We are dedicated to assisting religious and non-profit organizations
​achieve optimum health and peak performance through leadership development, vision casting and systems understandings.

Consultants: Dr. Bob Perry
​and Dr. Marilyn Nelson

Forget Skinning the Cat:
More Than One Way
​to Shape a Future

Dr. Robert L. Perry

For too long church consultants who have been asked to help churches develop strategic plans, do long-range planning or cast a vision for the future have utilized only one basic approach. The standard process, technically called "Rational Choice Planning," has been the "one-size-fits-all" answer to every strategic planning question.

Many church leaders would be shocked to discover that there are at least a half-dozen legitimate ways of formulating a strategy for a church or other organization.
I live in a house that is surrounded by towering pine and poplar trees. Keeping guttering free of leaves, pine needles and bird's nests has been a constant problem. I recently did some investigation of my options for new guttering and discovered a wide variety of choices. There are various styles of leaf guards that can be installed over standard guttering. But there are also various styles of one-piece gutters that have the debris protection built in.

In the world of guttering, by speaking with knowledgeable specialists, I was able to look at several choices and determine which was the best for my situation. Church consultants should be equally aware of the choices of process, and help churches determine the particular way of planning that fits a given church at a given time.

Rational Choice Planning has been a useful and helpful method. It has been used extensively for at least 50 years in the corporate realm and for at least 30 years in church settings. However, it is important to note that it is not the "one-and-only" way, and it is often not the preferred way to plan.

Other planning methodologies include:
     1. Values-based planning
     2. Reality-based incremental planning
     3. Market-driven planning
     4. Multiple scenario planning
     5. Visionary leader projection
     6. Purpose-driven planning

Some of these approaches are heavily left-brain oriented. That is, they involve heavy research with hard data and fairly mechanical procedures for writing purpose statements, objectives, goals and action plans. Some of the approaches are much more right-brain dominant. They involve intuitive research, soft data processing, imaginative thinking and dreaming.

A few years ago, two colleagues and I developed a very right-brain process for church planning we called "Values-based Tactical Planning." We tested it in several pilot churches and ultimately published a manual for use by pastors and church consultants. The approach is, as the name implies, based on discovering the current core values of a church, then applying those to future plans. The key question to be answered with this approach is, "How can we better live out our values as a congregation?"

Reality-based planning is a very left-brain, unimaginative approach. However, it is often the best, if not the only approach, palatable to smaller, established churches that are stuck in the past and unable to think creatively or tolerate much change. This approach helps a church assess where they are now - what is their current reality. It then encourages them to look at what they might hope to be in a few years and develop a map to get from here to there. The result of this type of planning will usually be a way of doing what we have been doing but try to do it a little better. It may involve adding a few new twists to the church's way of doing things, but the change will be slow and incremental. This kind of planning does not result in any paradigm shifts. Reality-based planning deals with the question, "How can we do things a little better without making any major changes?"

Market-driven planning is a fairly new concept for churches. It is heavy in contextual analysis. It involves getting to know the demographic characteristics of your area, analyzing what the key issues and needs of various segments of the population are, selecting specific market "niche" groups to serve, then designing approaches to effectively communicate with and develop relationships with persons in those niches.

For some churches, the best hope for future growth may be found in discovering the market segments that they can effectively minister to. For these churches, the key to success may be, "find a niche and scratch it."
Multiple scenario planning is one of the most futuristic and creative ways of preparing for major change. To engage in this method of planning, the key leaders of an organization identify several plausible future scenarios that would have significant impact on their work. They then develop detailed descriptions of each of these scenarios, along with supporting materials to help make the scenario a "virtual reality." In subsequent sessions, the leaders experience the impact of each scenario, deal with the emotions and thought processes involved in each, and brainstorm to develop creative responses to the issues involved.

Scenario planning is not an effort to predict the future, but it is an effort to prepare for various future possibilities. In the process of discussing and struggling with the problems associated with each scenario, leadership may discover clues immediate actions that will help prevent negative futures and help enhance and make more plausible, the positive futures.

I will not attempt to say much about the final two planning approaches from the list above. Visionary leader planning is not really a group process. It is a matter of having a very imaginative, highly motivated and persuasive leader who develops a vision, announces it to the organization, enlists their support in pursuing it, and leads them toward achieving it. It can be effective, at least for the shorter-term, but it depends heavily on the unique giftedness and personality of the leader.

Purpose-driven planning is an approach to church design and ministry that grows out a persistent commitment to the accomplishment of a clearly understood, and widely endorsed purpose. Decisions are made and priorities are set based on the fulfillment of that overarching purpose. For further explanation of this approach, I would refer readers to Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-driven Church.
For church consultants these days, one wrench in the toolbox will not get the job done. We are not living in a "one-size-fits-all" world.

Church leaders and consultants should become competent in at least four of the basic approaches to planning. Rational Choice Planning, being the most common and well-promoted, is the one most consultants utilize. In the early 1990s, as mentioned earlier, I worked with two colleagues to develop a church-oriented approach to values-based planning and to publish it as a manual. During a sabbatic leave in 1995, I worked on a process for church application of multiple scenario planning called, "Futuropting."  Later, I developed church applications for market-driven planning.  This research and writing resulted in the book, "Find a Niche and Scratch It" which was published by the Alban Institute.

These efforts, currently being made by many church leaders and church consultants, illustrate that those of us who attempt to help churches think strategically must be constant learners and researchers. More information on these approaches is available on the resources tab at this site..

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