Written by Dan LaValla
Monday, 27 May 2013 00:00
It is interesting to observe attitudes and listen to comments from pastors and church leaders with respect o how churches should approach and utilize strategic planning and numbers in a church context. Thomas S. Rainer’s March 4thblog post is very relevant to this topic, which he titled, “Ten Rules of Thumb for Healthy Churches” (http://thomrainer.com/2013/03/04/ten-rules-of-thumb-for-healthy-churches/). Here, he writes, “Using rules of thumb to guage church health is problematic because they are, well, rules of thumb. There will always be exceptions, extenuating circumstances, and even disagreements on the right metrics….Please let wisdom prevail.” Ironically, the same day he posted this piece, in response to a reader’s post outside of the states, he admittedly changed his title to “Ten Rules of Thumb for Healthy Churches in America.”
A personal friend who is a leader in his church recently said to me with respect to the declining numbers in his church, “Looking at the numbers (attendance and giving) is not a healthy way of managing or growing a church; it is important that we keep our eyes on the Lord to see what He is doing and discern if we are doing what He wants us to be doing.” Personally, being a numbers guy, I thought to myself in an unspiritual manner, “Yeah, a good way to keep your church on the decline it to keep your head in the sand and ignore the numbers until your church has to close its doors one day.” Instead, I replied with a much more compassionate tone, “While it can be unspiritual to look to numbers in a selfish manner or in a way that puffs up pride and provides a means of confidence independent of who we are in God (much like King David in 1 Chronicles 21 when he took the census of Israel), looking at numbers to help make a strategic decision and devise a plan of action can also be a wise thing to do (as Jesus commends the King who counts his troops before going to war against another king in Luke 14:31-32 as a metaphor for illustrating the importance to counting the cost of becoming a disciple of Jesus before one decides to go down such a path).
So here are four guiding principles from Proverbs that should be kept in mind with respect to strategic planning and tracking numbers in the context of managing a church or parachurch organization:
In a missional context, the emphasis is on discerning God’s mission for your church or parachurch organization and what its role is in fulfilling God’s mission within its specific context. See the importance of discerning God’s Spirit in my earlier post “When God Interrupts Your Day” http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/faculty-blog/96-regular-content/600-when-god-interrupts-your-day. Proverbs 16:3 highlight this point, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans.”
While it is true that while people have the ability to make their plans, and the Lord has the final say to approve or thwart such plans (Proverbs 16:1). This does not mean that we should not plan! Proverbs 14:22 tells us that planning does facilitate results, “Those who plot evil will go astray, just as those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness (Proverbs 14:22).
While it is important to establish strategic plans and work to achieve the goals laid out in these plans, people must be willing to be flexible and adjust such plans in response to what God is doing as Proverbs 16:9 states, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord directs their steps.”
In the management of churches and parachurch organizations, leaders should not use numbers as a means of selfish gain or defining personal success, failure, or prestige; rather, as a means of discerning the health of one’s church or parachurch in relation to God’s calling. As Proverbs 16:2 states, “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.”
Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association; he serves as vice chair of the Ministry Board and chair of the Missions Committee of First Baptist Church in Lansdale. He is very active in his community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/daniel-lavalla.