Strategic planning for a faith-based organization raises different questions and . . . well, I just don’t think it looks the same as strategic planning might look for a for-profit enterprise of the same ilk.
About 18 months ago, the board members of Let’s Start Talking brought up the idea of developing a strategic plan. Just now, we have begun the process, and even getting to this point was not without some pain. For the next nine months, I will be working on this, so I thought it might be helpful to some of you to share the process with you.
Let’s start with some of the questions:
Why go to the trouble and expense of doing a strategic plan?
As you probably know, my wife and I founded Let’s Start Talking in our living room 33 years ago. LST was first organized as a ministry of a local congregation, answering directly to the elders of that church.
In this start-up phase, the ministry had no employees, no regular donors, and no plan for the next year except to meet the needs that were placed in front of us, which for LST meant, recruiting students and training them to go with us on short-term mission trips at the invitation of a handful of European churches with which Sherrylee and I had a relationship because of our previous mission work in Germany.
By the end LST’s first decade (1980-89), we were taking about 50 students, who raised all their own money plus enough to cover the small cost of organizing the projects, training the workers, and overseeing them in the summer. Financially, we were a zero-sum organization, starting each year at zero and finishing each year at zero.
The only plan was to recruit enough workers to do the work that God had placed in front of us.
LST mushroomed in the 90s, going from 50 workers to over 300. The breakup of the Soviet Union generated a huge desire among Christians to share the Gospel in these many countries where Communism had attempted to suppress and eradicate faith. But no one spoke these many languages, so LST’s strategy which involved working in English but was also direct evangelism became one of the most successful ways to work. LST, which one couple could manage in the 80s, now needed to become much larger.
The strategic plan was the same as it had been, i.e., to recruit more workers to meet the greater need! As we recruited more workers, we generated more income, so we hired one office assistant and one recruiter. As the numbers grew, we added first volunteer office help, then hired office help, so that by the end of the 90s, we had 12-15 employees. The ministry was growing to meet the need.
But the dimension and scope of LST’s work was creating some issues. The 150-member congregation that had provided our legal status and oversight for almost 20 years decided that we were too big now and that the liability was bigger than the church wanted to take on. God had a big change in front of us!
And what was my plan for the ministry?? To continue to recruit more workers to meet the growing number of invitations from mission sites—now all over the world. But to do that among Churches of Christ, we needed a sponsoring church.
In 1999, a Fort Worth mega-church assumed our oversight, organized us into a Texas non-profit, and generously supported the ministry. But, of course, in this new arrangement, LST was required to have a board of directors.
Now after another decade, LST has continued to expand into China and the Muslim world, the budget has doubled in size, and the ministry is now an independent non-profit. LST now sends out more church members than college students and the funds all workers raise only cover about 70% of the annual budget, so outside fund raising is a necessity. All of these changes have been pretty dramatic!
What was our strategic plan that got us through these changes? To continue to recruit more workers to meet the vast need of the world to hear the story of Jesus!
As you have probably deduced, the first obstacle to formulating a strategic plan has been this strong sense I have had of having always had a very simple plan that has always worked! I have always stated it as “following God and trying to do the tasks he puts in front of us to do!”
About six months ago, the LST board insisted that I get serious about strategic planning. So, I’ve worked pretty hard to get my head around the idea. Here are the thoughts that have helped me:
- Planning is a way of letting other people know what I believe God wants to do with LST.
- Planning is an opportunity for people to look objectively at the ministry and make helpful suggestions.
- Planning can suggest new ways of measuring outcomes that might be helpful.
- Planning is good for donors who want to see measurable steps toward measurable goals.
- Planning helps board members perform their duties better because they have a better definition of ministry activities and goals.
- Planning should help us anticipate potential changes and prepare better for them.
- Planning may force me as Executive Director to define both the vision and the means more precisely than I am inclined to do otherwise.
What would you add to this list?
Next I want to talk about the search for a consultant/coach to help us work through the strategic planning process.