2. Management/Administration: The Presuppositions of Strategic Planning

In order to achieve their commercial ends business leaders have developed and make use of certain management tools. One of the most well-known of these is the now ubiquitous practice of Strategic Planning. The annual surveys conducted by Bain & Company, consistently point to the predominance of strategic planning.[1]Describing the tool, Bain’s (2017) summary states that

Strategic Planning is a comprehensive process for determining what a business should become and how it can best achieve that goal. It appraises the full potential of a business and explicitly links the business’s objectives to the actions and resources required to achieve them. Strategic Planning offers a systematic process to ask and answer the most critical questions confronting a management team—especially large, irrevocable resource commitment decisions.[2]

Part of the popularity of this device is that it helps alleviate some of our anxiety about the future and give us the impression that we are in control of at least some of it. This perceived predictability, precision, and security may help explain the popularity, and there can be no doubt that its application in the business and institutional worlds has been extraordinarily successful. This has piqued the interest of many Churches which, quite understandably, are now using it as a way of exerting some measure of control over the fluid life of the Church.[3]Indeed, what is being called Strategic Planning is openly and unabashedly being imported into the ecclesial context. This is happening at the National, Diocesan, and Local Parish Levels.[4]There is now a very instructive, specifically Orthodox book on the topic by Peter M. Danilchick (who worked thirty-three years as an executive in one of the world’s largest corporations) Thy Will Be Done Strategic Leadership, Planning, and Management for Christians. The book seeks to enable the reader to:

Understand the fundamental goal of Christian strategic leadershipas consciously doing the will of God, not only personally but also in community, rather than fulfilling one’s own desires for influence and power.

Obviously, this tool is being imported into the Church. What may not be as obvious is whether there is any awareness of the limitations and potential dangers of using this tool in the Church. As if anticipating this question, most of the Strategic Studies pursued by the Church above do try to put the activity on a biblical or spiritual footing and some attempt it made to qualify its use. The OCA plan, for example, begins with the words

This Strategic Plan does not reflect traditional corporate strategic plans with numbers, statistics, membership numbers or budgets. The Church is not an institution. It is a sacramental mystery that unites us to Christ to transform our lives and by our witness to transform those around us. It is this inner spiritual transformation and the resulting efforts to reach out to others that are the focus of this Plan. If we follow Christ in this, then everything will follow [5]

To their credit the framers of these document do appear to be aware that the secular meanings associated with Strategic Planning could be problematic and might not be appropriate in an ecclesial setting and might lead to faulty decisions and even do damage to the church by making it a business. But, alas with the same enthusiasm shown by the business world, Church leaders apply the tool in much the same way as their secular counterparts. While I do not want to, in any way, disparage the good work of so many, I would like to take a closer look at the ecclesial use of the device by asking several questions: 1) Are there any presuppositions or underlying principles associated with this tool that are not consistent with theological underpinnings of our faith? If so, what are they? 2) Have the meanings, weaknesses, and limitations inherent in this device damaged or changed the nature or practice of the Church? 3) Are there acceptable alternatives or principles that will help us better meet the administrative needs of the Church? (I will take these questions up in this and the next two blog posts).

1) Presuppositions. Although it is, no doubt, an oversimplification, Strategic Planning is built on two basic premises:[6]In order to be successful, leaders need to develop and implement a strategy that a) definesthe vision, mission, values, tasks, and outcomes of their organizations and b) takes controlby anticipating future developments, allocating resources, meeting constituents needs, and facilitating outcomes. The implication here is that we can, using our rational faculties, our reductionistic mode of thinking, and our own resources easily accomplish these objectives. So how do these foundational presuppositions line up with Christian teaching? What dangers, if any, do they pose?

