Based on Strategic Thinking: How to Sustain Effective Ministry (Abingdon Press)
Effective organizations (both for-profit and non-profit) are switching from strategic planning to strategic thinking. Effective churches are doing the same. There are two reasons.
First, effective organizations realize that today’s society (be it “market”, “community”, or “mission field”) is changing, very quickly, all the time. Traditional organizations are often blind to this change. Business bureaucracies find it easier to repeat habits than innovate ideas. Church leaders pay more attention to long-time residents and fail to see how neighborhoods are changing.
Second, effective organizations realize that social problems are getting more complicated, and more urgent, all the time. Established churches (like traditional “department stores”) assumed that a single organization could and should offer a potpourri of programs to meet all social ills. Both are going out of business. Effective organizations today focus their limited resources to do a few crucial things extremely well. They believe that concentrating their energies on a specific point will have a cascading impact on complex issues.
There is an annual process for strategic thinking that I describe in my book Strategic Thinking: How to Sustain Effective Ministry. It is integrated with the demographic and lifestyle search engine MissionInsite. You can read about the details there. The basic idea, however, is called leveraging change.
Simply stated, leveraging is about outcomes rather than inputs. It is a method to lift the heaviest burdens with the least effort. It is a method for churches with limited resources to have significant impact on big issues.
Here is a simple diagram.
Leverage is the calculation of the amount of force required to lift a heavy burden. The burden is the big, urgent, complicated challenge to society and the church. Think of this as an enormous igneous rock, composed of all kinds of different minerals, with unique contours and jagged edges, shaped by mighty geological forces. That is, it is a huge problem affecting a diversity of people, from many backgrounds and competing needs, with painful polarizations, shaped by mighty cultural forces.
- The tipping point is the spot identified by community research, and revealed to a compassionate heart, where concentrated effort will bring enormous change.
- The counterweight is the courage and energy of the organization measured in volunteers and resources that applied the pressure for enormous change.
- The crossbar itself is the key outreach project which will connect the energy of the organization with the tipping point for change.
All this rests on a fulcrum of accountability that justifies high trust and encourages great sacrifice. The combination of high trust and community research results in a “heartburst” to bless specific people in a special way. This is the essence of vision that is directly tied to the measurable outcome of the tipping point.
Instead of creating a bureaucracy to employ many different tactics to scratch, grind, wear down, or go around the stone, leaders concentrate on these basic elements. Get this right, and even the largest rocks can be lifted with minimal pressure. Here are the basic elements.
Accept Your Challenge
The illustration of leverage pictures each of the great challenges of today as a great big igneous rock, composed of minerals that have been twisted into jagged edges by mighty geological forces. It stands in the way of progress. It blocks the emergence of the realm of God. You might describe that huge obstacle in many ways. A “hairball” is a tangle or snarl, mess, or maze. A “Gordian Knot” is a complex ravel of related issues and challenges. Today we might call them “nightmares” because these tangles can combine physical, psychological, social, and spiritual issues that are highly emotional, complex, and fearful. In leveraging change, every organization discerns the “great challenge” that God sets before them. Today there are at least seven facing society and challenging the church.
- The Great Challenge to Health
This involves everything from pandemics, to chronic diseases, to acute care. It involves access to health care, quality of health care, and cost for health care, as well as innumerable ethical issues around sexuality, aging, parenting, etc.
- The Great Challenge to Education
This involves everything from children to adult public and Christian education. It’s about the changing form, content, methodology, and technology of education; the availability and cost of higher education; and the relative value of arts, humanities, sciences, business, and military training.
- The Great Challenge to Economics
This involves everything from poverty to responsible wealth management. It’s about how we make money, manage money, and spend money. It’s about joblessness, homelessness, career opportunities, profitmaking, corporate and entrepreneurial responsibility. It includes universal social security and individual ambition.
- The Great Challenge to Politics
This involves everything from decision-making to decision-makers in local, state, and national governments, agencies, and judicial systems. It’s about how we get power, use power, share power, and surrender power. It includes the hopes and fears, equalities and inequalities, that shape culture.
- The Great Challenge of Prejudice
This involves bigotry that is subtle and overt, personal and systemic, today and across generations. It’s about human tendencies for slander, denigration, abuse, and enslavement, and our resolve to change personal attitudes and social habits toward respect, acceptance, and justice.
