Why You Should Put Your Church's Future in God's Hands

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Taking our seats on the platform of a small rural church where I was the guest speaker, the pastor looked at the pianist and said, "What shall we sing?" Immediately, I recognized I was not in a church that did much planning—long or short range.

Now, it's possible the pianist had been designated to plan the worship music. Perhaps the pastor depended on her to pick appropriate songs for the service. Maybe they had reached a comfort level in their respective roles. But it came across as poor planning—or none at all.

Most pastors would agree that short-term planning is needed, but not all are committed to planning for the long term. However, church leaders should view long-term planning as an act of faith in the good future God is preparing. They then can embrace a process that includes unified vision, purposeful mission, measurable goals, clear communication and meticulous "due diligence."

Planning for the long haul takes persistence, sensitivity to God's timing and adaptation to the unanticipated. However, tension can exist between what we perceive to be God's role in building the church and what our role is, between divine sovereignty and human initiative. If God is already in our future preparing it for us—and He is—and if Jesus has promised to build His church—and He has—why do we need to spend time detailing plans for the future? Shouldn't we operate day to day, week to week, waiting to see what God has developed for us? We certainly should live with a sense of anticipation at what God has prepared for us. But God has chosen to use Spirit-empowered believers to accomplish His plans. So in the church, He establishes leadership (Eph. 4:11), He empowers believers (Acts 1:8), and He distributes gifts to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7). He has not elected to bypass us but has distinctive roles for us in building His church.

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One of the ways we cooperate with Him is through long-range planning. This can be approached in a variety of ways but should include at least two primary factors: development of ministry strategies and responding to opportunities.

Ministry Strategies

It is assumed here that the church understands its primary task to be reaching lost people for Christ. Therefore, the strategies developed will focus on the ways and means of best accomplishing that goal. Each ministry area needs to strategize so that all ministries are in alignment with this common mission.

While we can learn from what other churches do, the Holy Spirit is creative enough to help us craft strategies unique to our community and our church. In our strategic planning, it is often as important to know what not to do as it is to know what to do.

A pastor in our church network felt led of the Spirit to plant a church in a growing community in the greater Seattle area. It was a highly affluent community, among the most expensive places in Washington to live. It did indeed need a strong church. A new member of the fledgling church had access to day-old bread from a nearby bakery, so one of their ministry strategies was to distribute it to all attendees after every service. But when affluent people from the community came to visit and were offered free bread, they were insulted and never returned—good motives, wrong strategy.

The apostle Paul's strategic plan was to preach in Asia, but he was kept by the Holy Spirit from doing so (Acts 16:6). Then he tried to enter Bithynia, but "the Spirit did not allow them" (Acts 16:7). Why? God was going to open a door they could never have anticipated.

Unexpected Opportunities

Here was the opportunity only God could see: "During the night a vision appeared to Paul: A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16:9). Paul responded to that call immediately. He set aside his strategy in order to respond to an opportunity.

These unique occurrences are unplanned sovereign interventions, sudden open doors. We don't always see them coming. In Paul's case, one door closed so another could open. He altered his plans so he could follow God's agenda.

These two approaches to planning are not contrary to one another. They are not "either/or" issues but "both/and." We will both strategize and respond to unusual opportunities.

Planning Principles

Here are some simple, long-range planning principles to keep in mind:

1. Pray, but also act. There certainly is no substitute for prayer, but neither is prayer a substitute for action. We can't say, "I'm praying about it" but do nothing. Prayer makes us receptive to God's great ideas. Prayer energizes planning and prompts action.

2. Be nimble but not impulsive. Open doors often require quick responses, but not every open door is God's will. Opportunities may abound, but not every opportunity will be compatible with the direction God is presently leading the church. Don't jump through every open door.

3. Be decisive, but sense God's timing. The fact that a decision has been made about a certain ministry doesn't mean it has to be announced next Sunday. Remember, we're talking about long-range planning. Make sure the building blocks for success are in place. Take time to get key leaders on board. Put dollars in the budget to ensure adequate funding.

4. Be open to change, but maintain the fundamentals. Change will happen. We can initiate it or be surprised by it. But when significant changes are made, keep core issues the same. Assure the people that the changes do not contradict doctrine, are compatible with the church's faith-filled history and will advance the biblical mission.

Organizational Systems

As the church grows, it will outgrow the systems that have allowed the congregation to function effectively and efficiently. This happened in Acts 6 when the distribution of food to the Hebraic and Grecian Jewish widows was not equitable. The response to this problem was a systemic change—the establishment of a new layer of leadership—which resolved the issue.