The first step in the strategic planning process is defining mission,which is essentially “an expression of strategic intent.”[7]The second step is vision, which “provides a picture of what the mission will look like as it is realized in the life of the community.”[8]Next we have to answer the question of “why this is being done?”by articulating a set of values, which speak to what is most important in the life of an organization.”[9]  The fourth step is establishing outcomes, that is setting immediate and long-term goals[10]In a final step the tasks or the specific action-steps needed to achieve the goals are identified. This answers the question of how we intend to accomplish our goals. This usually results in a formal document summarizing the mission, vision, values and outcomes, and detailing a plan of implementation.[11]

Obviously, a considerable amount of time, expense, and resources will have to be invested in the effort to produce a strategic plan. In some cases, it is done by a committee of localized individuals. In other cases, the committee members are broken up into task force groups scattered all over the country and contribute their ideas by email, phone, skype, etc.  Often the process involves a number of exercises or activities or techniques. For example, in a Top-down model owners or CEOs write and present it to their team. But it could also be done Face-to-face around the table, together, debating each word and nuance. It might take the form of aRound-Robin. After much discussion, an editor circulates a draft for comment, with the owners or CEO having the last word. Or it could even take place in a retreat-like atmosphere with participants away from the office, key players seeking a consensus at an inspiring place. In addition to these physical arrangements a whole host of discussion schematics can be used, such as the snow flake exerciseduring which all ideas produced by the group are pinned to the wall on small pieces of paper, dropped to the floor when they are rejected, leading the accepted ideas to serve as the basis for a vision/mission statement.

As far as I can tell, almost every major Orthodox jurisdiction[12]in the United States and many of their parishes[13]have adopted and executed very expensive and time-consuming programs of strategic planning. It is also clear that the fundamental presuppositions of Strategic Planning have had a profound, practical, and very costly effect on the life and work of the Churches by convincing us that we can and should define and thus control certain aspects of our faith. So, does this enormous expenditure actually lead to valid definitions that, in turn, give actual control over the desired outcomes?

As I see it Orthodox theology makes it clear that we created beings are neither in need of, authorized to, or even capable of defining these elements of ecclesial life. Furthermore, doing so does not give us the control that we hope for but cannot possess. I say we do not need to define mission, vision, tasks, and outcomes of the Church because it is an entity created by God and, as such, it is not self-defining, but is already defined, a least in part, at the time of its creation. In other words, the essence of the Church, what it is, has already been defined in the mind of God even before it is created. The concrete act of creation brings the Church into existence, then, with some of its attributes already defined, or better, given. These givens include its nature and identity, the purpose for its being in the world, and its God-given responsibilities. These givens, that is, what the Church is and what its purpose or mission in the world is, have been clearly spelled out for us in the Scriptures. The Church, which was established by Christ at the Mystical Supper [Mt 26:26-29] was actualized on the day of Pentecost [Acts 2:46] when the Disciples celebrated the first Eucharist.[14]For that reason, we say that it is the gathering of the faithful for the purpose of worship and Eucharist. This Eucharistic community is the Church. Thus, defined or constituted, you might expect its purpose, mission, vision, tasks, and outcomes to be given by Scripture as well. Indeed, Jesus specifically commands the apostles to take the message of His coming Kingdom into the whole world. The grammatical structure of Matthew 28.19–20 makes clear that the command contains only one explicit imperative (command), namely the word “make disciples.”That word is followed by two participles, baptizing and teaching, which receive an imperative sense from the main word“make disciples.”It should be noted that the whole process presupposes the presence of a eucharistic community from which this mission emanates and into which the new believers are incorporated and in which the sacraments, in particular baptism, are made available. Based on these scriptures we can say that the mission(strategic intent) of the Church is to make disciples. Its vision(its mission realized) is the Eucharistic community. The basic values (why this is being done) are obedience to God and love of neighbor. The outcomescan be thought of in terms of new disciples added to existing and newly formed communities. Finally, the tasksare proclamation, baptism, providing the sacraments, and teaching.

