by Nancy L. DeMott

The church council president at First Church asked the pastor during a meeting, “When is the last time we did strategic planning?” “It has been awhile,” the pastor mused. There ensued a conversation about the value of a planning process and an awareness by those present that the time was right to engage again in this important work. It had been the practice of First Church to appoint a special task force to lead a planning process every five years or so. As the council discussed the matter further, the inevitable question was raised:  “Who will we ask to chair the team?” A few members nostalgically recalled the superb leadership of the chairperson who led the last strategic planning team. That leader, however, had moved out of state. Who would do an equally good job this time?

At the Indianapolis Center for Congregations we have observed many congregational planning initiatives that succeed, to a large degree, because of the quality of the leadership. In this article we’ll explore important aspects to consider when selecting a person to lead a strategic planning team.

First we’ll consider the leader selection process. Then we will explore the leader’s roles, characteristics, and skills.

Leader Selection

The individual chosen to lead a congregation’s planning team must be chosen intentionally, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. He or she will be leading the team that guides the congregation through a process that will shape its future. Asking for volunteers, appointing an already overwhelmed church council chair, or expecting the pastor to make the selection is not likely to garner the best candidate.

Effective planning in a congregation includes a spiritual component, including a willingness to discern God’s leading, however that is done within the faith community. The discernment process begins prior to the selection of the team chair person.

The congregation’s governing board needs to be directly involved in the discernment and selection of the team leader. There are a wide variety of ways the stage can be set for the spiritual discernment and selection of the team leader. Perhaps portions of one or more meetings can be spent in discernment practices such as scripture studies of God’s call to leaders and times of group prayer. The governing body may wish to broaden the request for discernment and ask the congregation to intentionally devote time to prayer for the right leader.

Once the potential leader has been identified, the person needs to be asked in a meaningful way. Much is communicated about the importance of a leadership position by the way the leader is asked to assume the responsibility. Asking in passing during a fellowship gathering is not sufficient to communicate the importance of leading the congregation’s planning team. A prearranged visit by a member of the governing board and pastor gives an entirely different message. It can allow sufficient time and attention to explaining the importance of the strategic planning initiative, the discerning process that led to this person’s nomination, and the significance of this initiative to the future of the congregation. A specific job description and time frame for service needs to be discussed as well. Sharing prayer together and allowing the individual time to consider his or her response will further communicate the importance of this commitment.

Leader Roles

The selection of an appropriate planning team leader is enhanced by a clear, written description of the roles she or he is being asked to assume. Here are some basic ones to consider.

  1. Chair the planning team. This includes preparing agendas, leading meetings, and managing meeting time.
  2. Maintain communications with the governing board.
  3. Communicate regularly with the entire congregation.
  4. Delegate tasks and assist in the development of strategies for accountability.

Leader Characteristics

  1. Has a deep faith and is open to God’s call
  2. Is passionate about the future of the church
  3. Is supportive of the current pastor
  4. Is committed, dependable, and hardworking
  5. Possesses the courage and persistence to keep the process going through unexpected challenges
  6. Is a recognized learner who enjoys dialogue and learning from others
  7. Is comfortable with ambiguity and the need to “figure it out” as he or she goes

Leader Skills

  1. Runs meetings skillfully
  2. Sets an inclusive tone that welcomes diverse perspectives
  3. Is an excellent communicator
  4. Possesses group facilitation skills
  5. Can skillfully guide group decision-making
  6. Is able to guide a group from visions to goal setting, action steps, reporting, and evaluating.
  7. Delegates responsibilities

In summary, positive outcomes from a congregational planning process depend to a large degree on the competencies of the team leader. Such a position is a high calling and selection of an individual to fill the role needs to follow a time of spiritual discernment. The leader must have the characteristics and skills required to lead a team or congregation through a planning process. Finally, congregations who want to engage in meaningful planning processes and strengthen the expressions of their mission need to plan regular and intentional programs to develop the leaders they need.

Nancy L. DeMott
Resource Director
Indianapolis Center for Congregations

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1