Planning the work

How Strategic Planning Can Launch Your Ministry Forward

Mark Maines Image Mark Maines | Nov 12, 2013

This is part two in a series on evaluation connected with the release of our Sticky Faith Launch Kit. While the specific strategies discussed here are not included in the Launch Kit, they complement the change process in ways we hope you’ll find useful in your context. You can read Part 1 here.

Have you ever faced a season in ministry when you just felt stuck?

Maybe it was because students weren’t showing up anymore. Maybe it was because your program approaches felt tired. Or maybe, like many churches, you began to be concerned about how many young people walk away from faith after high school despite their full participation in your ministry.

How do you handle these tensions? What do you do when you’re not currently satisfied with what is? How do you move from where you are to where you want to be?

It’s been said that when we come up with the right questions, we’re halfway to the right answers. All healthy organizations (including churches and student ministries) that are able to move forward seem to effectively ask and answer three important questions:

  • Our mission: Who are we?
  • Our vision: Where are we going?
  • Our plan: How are we going to get there?

The first question directs our attention towards a clearly defined mission, or reason for being. The second provides a compelling and inspiring vision that pulls an organization into its future. The last question helps develop an integrated, results-focused strategic plan to help ensure our desired outcomes. It points forward in a way that everyone can understand and own.

Like me, you’ve probably served in churches or organizations where one or another of these three elements was either missing or poorly executed. Typically most of us are probably better at answering the “mission” and “vision” questions than we are the “planning” question. In the article “Ministry Evaluation: A Gift You Can’t Ignore” we explored the SWOT Analysis and saw that the discovery and identification of our ministry’s “critical issues” is the first step in bringing about desired change.

The next two steps of the strategic management process can be summarized in an old leadership axiom, “Plan the work and work the plan.” Strategic management is designed to help us create traction and synergy within our ministry context. It is a way to get from Point A to Point B when none of us have been to “B” before.

The remainder of this article will look specifically at planning, while we will address implementation more fully in part 3 of this series.

Why Don’t We Plan?

Surprisingly, I know remarkably few ministry leaders who take much time to plan their work.

Why is that? Is it because we enjoy spending our time in the wrong places and on the wrong things? Is it because we are lazy and would much rather “lead on the fly” than be intentional about our work? I don’t want to believe that! I would rather believe that it has more to do with the mystery that surrounds how our faith and planning intersect. I wonder if it’s about the confusion that surrounds what planning “is” and what planning “is not.”

With that in mind, here are a few things planning isn’t.

Planning is Not Prediction

People can confuse planning with prediction. Prediction is arrogant. It attempts to guarantee success. In contrast, planning remains humble. Planning does not presume to know what the future holds, but rather attempts to move toward the future with intentionality and prudent stewardship of our resources. Like Job, we acknowledge that even the best plans can fail (see Job 17:11). Or as Proverbs reminds us, “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established” (Prov. 19:21).

Planning is Not “Brainstorming”

“Brainstorming” sessions are great for generating multiple, creative, uncensored ideas. But without careful consideration, the ideas we generate can often lead us down a track we did not intend to travel. Instead, the “planning” step beyond brainstorming must involve the prioritization and consolidation of those ideas. Brainstorming is erratic. Planning is specific. Planning allows us to maintain a laser sharp focus on our mission and be very intentional in how we carry it out.

Now here are a few thoughts about what planning is.

Planning is an Expression of Faith

“In their hearts human beings plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps” (Prov. 16:9). Many people might be tempted to use this proverb as an excuse not to plan. We might be tempted to think, “Well, if the Lord is the one who establishes our steps, then why plan in the first place?” This proverb seems to illustrate the dynamic partnership between God and humankind in the planning process. It shows that human beings plan, think about, calculate, and devise their course, but it is God who directs, stabilizes, and solidifies our steps.

The word of wisdom for us is to remember that we need to rely on God in both the planning and execution processes. But this doesn’t mean we are released from the responsibility of planning. Ed Dayton, founder of MARC (Mission Advance Research Center– a division of World Vision), frequently said, “All planning is an expression of our faith.” His plans became the portrait of what he believed God wanted to accomplish. Planning became a natural expression of his faith; when results were reached, Ed knew that it was the Lord who had established his steps.

The Power of Perhaps

But what happens if our plans do not “succeed”?