Clearly, we do not need to redefine what has already been given, but even if we wanted to anyway, we are not authorized to do so. That would amount to a redefinition of something divinely given. This, I submit, violates the Orthodox understanding of what Tradition is and how it works. St Paul urges us to hold fast to (not redefine, but preserve) the traditions we have received (2 Thess. 2.15). In its most general form, Tradition has two components: a) the totality of the various ways by which everything givenin Christ passes over into the reality of human life (first to the Apostles, then through them to others) and b) the actual process of transmitting these ways—this life in Christ—from generation to generation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.Tradition is “a dynamic and active reality, which is lived by the people of God in the Church.” So not only do we not need to (re)define our mission, values, etc., but we take what has been handed down and keep it “unharmed through the succession and continuance of individuals entrusted with the guarding of the doctrine.”[15]

Finally, I say that even if we decided to invest time and resources in (re)definition, which is not necessary in the first place, and even if we were to give this process of definition a more palatable meaning, such as simply translating the ancient mission and vision into the contemporary moment, that still does not render us capable of independently controllingfuture developments and facilitating outcomes. The idea that we have that kind of control over our lives violates our understanding of the relationship between Divine Providence and Human Agency.  Human beings are contingent beings, whose continued well-being depends on constant communion with God. So, it is God’s intervention in the world that actually controls and facilitates future outcomes. Yet, because human beings still have an, albeit limited and distorted, free will, the nature of God’s dealings with the world are of necessity a kind of interaction, or synergism.

In the next post, I will continue this discussion by asking if the use of this business tool has caused any damage to the Church.

[1]“Management Tools & Trends,”   (2018), http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/management-tools-and-trends-2017.aspx.

[2]“Mnagement Tools,”  (2017), http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/management-tools-strategic-planning.aspx.

[3]Looking at the dates of ecclesial examples of the use of this tool in the Orthodox world, we might speak of a “rage to strategize” that spans the last two or three decades.

[4]Here are just a few examples”

[5]“Strategic Plan for the Orthodox Church in America,”   (2011), https://oca.org/PDF/NEWS/2011/2011-strategic-plan-v6.pdf.

[6]Strategic planning… is based on the premise that leaders and managers of public and nonprofit organizations must be effective strategists if their organizations are to fulfill their missions, meet their mandates, and satisfy constituents in the years ahead.” Bryson, 1995, p. ix cited by Young, “Perspectives on Strategic Planning in the Public Sector”. 1.

[7]Aubery Malphurs, Advanced Strategic Planning/ a 21st-Century Model for Church and Ministry Leaders, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group ). 107.

[8]Ibid., 128.

[9]Ibid., 146.

[10]“The planning, monitoring, and evaluation of an organization’s strategies and plans is known in many circles as Results Based Management. On the positive side, this type of management system has constant feedback built in so that organizational leaders can continuously learn and improve its plans and strategies.” https://www.universalclass.com/articles/business/the-process-of-developing-immediate-and-long-term-outcomes-for-strategic-planning.htm.

[11]“An effective operating plan states the strategic goal to be addressed, clearly breaks out the activities or action steps required to accomplish the goal, establishes time frames and who is responsible…” Michael Allison and Kaye  Jude, Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide for Dynamic Times, (Wiley Nonprofit Authority). 215.

[12]Here are just a few examples: “Strategic Plan for the Orthodox Church in America,”   (2011), https://oca.org/PDF/NEWS/2011/2011-strategic-plan-v6.pdf.”Strategic Plan for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta,” https://atlmetropolis.org/documents/2016/5/FINAL-STRATEGIC-PLAN-6-6-15.pdf.”Strategic Plan for Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA,”  (2016).

[13]For example “The Strategic Plan St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Parish,” http://stjohnthedivinejax.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Strategic-Plan-of-St.-John-the-Divine-Jacksonville-FL.pdf.

[14]Nikolai Afanasiev and Michael Plekon, The Church of the Holy Spirit, English language ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 1.

[15]Afanasiev and Plekon, The Church of the Holy Spirit, 242.

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