- The Great Challenge of Violence
This involves everything from harsh words to evil deeds. It’s about how individuals, societies, and nations curb their anger, express their rage, and react to pain. It’s about the ambiguities of self-fulfillment and self-control, and how to respect and defend human rights.
- The Great Challenge to Environment
This involves everything from waste treatment to climate change. It’s about how we care for ourselves, our living space, and our planet, and what our children and children’s children will inherit for good or bad. It’s about the quality of life each society and every individual has, hopes for, and can achieve.
These are the great challenges we face today. They are present in every community with greater or lesser urgency. In a sense, the church does not choose the challenge; the challenge chooses the church.
Set the Fulcrum
Facing the challenge forces a church to renew its covenant. Another word for covenant is trust, but many organizations do not really understand what trust means. They think “trust” is about high ideals, dogmatic agreements, and financial commitments. Covenant, however, is about confidence. If we are faithful, then God will strengthen us. If we dedicate our lives to a cause, we will succeed. If we support one another through thick and thin, we will thrive. If we work together, we will overcome.
Covenant is a deeper kind of accountability. It is not merely accountability to do our jobs well, but accountability to behave well. It is not merely accountability to believe in God, but to walk with Christ. This is the fulcrum on which everything turns. If the fulcrum is not set … if it wobbles, weakens, or wavers … it will not bear the stress and strain of change. Covenant is set in three ways.
- Values to Live By
Core values are predictable, positive behavior patterns that you can reasonably expect every church member and leader to model in their daily living and daring deeds.
Core values are reminiscent of the “fruits of the Spirit” described by Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. However, these words are all nouns. A true core value is articulated as verbs and adverbs. We reveal the fruits of the Spirit when we are sacrificially loving, ecstatically joyful, routinely peacemaking, constantly patient, spontaneously kind, consistently gentle, doggedly faithful, and emotionally under control.
- Beliefs to Turn To
Bedrock beliefs are the profound, unshakeable convictions to which you can reasonably expect every organizational member to turn for strength in times of trouble or stress.
Bedrock beliefs are often revealed in memorized biblical phrases or cherished stories, verses from songs or hymns, or images that move one to tears. Bedrock beliefs are always inspiring and motivating. They provide confidence to face every ordeal. These are the convictions every seeker wants to know to survive for another day.
- Habits to Live With
Spiritual habits are the personal and collective routines of humility before an awesome God, conversations with conscience and awareness of the Holy Spirit, and compassion extended to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
Christian habits are formed around what traditionally have been called the seven “sacraments”. These are the habits of celebrating new life, communion with God, commitment to God’s mission, confession and forgiveness, loving intimacy, aligning our careers to God’s purposes, and meeting death with hope. Exactly how these practices are observed may vary, but they are engrained into the routines of living.
The key to trust is consistent, universal accountability. This is not scowl of judgment, but a smile of mutual support. It is a routine of evaluation and feedback, education, and coaching. We are all human. We all fail, forget, and grow weary. How can we help you improve? How can we help you be strong? How can we help you be disciplined?
The combination of facing our challenge and setting our fulcrum is what allows us to discern our calling.
This is the emotionally charged atmosphere of intercessory prayer in which vision emerges. We discover particular “passion”, both in the sense of the agony of our community and the hope of our church. A vision is really a “heartburst” to do a special thing for a particular public. The more you pray about people other than yourselves, the more readily you see Jesus beckoning you into the mission field.
Study the Problem
The illustration of leverage above pictures each of the great challenges of today as a great big boulder composed of broken pieces that have been twisted into jagged edges by mighty forces. It stands in the way of progress. It blocks the emergence of the realm of God. We can easily imagine ourselves studying the rock from afar and up close. We walk around it. We stare at it, touch it, and may even smell and taste it. We need to understand the very nature of that rock so that we can find the point to place the lever that will eventually move it.
The great challenges of our times are like that boulder. Demographic research is a technique to bring urgency into focus for our community context. It is how we walk around the rock and study it. MissionInsite is the most sophisticated tool to help the church connect vision to mission.
First, we must look at it. We must examine the bumps and recesses, contours, edges, colors, and contrasts. Pure demographic research reveals insights and trends related to the US Census. We observe changes in age, race, language, income, occupation, housing, marriage and family status, and education. This information helps us understand relative wealth and poverty, employment and unemployment, shifts in phase of life, housing needs and education priorities, ethnicities, and languages. MissionInsite uses information from the census and other sources to customize reports for any community.