Does that mean we were not rightly aligned with God? Does it mean our faith was insufficient or lacking? Or that God simply did not like our plans in the first place? Maybe. I am often confused by the way God works. The plans I think are great often fail. The plans I think will fail sometimes succeed. There is a mystery here that I do not pretend to understand.

However, I find great comfort in a word that shows up throughout the scriptures that embodies this mysterious interaction between God’s purposes and ours. It is the word “perhaps.” Perhaps Moses could make atonement for Israel’s sin. Perhaps the Lord would work on behalf of Jonathan. Perhaps our labor over certain projects or in certain people has been wasted (see Exodus 32:30, I Samuel 14:6, and Galatians 4:11). Perhaps not. Will your planning efforts be successful? Perhaps. Will they fall short? Perhaps. In either scenario, planning remains an expression of faith because we do not know what the outcome will be.

Planning is an Invitation for Participation and Service

One of the greatest benefits of planning is that it invites others to help. When we plan, we provide the opportunity for our team to get involved in the future of our ministry. We intentionally welcome others’ ideas and influence.

The Apostle Paul writes, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-14, NRSV.) Planning our ministries can become the mechanism by which we identify what gifts are needed, who possesses them, and how we all can contribute to “building up the body of Christ.”

When serving in church youth ministry, approximately every six months I tried to assess our ministry by asking our leadership team three questions:

  1. What is working well?
  2. What is not working well but still can be improved?
  3. What do we need to get rid of altogether?

These three questions help our team in many ways. First, they allow us to see what we can celebrate together. Second, they allow us to see what gifts are missing and what kinds of people we might need to pursue for leadership in the future. God clearly gifts his people for works of service. Our planning can serve as an entry point for their contributions.

Planning is Adaptive Learning

A friend of mine once proudly declared, “I take a rigid stance of total flexibility.” Our planning efforts should model the same paradox of rigid flexibility. Some plans need to be rigid and inflexible in order to achieve the desired outcome. However, when the unforeseen or the unplanned arises (and we know it usually does), our plans also need to have enough flexibility and bend to ensure things (or people) do not snap and break.

Plans serve us best when they remain adaptable and flexible to change because they allow us to learn and adapt. In other words, planning gives us something to deviate from. If we do not have a plan, we will not know how to adjust to uncertain events when they arise. But with a plan, we place ourselves in a situation to choose the best course of action determined by our mission. Then we can choose to proceed either with rigid resolve or flexible innovation as we adapt and learn.

How to P.L.A.N the Work

Now that we better understand what planning is and what planning is not, let’s explore how to more specifically plan the work. One way to do that is to use the acrostic P.L.A.N. ((This model was created by Crossroads Consulting Group)) to create:

  • Priorities
  • Lasting Results
  • Action Strategies
  • Next Steps

By answering these questions in succession, I have found that my ministry stays more focused on its mission, more informed about what to do next, and more accountable to see those plans through. Here’s what that looks like:

Priorities: What we want to accomplish

  • What are the most important things we need to do in our key ministry areas to move our mission forward?
  • What are the things we need to do and complete in the coming year?

Lasting Results: Setting the targets for performance

  • What will be the results that will help us know we have accomplished our priorities?
  • How will we set these targets so that they become an exercise in faith as well as effective leadership?

Action strategies: Setting the stage for execution

  • How will we go about accomplishing what we want to see happen?
  • What are the appropriate strategies, or best practices, that we might employ?

Next Steps: Making our “to do” lists

  • Who will do the work?
  • When will it be accomplished?

At this point you may be asking yourself, “Is all this planning worth the work?” After all, planning takes time, energy, and resources that we may or may not have access to. So is the pay-off worth the effort?

Here is what you and others can expect when you use an intentional, ordered team planning process:

  • A higher level of communication around common priorities and strategies.
  • A higher level of understanding of what needs to be done and how it will be done.
  • A stronger and more effective leadership team as you work on significant tasks together.
  • A gaining of traction and momentum as things begin to happen.

If we are persistent enough to make it this far in “planning the work,” we get to face the challenges of “working the plan.” The next article in this series will explore how to implement and execute the plans we create.

Originally published as “Evaluation Part 2: Planning the Work and Working the P.L.A.N.” by Mark Maines for FYI in April 2006. This version has been updated from the original.

Mark Maines Image
Mark Maines

Mark Maines is a Navy Chaplain currently assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He is committed to helping individuals and organizations thrive in both their leadership and their followership. He holds an MDiv from Fuller Seminary, and serves on the Advisory Council for FYI. He can be reached at

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