The essence of strategic thinking

August 16th, 2022

The essence of strategic thinking is to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of the community. It is about simultaneous church growth and community development. That arrow is a straight line from the Heart Beat of the faith community—toward the heartburst of the surrounding community, guided by the Heart Song of God’s unique love for specific publics. God’s movement accelerates and the community is blessed. Strategic thinking sheds the deadweight of unproductive programs, avoids the sidetracks of internally or externally imposed agendas, and overcome the roadblocks of cost and stress.

The Heart Beat of the church is the consistent, universal, and accountable trust among church members and leaders; and the faithful, predictable, and disciplined trust between church participants and God. The heartburst of the church is the urgent desire to bless particular publics or lifestyle segments in the diverse community in the spirit of Christ. The Heart Song of the church is the experience of God, awareness of God’s calling, and love for God’s people that motivates and guides every leader, member, and ministry of the church.

There is a method to strategic thinking, and today it is informed by sophisticated demographic and lifestyle research like that from This helps the board and senior staff to research the everchanging community, and discern their spiritual yearnings and physical needs. They constantly compare lifestyle representation of church and community to go reach further and go deeper in mission. This also helps ministry teams and program staff to assess the effectiveness of church activities. They test the relevancy and success of ministries measured by outcomes.

There is a convergence of insight and urgency in strategic thinking. Board, staff, and ministry teams come together to perfectly align ongoing ministries to vision and define future goals for the acceleration of mission and positive impact in the world. They fix flagging ministries, terminate ineffective programs, and prioritize new ideas. They measure the true cost of discipleship, and anticipate the stress of constant change.

Finally, strategic thinking is sustainable with less oversight, fewer meetings, minimal conflict, and consistent empowerment. Ministry is focused and delegated to trusted teams with full responsibility and authority to do whatever it takes to achieve the anticipated outcomes defined by the church. The focus of strategic thinking is on leadership and people, rather than programs and finances. So long as teams are guided by the vision, stay within boundaries, and achieve results, they do not need a board to revisit their activities. They only bring to the summit problems they can- not seem to resolve themselves, recommendation to terminate irrelevant ministries, and big ideas to grow the church and bless the community.

Strategic thinking connects organizational identity and vision with creative integrity and positive outcomes. It begins with trust and ends with delegation. Along the way, it strives to understand the public, discern God’s will for the future of both church and community, and evaluate progress so far. The dynamic of prioritization and perspiration on one hand, and implementation and problem solving on the other hand, empowers the church to be reactive and proactive at the same time.

You have often heard church leaders complain about what they call the “Tyranny of the Urgent.” They say that they are unable to find the time or energy to grow leaders, set priorities, consider new ideas, measure outcomes, or pray for renewed vision—because they are too busy visit- ing people, attending meetings, sustaining current programs, managing conflict, and running the institution. This is not the tyranny of the urgent but the tyranny of the trivial. Strategic thinking is the art of discerning the difference between the really urgent and the truly trivial, and the courage to do the first and delegate the second.

When leaders are driven by urgency rather than by triviality, the church grows and the community is loved. When leaders are driven by triviality rather than urgency, the church declines and the community is ignored. This means that many churches understand “faithfulness” backward. They often assume that God will deal with the urgency of the world, and their job is to deal with the triviality of the institution as the only agency of mission. But faithfulness is much harder than that. God expects us to deal with the urgency of the world. This means hard choices and shared trust.

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Even as you read this, you may be tempted to get lost in the details. Many churches are unclear about trust and vision; they have never practiced community research, gone deep into spiritual discernment, or had the courage for honest evaluation. They don’t know how to determine priorities and are frightened to define outcomes; and they aren’t confident that their committees (or teams) won’t do something really stupid or expensive. So learning how to “think strategically” is initially very hard. It is tempting to fall back into old habits and micromanage everything. 

Once you learn how to think strategically, however, the dynamic gets easier with every passing year. This is really about habits. Strategic thinking is a habit, just like strategic planning is a habit. They both require work, but different kinds of work. 

The essence of strategic planning is to build and sustain the institutional church. But the essence of strategic thinking is to build and expand the realm of God. The former concentrates on programs, property, money, and staffing. The latter concentrates on leaders, priorities, the true cost of discipleship, and teaming. The chart below lists the top ten questions, and different discussions, of strategic planning versus strategic thinking.

Try to imagine the difference between the conversations in a leadership retreat and the conversations in a leadership summit

The leadership retreat is usually held either within the church building or outside the community context in a camp or nature center. The retreat is both relaxed and urgent. It is relaxed because most of the participants have known each other for some time and represent church insiders. Participants are confident about their particular area of expertise (i.e., program silo, property, finance, marketing). The urgency of the retreat is driven by institutional survival. Whatever the plan might be, it needs to preserve harmony, balance the budget and reduce debt, honor tradition, maintain the building, and increase worship attendance. Strategic planning is really about sustaining critical mass. If they can sustain critical mass, then there should be some money and energy left over for creativity and outreach. 