Second, we must touch it. We must feel pulse of different kinds of people, walk in their shoes, empathize with their struggles, appreciate their vices and virtues, and share their hopes and dreams. Lifestyle research reveals the heart and soul of people. This is revealed by tracking the digital footprint of households as data is collected and collated to reveal spending habits and predictable behavior. Lifestyle segments really lifestyle portraits. Just as painting captures the essence of an individual, so can this research capture the essence of a group of people. MissionInsite uses information from Experian and other sources to describe lifestyle expectations for ministries and spiritual leadership.
Third, we must even smell and taste it. Psychographic research reveals attitudes and values, assumptions and beliefs, and concerns about today and worries about tomorrow. We can go beyond religious claims and denominational commitments to spiritual depth and psychological dispositions. MissionInsite does this through surveys every four years to study patterns in community values, life concerns, religious affiliations, commitment to faith, and shifting program priorities.
Many church struggle to connect vision to mission. This is because they make assumptions about community and cultural diversity that are often out of date and rarely tested. They can do biblical exegesis but cannot do community exegesis. Yet the Holy Spirit is revealed in both. Indeed, the biblical story is one of constant awareness of the Holy Spirit already at work in the world.
Find the Tipping Point
Strategic thinkers use the information gathered so far to find that critical spot where pressure can be placed to make the greatest change. This point of address is called a “tipping point” because pressure at that spot will cause that big rock to “tip over” and no longer block the path forward. If the church puts all its energy in volunteers and money at precisely this point a cascade of good things will result. This is why the confidence and accountability of the fulcrum are so important.
One of the most significant books about leveraging change is The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000, Little and Brown). Here are my three “take-aways” to apply his insights to the church in mission.
- Tipping points require new people, new information, and real relevance. Many churches are more afraid about losing members than welcoming visitors. They rely heavily on outdated demographic data and personal opinions. They are more concerned to preserve congregational or denominational heritage than empathy with cultural diversity. In other words, they operate on the principle of homogeneity. The majority of lifestyle segments represented in the church are the minority of the community.
If churches really want to make a difference in their community, they must operate on a principle of heterogeneity. Lifestyle segment representation in the church mirrors the lifestyle diversity of the church. Strangers need to be welcomed and included, even if long time members must leave their comfort zones. Church board must gather and refresh up-to-date information about the needs of the community and service agencies. Programs must be recreated to be relevant to the daily lives and life struggles of people beyond the church.
- Tipping points result from behavioral change and not just policy change. Many churches concentrate on custom advertising, community advocacy and charitable giving. Outreach is about internal education and external lobbying. Only a few members are active in committees that do hands-on service. In other words, they operate on the assumption that what the mind retains will make the world change.
If churches really want to make a difference, they must operate on the assumption that that what the body remembers will make the neighborhood transform. They address the daily habits and behavioral patterns that are revealed by the spontaneous deeds and unrehearsed words of community people. Members and leaders see themselves as role models rather than teachers. Gladwell refers to this as the “stickiness factor”. The community changes because people imitate credible Christians.
- Tipping points result from relationships and not just programs. The automatic response of many churches to any problem is to create a program, hire staff, and build a budget. The rely on professionals and quest for quality. They concentrate on stewardship campaigns and charitable donations. Most laity keep their distance from strangers and mingle with friends. In other words, aim to be a “friendly”, but low risk, church.
If churches really want to make a difference, they must aim to be an “intimate” church that takes significant risks. Laity go out of their way to make new friends and build deeper relationships. They are willing to risk rejection but believe that if they model the covenant values and beliefs of the church, they are more likely to be respected. They don’t just make coffee and serve soup. They engage people and invite them home for supper.
As Gladwell says, these “little things” can make “enormous differences”. You can study the problem and find the critical spot that will tip over the rock, but these little things transform an opportunity into a tipping point.
One way to describe a tipping point is to define an outcome. “If we can just do this, the result will be that.” The outcome usually seems audacious at first. It will require the concentrated effort of all the volunteers and finances of the church. It may even necessitate partnerships with other non-profit, for-profit, or government agencies (who are compatible with their core values). An outcome is not wishful thinking. Church leaders need to define how they will measure success. What statistics will matter? What positive stories should they hear? What reputation among other social service agencies will they receive?
