done. And if some favourite things do not get done some people will be unhappy. And if they are unhappy there will be conflict. And if there is conflict some people may leave and others, picking up a conflict situation on their radar, will not enter.

Church leaders are trained, from day one, to keep the peace. Enough flak already fills the skies: phrases said, or not, in sermons; actual time spent in the church office; visits not made; the types of shoes, dress or apparel worn; gossip and routine misinformation. A leader is hardly disposed to stir the pot any more than necessary. The job is hard enough.

As difficult as it may be to face these various sources of reluctance, the other question must also be asked: How’s not doing the hard work of strategic thinking working now?

Within an honest answer to this question may lie another reason for avoidance.

5. For many leaders, the present system works not that bad. Granted congregations are bleeding, but often not too heavily in one episode. Most often the dis-ease and decline is chronic and relatively measured. Most leaders are well-regarded if not loved and cherished. For many of my generation, it seems possible to get close to, if not stagger across, the retirement finish line before this version of the church drops to its knees. So, for many of our leaders, things are actually not too bad.

The question is, though: How will our reluctance to engage in true strategic thinking now impact the church in 10 years?

 — Keith Howard

Rev. Dr. Keith Howard is profoundly curious about the interface of the Christian gospel and the social context in which we live. This curiosity has drawn him into many roles, including 23 years of congregational ministry in the United Church; more than five years as executive director of the Emerging Spirit project; and most recently, team leader for LeaderShift in BC Conference. Keith blogs at Sign up for his newsletter here.

Watch next week for a follow-up post by Keith Howard, "5 Reasons the Church May Make It."