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Orthodox Parish Planning? Hint: It May not be what you think. Discover Parish Intentionality!

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” – Anonymous There are a dozen good reasons beyond producing a written document as to why the priest and the parish council must lead in Orthodox parish planning. Why Should a Parish Plan? It may seem obvious but the purpose of planning is not to write a plan. It is to increase your ability to serve the mission of the parish. The several different kinds of planning—notably strategic, program, business and facility planning—each with its own purview and approach, share some basic principles. The discussion below is framed to convey the many benefits of strategic planning. With some adjustments as to who is involved (clergy and parish council, all parishioners, architects and consultants), most points apply to program planning as well.

Parishes plan for a number of reasons. Many of them sound as if they would best be done reflectively, in quiet times:

  • a new parish may need to articulate and agree on purpose and means

  • a mature parish might need to

    • find new challenges

    • shake complacency

    • invigorate stakeholders

    • move to the next level

  • a challenged parish might need to solve a problem of direction, consensus, or funding in difficult times, when strained resources appear to require a choice between cutting programs or cutting staff, strategic planning can seem to be pretty far down the list of priorities. However, planning is not a luxury that is best sacrificed when stresses and strains mount. It can be exactly what is needed to illuminate a path through difficult times.

Here are 12 good reasons to launch a strategic planning process: Circumstance 1. Change happens. If you don’t take the time to step back and re-evaluate when conditions have changed substantially, when will you? Operations 2. The essence of parish and nonprofit planning is to develop consensus around the pursuit of mission. Good ideas that are outside the scope of parish strategy constitute mission drift. Once the leadership has listened to all points of view and settled on a direction, everyone can focus their efforts to support the chosen course of action and dismiss distractions that limit the ability to serve the parish’s mission. 3. With a clear focus, there will be a standard for establishing metrics of performance toward strategic goals. Progress can be tracked and individual actions can be evaluated. Individual initiative can be engaged by mobilizing all organizations and ministries to suggest their own (measurable) action items. Such empowerment can result in an enormous burst of productive energy that can make a critical difference in the parish’s ability to thrive. Wisdom 4. H.L. Mencken said that “for every complex problem there is a simple solution… and it is always wrong.” The simple solution of doing less of the same—or taking other ostensibly obvious steps—in times of heightened need may not be the best approach to serving a parish’s mission. A good strategic planning process moves everyone out of their comfort zones, to challenge their own assumptions and to find better strategies to support the parish’s mission. 5. In the face of a complex situation, the combined perspectives and experience of many minds is likely to identify opportunities and suggest nuances that any one decision maker would miss. Cultivation 6. Drawing on the entire stakeholder community to help shape the response to a challenge offers another benefit: the process itself brings people together, developing a sense of inclusion and communal purpose. Stakeholders who are consulted for their ideas will, through that very act of inclusion, feel a stronger sense of connection to and enthusiasm for the parish. This holds true at every level of involvement, bringing many people at least a little closer into the fold. 7. As fundraising continues to get more competitive, the ability to make a compelling case with prospective donors is even more important than ever. Donors can only be involved in so many causes. A newly refreshed strategy that takes changing conditions into account and maps out measurable actions to get to a goal can be a powerful tool of persuasion. Parish Development 8. By being brought together and familiarizing themselves with the critical issues, clergy, parish council, staff, ministry and organizational leaders together with key volunteers and even the entire parish develop a new understanding of the parish and their roles within it. 9. A parish council sometimes has been defined wryly as an ineffective group of effective people. Planning develops more informed, engaged and effective parish council members, better able to engage their skills and wisdom. 10. There is no better leadership development for parish council members than close involvement in a strategic planning process. Often chairing the planning committee is a natural steppingstone to chairing the parish council. 11. A good planning process stimulates all participants to think strategically, an experience that can be cultivated into a habitual practice. Aspiration 12. Excellence takes work. As a powerful, multifaceted tool for self-examination and improvement, strategic planning can help you to do your best to serve your mission. A common criticism of strategic planning is that you can’t really know what conditions will be in three to five years. That view misses the point. The twelve reasons listed above are about the present, not the future. An effective mission-based strategy needs to have long term goals. But the actions prescribed in a multi-year plan should be fluid. They need to be monitored and reevaluated along the way. An effective planning process does not conclude with approval of a written plan; it remains a living process that refuels itself on the strategic thinking developed, nurtured, and exercised in the initial stages. The twelve reasons above suggest that whatever may have brought you to planning a well-conceived and executed process will provide many additional benefits. There is no one right way to pursue strategy and planning. The specific approach that will work for a parish—and what aspect of the planning process should be emphasized—depends upon such considerations as:

  • the nature of the parish (many or few constituencies; how large, engaged, and dispersed they are; size and culture of staff; role of the parish council)

  • the prior planning experience of staff and parish council

  • the life-cycle stage of the parish (new, thriving, stalled, troubled)

  • the nature of the changes it is facing—or creating


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