Tipping points are linked to motivational vision. The vision makes the tipping point possible, while the tipping point makes the vision concrete. “If this could be the future, then we will sacrifice everything to achieve it!” When a vision is not linked to a tipping point, it becomes so generic as to mean nothing. When a tipping point is not linked to a vision, it becomes wishful thinking. Vision is neither measurable nor motivating. Authentic vision emerges from the combination of church covenant and community empathy. It is what makes the heart burst. It is what motivates enormous sacrifice to put pressure on the precise point that will generate the greatest change.
Design the Crossbar
When a driver uses a jack to change a flat tire, he or she inserts a bar into the scissors and pushes up and down to lift the car up. When churches combine measurable outcomes with motivating visions, that bar is better described as a “crossbar”. The church is not only “picking up their cross to follow Jesus”, but they are faithfully following Jesus in a specific direction for a special purpose.
The crossbar (placed at the tipping point, resting on a fulcrum, to leverage significant change) is not a program or even a cluster of independent programs. It is a system. A system is a dynamic of interrelated forces that, working in combination, generates a critical event. It is the central initiative of the church that is sustained over a long period of time with a consistent sense of urgency. It concentrates its resources, requires the close collaboration of leaders, and involves the active participation of a large proportion of church members. The church is constantly praying for it, planning it, upgrading it, training for it, and contributing time and energy to accomplish it. Nothing distracts them from this grand project.
After years of consultations, I find that churches are often distracted. They feel obliged to respond to every civic appeal, denominational program, or pet project of a church member. Committees multiply. Volunteers are exhausted. Property is rented. Money is divided into ever smaller donations. Competition increases for declining resources. The most common complaint is lack of communication. There may be a buzz of activity, but relatively little change. Their reputation in the community is based more on the building than the ministry.
I usually describe the system that leverages major change as a “Signature Outreach Ministry”. It reveals the identity of a church to the community like a signature reveals the personality of an individual. More importantly, it reveals the degree of risk you are willing to underwrite to accomplish positive change. For example:
A church responds to the great challenge to secular and religious education posed by school and church closures during the pandemic. They study the problem and realize that threats of pandemics and natural disasters will continue for years to come. The tipping point will be turning assumptions about public education methodology upside down. Instead of centralizing education with students going to the teachers, they need to decentralize education with teachers going to the students. Preparation for college and university needs to begin in earlier in Junior High School. The “crossbar” be combined teaching and mentoring for grade 7 and 8 students that would provide both knowledge and self-discipline for future academic success. They will organize high quality, home-based, tutoring process that will acquire, train, and deploy mobile volunteer tutors who can circulate among neighborhoods and safely educate and mentor small cohorts of youth.
A church responds to the great challenge of unemployment in hard economic times. They study the problem and discover that small businesses are struggling even as younger generations are eager to become entrepreneurs. At the same time, their church includes many retirees from successful careers with skills to share. The tipping point is to create a free “Academy of Entrepreneurship” that provides basic training for people wanting to start a small business. They create capital pools to offer seed money for development and connect aspiring small business owners with free financial, legal, and corporate expertise.
A church responds to the great challenge of daily stress and racial tension in their city. Demographic research reveals that food distribution and safe recreational opportunities are key issues, and psychographic research reveals that healthy diet and quality interpersonal relationships are the greatest life concerns. The tipping point is to create deliver fresh food, inexpensively, to the family table; and generate regular opportunities for respectful interaction. The signature ministry creates a network of urban gardens, free transportation for local farmers to create a weekly market, holiday opportunities to showcase cultural foods, free classes to teach inexpensive healthy cooking, and a 24-hour kitchen for people to gather in a safe, clean, protected space.
Signature Outreach Ministries like this concentrate the resources of a church on one great initiative. While they involve a variety of tactics, they are all interrelated so that leaders and volunteers reinforce one another to achieve a common goal. Even small churches can make a big difference in the world.
Add Mass to the Counterweight
The “pressure” that is applied to the “crossbar” (which is placed at the tipping point and sits on top of the fulcrum) is the energy and courage of organized volunteers. It takes more than a committee to leverage change. It takes the combined effort of many people. In order to be a signature outreach ministry, the counterweight must involve all the members sacrificing and praying, a core group of supremely dedicated leaders organizing and advocating, and the majority of members in some form of hands-on participation.