Long-range planning needs to take into consideration the need for systems change as the church develops. A few areas where such change will be required are:

  • Financial growth and fundraising. Are adequate internal controls in place? At what point in the church's development would a financial audit be advantageous? What special emphases will require a strong influx of funds? What should the church's debt ceiling be? What funds will be needed for building maintenance and expansion?
  • Missional expansion. At what point in our development should we plant another church? What type of church would it become? Who would be the campus pastor? How would it be financed? What should our international outreach entail? Which missionaries will we support?
  • Annual preaching calendar. What biblical themes need to be emphasized? What are the discipleship needs of our congregation? Could PowerPoint, drama, video and other options be more effectively used to enhance communication? What guest speakers would undergird and supplement the pastor's ministry?
  • Main church services. How can our service plans be better coordinated with the preaching? Have the services become routine? What adjustments could make them more effective? Does the music encourage congregational participation? Is everything done with excellence? How might we more consistently support the services with prayer?
  • Staff changes. What key positions may need to be added or deleted? What portfolios need to be adjusted? What training can be provided to enhance pastoral ministry? What helps can be offered to assist in balancing work and family? Is the salary structure equitable? Systems breakdowns are alerts telling us change is needed. Long-range planning does not ensure no more breakdowns will occur, but it can help to reduce their frequency and impact.

Pastoral Succession

It has been my observation that many congregational churches struggle with the issue of pastoral succession. Having counseled scores of churches during the process of pastoral selection, I know that church boards and search committees often feel they are "in over their heads" as to what to do. There are two basic approaches to the process, only one of which relates to long-range planning.

The first approach is the most common. The pastor resigns. A search committee is appointed consistent with the church's constitution and bylaws. The church communicates with and receives counsel from denominational officials. Résumés and phone calls from prospective pastors begin to arrive. Selected candidates are interviewed. One candidate is presented to the congregation. The membership votes. A new pastor is elected. Obviously there are many variations of this process.

The second approach to pastoral succession begins developing long before the pastor resigns. The pastor should initiate the process with the goal of selecting a new leader before he resigns. He carefully guides the church board through the intricacies and sensitivities of the selection. A candidate may emerge from the pastoral staff, or a potential successor may be asked to come and be a part of the pastoral team. Inviting the candidate to be on the pastoral team gives him ample opportunity to get acquainted with the people of the church, learn its systems and understand the culture. For the candidate, this is extremely risky because there is no assurance the plan will succeed. The risk turns into reality when the succession process is aborted. This can happen because (a) the pastor doesn't resign as planned; (b) the pastor becomes disenchanted with the successor; (c) the chosen successor becomes frustrated with the process and changes his mind; or (d) the congregation doesn't like the successor or the process of selection.

Knowing these potential pitfalls, however, the pastor and church body can successfully navigate through them, and the congregation is blessed by a smooth succession process and continued effective ministry.

40-Year Decisions

Perhaps once in a church's lifespan, it will make a decision that will impact an entire generation—what might be called a "40-year decision." Israel made such a decision when they declined to advance into the promised land, and for 40 years, they reaped the harvest of that fateful decision. The early church made a 40-year decision when it determined that Gentile Christians would not be required to be circumcised (Acts 15). That decision had positive impact well beyond 40 years.

When the wrong decision is made, a church plants the seeds of death and decay; the congregation rarely survives that decision. Oh, it may still exist for another 40 years, but it has missed its best opportunity for significant impact for the kingdom. When the right decision is made, the seeds of faith and life are planted. Fruitful and productive years follow. I served a church that made a decision to leave an old, landlocked facility, relocate on 18 acres and build a new facility. It was the right decision, and now, 40 years later, the church continues to thrive. Wisdom demands we recognize such significant moments in the church and lead the congregation with clarity, confidence and humility.

The men of Issachar were noteworthy for two things. First, they understood the times, and second, they knew what to do (1 Chr. 12:32). Through research and study, we can understand the spiritual characteristics of our times. The challenge is in knowing what to do. But we have confidence that the Holy Spirit also understands the times and He knows exactly what to do. He will give clear and certain guidance to our long-range plans for the future.  

Warren D. Bullock is a teaching pastor at Peoples Church in Salem, Oregon. He is author of Your Next Pastor, When the Spirit Speaks and When Words Hurt. Contact him at warren.bullock@peopleschurch.com.

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