The chart above identifies the top ten questions that drive the conversation on retreat. Sometimes one question is more pressing than others. In any given year the church might be adjusting to a new pastor; rocked by a denominational controversy; torn by factional expectations; suffering from volunteer burnout; reeling from committee misbehavior that has caused unexpected litigation, community outrage, or financial deficits; or worried about the aging membership or contradictory demographic trends between church and community. 

The strategic plan that emerges is really a long list of tasks. Responsibility to accomplish tasks is divided among existing program silos or assigned to specific paid staff. However, authority to accomplish tasks is limited. Committees will need to ask permission, especially if their ideas clash with traditional practices. And it is a plan. It is a step-by-step outline, blueprint, or scheme that defines the tasks to be implemented, the order of implementation, the resources allocated for implementation—and the warning that all tasks should be performed with diplomacy and minimum stress. 

Of course, the community is changing fast and becoming more diverse, even as the church is struggling for stability and becoming more homogeneous. The plan becomes obsolete in short order, overwhelmed by circumstance. Eventually the experts declare that strategic planning doesn’t work anymore. The leadership retreat remains relaxed but loses urgency. Those that gather provide moral support for each other and find respite from the pressures of office, but more and more busy leaders don’t bother to attend. 

If a church member asks a leader who was on retreat what the plan is for the future, the leader will both hand them a long list of tasks and explain all the compromises that lie behind the list, or just shrug their shoulders and promise to get through the next year. 

Compare this to a leadership summit. The summit is usually held outside the church building but within the community context. The summit is also both relaxed and urgent, but for different reasons. It is relaxed because each participant reasonably trusts the other participants to model and articulate the shared core values and bedrock beliefs of the organization—even though the summit includes church members from the margins of society. The summit is urgent because everyone is passionate about the vision and mission of the church, and is eager to make a difference in the community. 

Strategic thinking is really about critical momentum, not critical mass. Whatever the priorities and however the outcomes are defined, participants in a leadership summit believe that if they can accelerate church life and impact community change, then the costs of discipleship will be overcome. Strategic thinkers believe that if they can sustain mission momentum, then there will be money and energy left to sustain the institution. 

The chart above identifies the top ten questions that drive the conversation of the summit. Sometimes one question is more pressing than others. In any given year the church might need to embed trust, revise vision, or open itself to something new from God. The community context has changed, priorities need to be readjusted, and boundaries for creativity need to be updated. Even the measurable outcomes might change to be more relevant to success. Perhaps the balance between acceleration and impact needs to be reconsidered. But above all, the leadership summit asks and answers the question, “Were we successful this year?” 

The result of the leadership summit is not a long list of tasks. It is a set of priorities and clear measureable outcomes for every ministry team. Underperforming or ineffective programs will be scrutinized. Problems that couldn’t be resolved by teams will be solved. Hard decisions to terminate ineffective programs (no matter how “sacred”) will be made. The true cost of change will be identified. Stress will be expected and even welcomed rather than avoided. Clear delegation of responsibility and authority for implementation will be handed off to teams. 

Of course, the community is changing just as fast or faster and becoming ever more diverse. But the church is keeping pace and becoming ever more heterogeneous. There is no “plan” to be overcome by circumstance, but there is a set of priorities and anticipated outcomes that has been delegated to trusted teams. Strategic planning might not work any- more, but leaders still make every effort to participate in the leadership summit. 

If a member asks a leader who was at the leadership summit what the plan is, the leader will probably say, “I don’t know. Ask the team.” But the leader will be able to identify the priorities, outcomes, costs, and anticipated stress for the new year—and assure the member that, however creative the teams need to be, the integrity of the church will never be compromised and the vision of the church will always be pursued. 

Once leaders make strategic thinking a habit, they will find that it gets easier every year. What may seem complicated now will soon become second nature. Leaders and members will automatically apply the methods for research and listening, assessment, prioritization, and anticipated challenges to whatever they are doing. There are many things that are remarkable about the way of strategic thinking. 

The way of strategic thinking is remarkably humble. It is humble before the public: listening first and speaking last; observing before acting; empathic rather than authoritarian. It doesn’t presume to know best what people need, nor does it assume that people need what their church already has. 

Strategic thinking is humble before the Spirit: praying first and acting later; slaying rather than preserving sacred cows; preparing for a heartburst rather than producing a brainstorm. It doesn’t presume that current member comfort zones are also the will of God. 

Strategic thinking reduces management. It is based on high trust, delegating responsibility and authority for action to teams, while the senior staff and board concentrate on long-range planning. It avoids micro-management and focuses on results rather than processes. 

Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about strategic thinking is that it changes the character of the church. The church is no longer an institution on its own but only one player in the Christian movement. Strategic thinking isn’t really about producing better programs, deploying better personnel, maintaining sacred space, raising more money, or even solving social problems. It’s really about sustaining a movement that generates more leaders who generate more leaders, or in more spiritual terminology, a succession of servants who mentor more servants. It’s not what you do but how you think.


Excerpted from Strategic Thinking by Thomas G. Bandy. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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