Even then the mass of the counterweight may not be enough. Churches are increasingly adding adherents to the mass who may never become members. Today the #1 entry point into the life of the church among emerging young adults is no longer worship but outreach. They have little interest in joining an institutional church, but great passion to change the world. This is why “signature outreach ministries” often become faith-based non-profits that are connected to the values of a church but independent from the administration of the church. This attracts more volunteers and allows the project to broaden its donor base. Note that MissionInsite has both a faith-based track and a non-profit track for this very reason.
Additional mass can be added to the counterweight by developing partnerships and networks. Partnerships must be selective. One does not just share their living space with anyone who claims to be nice. You ask questions, do research, and get to know them before sharing responsibility and authority to live and work together. There are three conditions for sound partnerships.
First, partners must share the same values. They may differ over specific beliefs and spiritual practices, but they must be able to hold one another constantly and consistently to the same positive behavioral expectations. In short, they must have reasonable, accountable trust in each other.
Second, partners must work as a team. This means that they share both the planning and the doing. They each have authority to make decisions and responsibility carry them out. One partner does not do all the organizing or administration, and another partner all the action and implementation. They are in it … all of it… together.
Third, partners must measure the same outcomes. This means that they share the same analytics to measure success. Data may be collected in the form of statistics, stories, or feedback, but they are looking for the same results. The statistics are tracked, the positive stories from the mission field are similar, and the feedback from other community agencies is consistent.
In the examples above, churches developed specific networks to add weight to their Signature Outreach Ministries. The home-based education initiative partnered with specific Junior High Schools, principals, parent-teacher organizations … and eventually with publishing houses developing on-line secular and religious curricula. The initiative for entrepreneurship partnered with companies, law firms, foundations, and community colleges. The initiative for urban market partnered with truckers, farmers, and dieticians … and eventually with restauranteurs and security agencies.
Nevertheless, the core of the “counterweight” must be the active participation of a majority of church members. Their values and beliefs provide accountability. Their team-building leadership provides harmony. Their analytics evaluate outcomes and focus priorities. But most of all, the spiritual practices of church members provide the drive to persist and the courage to overcome obstacles.
Raise Your Sights
So now you are leveraging change! It is important, however, not to become too dependent on any single tactic, nor to fixated on any specific tipping point. The “Great Challenges” facing society today are changing very quickly. Don’t just look down. Look up!
The rule of thumb for all strategic thinking is that your mission reach should always exceed your current organizational grasp. This applies to both volunteer and financial resources. Churches often think in terms of membership gains and inflationary increments. This means that the organization is always too slow to respond to the speed of any Great Challenge. They are always trying to catch up and forever falling further behind.
Leaders leveraging change think in terms of volunteer gains and financial leaps. Churches that make a difference concentrate on leadership training rather than membership assimilation. They motivate generosity and equip volunteers with the essential skills needed to overcome any Great Challenge. They do not seek debt freedom, but rather sound debt management. They do not try to grow incrementally, but exponentially.
The key to raising your sights … and the foundation of all strategic thinking … is what I call “reinforced courage”. The courage of conviction and confidence in the Holy Spirit encourages churches to be bold. Courage, however, must be “reinforced” by intentional processes to hold leaders accountable and help teams learn from inevitable mistakes. Indeed, if you have not made mistakes, then you are not bold enough!
Strategic planning tends to occur occasionally (every three to five years) and only defines aspirations. It is about what we will try to do, hope to accomplish, or wish will happen. Unfortunately, the Great Challenges of our time are moving so swiftly that by the third or even second-year conditions have changed, and planning is obsolete. Churches are left with a pervasive since of chronic guilt.
Strategic thinking however is an intentional, annual routine based on measurable outcomes. The process is described in my book Strategic Thinking (Abingdon Press). This is undertaken by both teams and boards. It is about what we will do, what must be accomplished, and the anticipation of what comes next. The routine is a progression that starts with evaluation (based on statistics, stories, and feedback). This is followed by research into what is changed or changing (based on demographics, lifestyle, and listening). And this is followed by prioritization (starting, improving, and ending programs); delegation (giving away authority and responsibility); and initiation (freedom to do whatever it takes to get results). Churches are emboldened by an indefatigable optimism.
It’s not the policy and process, tradition, or denomination that ultimately matters. All that matters is the Gospel, and everything else is just tactics.
To see other related blogs by Tom Bandy, please visit Church Growth.