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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Planning and Visioning

Our question this week is about a great "big picture" issue - how much time should a pastor spend on visioning and planning? And what exactly is that process supposed to look like? Our colleague writes:

I read somewhere that effective pastors should spend some huge percentage of their time in planning and visioning (can’t remember exact number, only that it was huge).  I feel like I hardly ever plan or vision in the big picture sense, but mostly just triage each new thing as it comes at me.  As for worship planning, after 5 years in one call, I feel like I'm just beginning to get a handle on looking ahead a very little.  I'm a solo pastor of small but healthy and slowly growing congregation.   So my question is, do you agree with the premise?  should I be spending more time in planning/visioning?  And if you are a planner, can you describe what your planning process looks like -either for worship, or for other programs/projects of the church, or for the overall mission of the organization?

  Muthah+ responds:
Dear Pastor,

I think planning and visioning should be proportional to the size of your congregation and mission of the community you serve.  A larger parish needs a great deal more planning because there are often more people involved --not just staff but volunteers. Smaller congregations often have a life of their own.  My first years in ministry were involved in 'triage' too. It also involved what I thought the ministry of the parish 'should' be rather than allowing myself to see the ministry that was already there.  But that too was at a different time in the Church.  

I think today in a small parish I would focus on what it means to belong, how that belonging forms community and how that community proclaims the love of Christ by loving one another.  In smaller parishes and also my own ENFP personality, I would spend a great more time 'intuiting' rather than planning or visioning.  My sermons were always about a vision--and the people of the parish need to do the visioning.  It is empowering them to 'dream dreams and see visions' that is the work of a pastor.  That work is quite informal.  It is having coffee with the key leaders and dreaming with them that I found the most helpful.  It is the glue of the faith centered community.  And empowering them to tell you what's 'wrong' with your vision.  Laugh a bunch!

I am always a bit leery of hard and fast dictums from 'experts' or even 'matriarchs'.  Some dreaming and even planning has to be done--you can't just shoot from the hip.  But allow your own personality and your skills to dictate what you need to be doing.  It is the integrity of your faith that speaks so loudly in small parishes.  If you are slowly growing in today's church--you are doing something right.   And in small parishes it is the faith of the pastor that often speaks the most eloquently to her parishioners.  

Five years is about the time that you 'catch up' in a parish and the parish is ready to trust their 'new' pastor.  Try some of your ideas on your folk and let them test them.  You will only learn by doing.  

And Sharon at Tidings of Comfort and Joy offers:

Because my personality type (MBTI = INFP) is about the most un-planning-est personality type there is, it would deplete me to have to spend "huge percentages" of my time planning.  So, I encourage you to be true to your own pastoral style and personality as you find your own comfort level with planning.

Here's just about the only structured planning I do:  On a fairly regular basis, I plan congregational worship for an entire liturgical season.  My "method" -- if it can be called that -- is to create a table in a computer document and put each worship service for the season in its own row down the first column.  For each worship service, the first column in that row has the the date & day (Nov. 28/Advent 1) and special events that day (Communion, Baptism, Mother's Day). The second column lists the scriptures we will use that day. The third column has initial thoughts and references and music / hymns (it's a wider column!).  It's a highly adaptable model!

I also offer this link to an Alban Institute article that came this week, all about the pastor's role in leading a congregation to make plans:  Planning Assumptions.  Some of the "assumptions & realities" might be applicable to a pastor's own planning, too.

Thanks for asking this question!  I look forward to learning more from the other Matriarch responses and comments.

I love it that both matriarchs reference their personality type (like Muthah+, I am an ENFP) - I agree with them that personality, along with congregational type/size/personality are all factors in how planning and visioning work. Let's hear from the rest of you - how does planning/visioning work for you? How and when do you fit it in? What other advice would you offer? Please join the conversation in our comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please send it to us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I especially like what Muthah+ said, "I think today in a small parish I would focus on what it means to belong, how that belonging forms community and how that community proclaims the love of Christ by loving one another."

    In her 2012 book Christianity After Religion (reviewed here by Pastor Julia), Diana Butler Bass uses the term "communities of belonging" (p. 263). She puts "belonging" first, summarized this way:

    "Relational community, intentional practice, and experiential belief are forming a new vision for what it means to be Christian in the twenty-first century, a pattern of spiritual awakening that is growing around the world. We belong to God and to one another, connected to all in a web of relationships, and there we find our truest selves. We behave in imitation of Jesus, practicing our faith with deliberation as we anticipate God's reign of justice and love. We believe with our entire being, trusting, beloving, and devoted to the God whom we have encountered through one another and in the world. We are; we act; we know. Belonging, behaving, and believing — shifted back to their proper and ancient order. This is the shape of awakened Christianity, a faith that is a deeply spiritual religion" (p. 214).

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  3. I am an INFJ/P. My J/P delineation is quite close so there are things which the "J" needs to have planned but the "P" enables me to adapt quickly when things go awry (especially in worship).

    The congregation I serve has been micromanaged for 17 years (2 different pastors), which I do not do. The leadership can hardly make a decision of any kind without "checking with the pastor" or they just wait for the pastor to tell them what to do.

    That being said, visioning and dreaming is quite difficult for them. Their visioning method is to look at a calendar or notes and see what they did last year...and do it again.

    I have spent the last two months sharing information from Carol Howard Merritt and Diana Butler Bass so perhaps they have a few more tools to use.

    My visioning process is continual...listening...observing...being aware of words, actions, etc. My monthly pastor's report to the session always has a section called "Looking Forward". (that tip came from a previous ATM...thanks). That "looking forward" may be the next couple of weeks, months, but usually not over a year.

    Worship planning...I'm still working on working ahead on that. Thanks for the tip, Sharon.

  4. Though I don't remember my Myers-Briggs type, I think it is important to stop and look at the big picture sometimes. While I wouldn't give it an enormous percent of my time, I would suggest stepping away from the day-to-day triage to look at the overall needs of both the congregation and community, issues that need to be addressed, directions that need to be taken.

    Each year, I take a full week of sermon prep time (I plan for the next year). It is NOT VACATION, but a time of spiritual renewal and planning. During this time I think about the needs of the congregation, topics that seem to be plaguing us, our strengths and areas where we need to go.

    Even if you couldn't come close to taking this much time, I really recommend taking at least a day. Go someplace physically away from the office and pray over these big picture issues of your church. Listen for God's voice as you begin to see broad trends. I believe you will find it more helpful than you might have imagined.

    I hope this is helpful! Blessings!

  5. There's WORD templates you can use (see depending on how color coordinated you need them.

    For me, visioning was always the long range, big picture though process (where are we now, where do we want to go next) and is usually done in spurts, less frequently. The planning then can fall into place with the guidelines that come from the big picture (visioning).

    In terms of personality, I am an ESFJ to ENTJ (depending on when I take the test. It varies.) I like to be able to move through background planning and not be stuck in the details. The problem is that when I have done "visioning" it has been more like a group process, and the slower-moving "P" types make it hard for me to slow down and move in cohesion with them.

    It might be helpful for you to have a group who helps set the overall agenda and then you can do what you need to do to make it happen, at your own time/speed/inclination.

  6. Thanks for all the good thoughts, y'all! I love the idea of taking a whole week for sermon prep time. Would love to try to work that in - or at least a full day or two!


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