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Can Faith-Based Organizations Listen to God AND Engage in Strategic Planning?

by Annie Osburn
Can Faith-Based Organizations Listen to God AND Engage in Strategic Planning?

In 2008, a Michigan church had a conversation with a church in Rwanda about the devastating cholera outbreak that took the lives of 500 people. This outbreak was caused by contaminated water. The Michigan church leaders sensed God’s calling to meet the needs of people without access to clean water. In response, the church developed a 501(c)(3) called 20Liters and set out to create a strategy that would make clean water a reality in a specific Rwandan village. Following an intentional strategic planning implementation process, this nonprofit organization has provided water to over 14,000 people in the village in just four years. The next three-year strategic plan will lead them to increase their impact by providing clean water to over 87,000 by 2015.

How were they able to create meaningful change and continue to increase impact over a seven-year span? Strategic planning, strategic partnerships, and strategic thinking. The organization effectively laid out who they were going to help, how they would help them, who they’d partner with, how much it would cost, how they’d evaluate the work, etc. The end result was intentional, meaningful impact.

Churches and other faith-based organizations are instrumental in meeting community needs. While this is true, it is all too often the tendency of these organizations to shy away from strategic planning, inhibiting impact. The popular phrase “fail to plan, plan to fail” comes to mind. When I interact with my faith-based colleagues, they express their fear that having a set plan means exhibiting a lack of faith and trust in God. Seriously? I think that strategic planning trusts that the Holy Spirit is already at work. As leaders of faith-based organizations, we are simply entrusted to carry the work out. The book Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, Rendle and Mann explain that part of the vocation of religious leaders involves spiritual discernment. This means that part of the planning is in listening to yourself and to God. The plan and the path should be developed within a discerning relationship with God. The authors go on to explain the goal of the planning process is to structure the conversation people need in order pursue what they believe God calls them to be or do.

Effective planning is a prerequisite for the success of any organization, including those that are faith-based. The reality is that church attendance and financial contributions to faith-based organizations are in decline. Strategic planning could be an answer. Engaging in strategic planning can actually be a key to fulfilling mission and can even guard against mission drift. Having a plan gives the organization greater integrity by keeping them focused and transparent. Being able to articulate a plan and report back on the effectiveness of programs is essential for garnering support from donors.

Yes, churches and faith-based organizations can be leaders in meeting needs in the community but in order to maximize impact, you must plan, act and think strategically. Every church and faith-based organization needs a strategic plan to live out its mission in its own way. While an organization’s faith-based mission and foundations never change, the programmatic forms they take must change in order to stay relevant. I hear so many faith-based leaders saying, “But where does faith fit into all of this???” It is absolutely appropriate and necessary to prayerfully seek God’s guidance in setting goals and plans for your organization, but strategy is what will enable you to implement programs to reach goals.

In an article on organizational survival, the Faith and Organizations project at the University of Maryland notes that, “Strongly committed faith-based groups are vulnerable to what one sociologist has labeled, ‘Visionary Vision’. Their deep identification with the spiritual calling or belief that underlies their mission may blind them to the very real obstacles which have arisen [in their communities]. As a result of visionary vision, faith-based organizations may neglect regular, clear-eyed, examination of their mission and resources…” (See

Strategic planning does not mean starting from scratch and totally reinventing the organization. It does, however, mean that your organization will need to become flexible and proactive in meeting needs in the community. A strategic plan gives direction, identifies short and long-term goals, and uses data to that ensure the organization’s programs are aligned with immediate and critical needs in the community.

A good strategic plan includes:

  • Organizational Assessment – What are the values and culture of your organization?
  • Community Needs Assessment – What needs exist in your community?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your organization when it comes to meeting the identified needs? Have your services become irrelevant?
  • Are there organizations in the community you could partner with to maximize impact?

The tasks of strategic planning can seem overwhelming when you first begin, but with proper facilitation and coaching, strategic planning, acting and thinking can become a way of being that is critical to enable faith-based organizations to work towards their mission in the most impactful way possible. As part of our one-on-one technical assistance to nonprofit organizations, the Philanthropic and Nonprofit Services team sees firsthand how churches and other faith-based organizations are critical in meeting community needs and we are passionate about coaching these groups through the strategic planning process to see maximum impact.

Annie Osburn
Vice President of Executive Communication
Bethany Christian Services