By Eddie Lowen
I would not trade—for anything—the experience of seeing what happened with our team when we united around the words of our vision and mission.
For a long time, I was a skeptic and contrarian regarding church mission statements. To my eye, nearly all were synonymous, so why bother? Besides, isn’t the church’s mission already expressed in Scripture? Jesus said he came to seek and save the lost. He commissioned his followers to preach the good news to everyone. His words are clear and compelling. Best of all, using the words of Jesus does not require several days of painful meetings to develop.
So, when my director of ministries was invited to learn how to create strategic plans and mission statements, she expected me to wave-off the opportunity. I surprised both of us by how strongly I wanted her to attend. What changed? I could see that our church had many oars in the water, but our rowing rhythm and direction were weak. It was time to fix it.
Look Mom, I’m Strategic Planning
A few months later, several staff members and I invested 24 total hours over three days on a strategic plan. We used a system called StratOp and a facilitator, Pete Richardson, who has worked with a long list of effective churches and other clients.
Pete was skillful and likable, though he humbly explained that the real genius with StratOp is the process, not the facilitator. Some of the key exercises were:
• Charting pivotal moments from the past and what we learned from them.
• Identifying strengths, weaknesses, points of confusion, and omissions in our ministry.
• Profiling the type of person our church wants to reach and what he or she needs from us.
• Discovering crisp, unique language to capture what we do and what we hope to achieve.
Because of my personal style, I did not relish the thought of carving out time for three consecutive all-day meetings. But I would not trade the experience of seeing what happened among our team during those 24 hours. At the moment when the language for our church’s vision and mission came out of my mouth, I choked up. As the discussion moved forward, others did, too.
The emotion came not from discovering our church’s mission for the first time, but from a healthy personal ownership of it. It wasn’t a new mission, but the Holy Spirit was renewing our sense of mission and grafting it into our hearts. In the same way that a great sermon can create fresh passion for a long-known biblical principle, our work produced a new zeal for the mission Jesus gave the church—specifically, our church.
Renewal occurs when something vital becomes freshly relevant, which can change everything. Identifying what is most important reveals what is less important.
Distraction and Desperation
Church leaders should be receptive to input, but no church is effectively led via a suggestion box. One of the least productive questions a church can ask is, “Does anyone have any ideas?” Asking such a question sounds modest and open, but it normally is evidence leaders are asleep at the wheel. Can you imagine Nehemiah asking, “Does anyone have an idea for how to get this wall built without getting ourselves killed?” It’s not good when it can be argued that this is a church’s vision statement: Whatever.
God sometimes prompts a great new ministry direction through an idea voiced by someone outside the leadership circle. However, even when God works through a humbly offered suggestion, the responsibility of key leaders is to evaluate and implement all ideas.
And let’s be candid here, many ideas pitched to church leaders come loaded or laced with problems. They sometimes are unrealistic. They often are an attempt to institutionalize what an individual is being prompted by God to do. Occasionally, the motive behind an idea is personal kingdom building.
One reason church leaders struggle to explain why an unsolicited idea cannot be chased is because a visionary vacuum has invited it. In the absence of a clear vision around which a church can unite, it is understandable that someone would attempt to suggest one. More bluntly, if you don’t lead, someone else will try.
Nothing can erase the awkwardness of telling an elder’s wife that a brussels sprout cook-off doesn’t fit into the church’s ministry strategy. It’s hard to deliver disappointing news, no matter how obviously true it is. However, if there is a real strategic plan, leaders can truthfully explain that the church’s resources are being channeled toward it.
If you don’t cast a vision for your church, don’t be offended or surprised when someone else does. Even if they can’t verbalize it, many people instinctively know that a church needs a vision.
Why Less Is More
From the 1970s into the 1990s, programming was all the rage in churches. Nearly every church was in a hurry to add programs. I recall a seminar at which the featured speaker announced that his church had tripled its number of ministries over the preceding two years to well over 100 in number. Pastors around the room heard him and silently determined that their churches would dramatically increase programming, too.
Increasing ministry is a good thing. And, hundreds of ministries have worked well for a few churches I know. And, certainly, having no ministries is a lousy goal. However, because energy and resources are limited in every church, leaders must discern the sweet spot between too little and too much. Is it better to invest more resources in fewer things, or to disperse them across many things?
For several decades, many churches were convinced that more is more when it comes to church ministries, so they added as many programs and ministries as possible. But then churches began to learn that numerous programs can actually dilute a church’s energy and weaken it. Too many programs can foster fatigue, competition, and mediocrity.
Common vision and shared experience are more powerful than variety and endless options. No matter how many people we add to our churches—and we should all hope God will entrust us with more—our vision must remain clear enough that everyone knows it, while our structure must remain simple enough that everyone is directly connected to our mission.
I recently told several hundred church leaders at a conference that our church of thousands has no organizational chart. Leaders of churches running only 5 percent of our total attendance approached me and said, “We have an org chart, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth.” Org charts can be valuable. I’m not antiorganization. But org charts can also become an excuse for possessiveness and a tool for protecting the status quo. Organize your church simply and point everyone toward the same goal. In many cases, a chart will be unnecessary.
A mission without a plan for implementation is just a nice idea. So, we spent the final day of our retreat hammering out specific priorities and strategies. We determined what we would measure and what is important now. We then created teams to further develop our strategies. Each team had one clear leader for the sake of accountability. We continue to meet every couple of months to hear reports and celebrate progress.
Don’t settle for an inspiring retreat conversation. Build on it. Measure your progress.
I love the thought of hundreds of thousands of churches enthusiastically on mission, beginning with yours and mine. Perhaps you should join me as a recovering mission statement cynic.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.