A Well-Planned Leap of Imagination

Among the top three questions we are getting these days from pastors and congregational leaders:  How can we plan for our ministry in the next year?  Or, do you have strategic planning tools to recommend?

In every office I have moved into upon starting a new pastoral call, there on the top shelf, gathering dust, are the last four strategic plans for that congregation.  From the looks of the dust on the volumes, they have not been read since the day after their adoption 18, 12, 5, or 2 years before.

There are circumstances where strategic planning is what a church needs in order to take a next step.   But if that strategic plan is not preceded by lively, sustained, robust strategic thinking, chances are “the plan” will contain lots of phrases like “continue…” or “strengthen…” or “consider…,” indicating incremental improvement on what is already in place, instead of Spirit-tended imaginative exploration of where God’s activity is leading us next.

General Motors’ CEO Mary Barry jolted automakers and business advisors last week by announcing that GM would produce only zero-emission vehicles starting just 14 years from now.  What led to this announcement?  Several articles last week by business reporters noted a concern about a “dollars-and-cents analysis of where the auto industry is headed,” as well as a perceived need by GM to “get out of the environmental doghouse” because of earlier practices.  However, since her arrival in 2014, the new CEO had been working intensely to get GM, usually seen as “hide-bound and plodding,” to imagine a different way of moving into the future.

The stories of Kodak and Blockbuster, among many others, are well known.  These are companies that saw their current way of operating as somehow continuing into a future they could not yet imagine.  They continued to work their plan (“continue…strengthen…consider…”) while the future overtook their plan with breathtaking speed and magnitude.  I’m sure GM has a plan, but this sort of pivot to a new future doesn’t happen without imagination nurtured over time that got the leaders of the organization to look beyond what they already did and what they already knew.

To look beyond what they already did and what they already knew…

 Like the life Mary thought she was living before the angel visited her with startling news, and the life she lived after.

Like the day Zacchaeus thought he was going to have before he met Jesus, and the day he had after Jesus called him out of that tree.

Or, in John 21, after the resurrection, in their grief, Jesus’ disciples were headed back to what they knew – they were returning to their fishing boats.  They were returning to “their plan” before Jesus called them three years earlier.  But then Jesus meets them on the shore, fixes breakfast for them, and completely changes their imagination – again – for what life would be in an Easter world.

Plans are great.  They are needed.  But they need to follow the discipline of continually refreshed imagination for what God is calling us to do.  Those strategic plans on the top shelves of church offices everywhere were developed by diligent, well-meaning church folk.  But there was probably an assumption or hope that good plans would lead to a burst of imagination.  That rarely happens.

Imagination comes first, then plans to fit the imagination.  With that, the words of those plans will not start with words “continue…strengthen…consider…”.   They will speak of risk, experiments, careful listening, faithfulness, and ventures where we can only see part of the path forward.

The best news is that God is in the imagination business.  Just ask Mary or Zacchaeus.

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