The Parish Council and Strategic Planning
“In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:6)
Parish councils must insist upon strategic planning and if at all possible, professional nonprofit strategic planning – something far more than the half-day, once a year parish council retreats. In the business community today, strategic planning is continuous due to the speed of change. In the nonprofit community because fundamental missions rarely change a parish might undertake a strategic planning process once every five years, though elements of it should be conducted more frequently. Remember if the parish has a five-year strategic plan, then the plan depreciates at least 20% each year so that by the fifth year it might be only 20% relevant.
The parish council must be involved in all aspects of the process including the theological and spiritual portions. The old model of the priest attending to the altar and the parish council attending to the “business” side of parish life is contrary to incarnational theology and fundamentally inoperable. Every parish council member should be deeply concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of the community and every priest should be deeply concerned about the annual operating budget, good staff management and proper maintenance of the facilities. Around these issues, however, there will obviously be a division of functionalities.
The parish council, as a body, tends to be involved at the beginning of a strategic planning process and at the end of one – in structuring the strategic planning process, then in monitoring the actual implementation of the plan through reports. Finally they are involved in evaluating the results of the strategic plan against defined goals and objectives. Individually or by committee they will be in the trenches completing aspects of the strategic planning process ranging from overseeing the all-community survey, to organizing focus groups, to researching financial data and formulating solutions to challenges.
Depending upon the size of the parish and the level of staffing, the parish council may assign responsibility for tactical planning to staff. Senior staff members play a crucial role by providing necessary information, perspective and experience. To staff is given the responsibility of implementing the plan. In smaller parishes, the parish council is very likely involved in implementation as well.
Parish councils are charged with parish governance. To govern means to guide – to provide direction. Clearly, this must be done in close consultation with the priest who continuously holds leadership responsibility, whereas parish council chairs rotate rather frequently. Strategic planning means exercising a choice for a preferred future. Big thinking and big dreams must fill the entire process envisioning a future where the parish is thriving.
Parish councils together with the priest bear ultimate responsibility for the well being of the community – especially the spiritual well being. Strategic planning is one of many ways that this responsibility is exercised. Through a strategic planning process the parish council also increases and enhances its role in advocacy and fundraising for the parish. Out of the strategic planning process inevitably come increasing budgets, capital campaigns and endowment programs to fund the dreams. An inclusive strategic planning process helps parish council members make a strong case with potential funders.
Parish councils may have more objectivity than staff members who often are deeply entrenched in the task-based details of managing daily operations. Their perspectives on strength and weaknesses, opportunities and threats enrich the information available for key decisions.
In addition to the periodic comprehensive strategic planning process, the parish council must work to transcend the operational minutiae that creep into parish council agendas and dominate deliberations – those items that cause eyes to become glassy and parish council members wondering why they just spent three frustrating and sometimes aggravating hours in a parish council meeting. It’s inevitable that there will be operational items that the parish council must deal with but every parish council meeting should also be infused with the principle of strategic intent.
Some useful questions to provoke strategic intent:
What is the underlying issue we are trying to address here?
How does this relate to our mission as a parish?
What do we wish to become?
What is our preferred future as a community?
Shouldn’t this be referred to committee for further research and have them bring a recommended solution so we can move on to other items on the agenda?
How does what we are trying to address here relate to our strategic goals and objectives?