For at least a decade, loving and critical church leaders have pointed out that the “presumption of neediness” that has guided several generations of pastors and thousands of mission statements is essentially flawed. These criticisms seem to group themselves around these premises:

  • “Needs-based thinking” is basically negative, and because brains do best what brains do most, continuing attention to neediness “trains” congregations and their leaders to be essentially negative-thinking people.
  • “Solving problems” as a fundamental, continuing reason for existence is hardly a joyful and forward-looking way to live, personally or institutionally.
  • Most people don’t think of themselves most of the time as “primarily needy.” When nudged in that direction, however, they will accept the ministrations of need-filling pastors and lay leaders. (This observation raises the question of whose needs are being filled.)
  • “Neediness,” whether as a direct corollary or a direct effect of sinfulness, doesn’t just go away when one piece of it is resolved. Like “the elephant in the living room,” presumed neediness tends to stay in congregations and to occupy more space than it deserves.
  • Presumed neediness seems, at first, to benefit pastors and caring professionals. (When they are able to “meet needs,” their personal significance is immediate and obvious.) But over time, the sheer scope and depth of “neediness”—when it is universalized to describe most members—overwhelms and eventually burns out pastors and other caring leaders.

Planning the Way We Usually Do It

Most planning is needs-based—and thus an arduous task that rarely effects lasting change. Add in “long-range,” and you have a mighty tall mountain for that big, Sisyphean rock. What makes “needs-based planning” a tall mountain? There are more needs than you’ll ever fill. In addition, the better you are at finding the “true needs of these people,” the higher Mount Overexertion will get.

“Long-range” means that the single mountain is part of an entire herd of mountains, all stacked next to each other like—um, well, like a long range! Just in case you get that infernal rock pushed to the top of the first mountain, the other mountains assure you that your job will never be done, long into the future.

Consider the following truths:

  • Because it adds to information overload, fosters a negative view of God’s world, and invites you to exaggerate your life mission, needs-based planning and thinking can engage you for the rest of your life in “trying too hard.”
  • “Long-range” adds the delusion that you can achieve long-term understanding and control of change. This is not possible unless you want to spend down all your personal assets for what may be nothing more than a well-meaning gamble about an imagined future.
  • Needs-based planning persists as a feature of most congregations’ ways of doing business even though it doesn’t work all that well any more.

The Alternative: Asset-Based Planning

You have another choice for effective planning. Its starting point is not the needs of people, but the unique collection of assets already resident in your congregation.

This alternative way of thinking and planning, asset-based planning, has benefits that needs-oriented planning cannot offer. Think what it would be like for you to experience “doing church” with:

  • Positive and hopeful thinking
  • Energy, enthusiasm, and emotional satisfaction
  • Less likelihood of “failure”
  • Quicker, more efficient agreement on outcomes
  • Quicker, more efficient ways to get work done
  • Authentic reasons to say, “No, I won’t do that”
  • Opportunities for a higher percentage of members to use a higher percentage of their personal assets for God’s work
  • Feelings of solidarity, appreciation, and purpose

This way of work is called “asset based” because both its thinking and acting components are based on assets, not needs. Asset-based thinking and planning offer the chance to break out of cycles of ecclesiastical overexertion.

How “Asset-Based Planning” Works

First, asset-based planning works! The approach I’ll describe here has been successful in overseas agricultural and community development for over 25 years. Rural communities in this country regularly use asset-based approaches to renew their sense of possibility. Many social-service agencies approach large-scale change with asset-based planning and implementation methods. Most consultants and business gurus talk about some variety of asset-based work in their various systems or methods.

Let me outline an asset-based planning process that is based on the continuing work of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, part of the Institute for Policy Research of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. This process of planning, developed at greater length in Luther Snow’s The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts, follows these general steps:

  1. You start with the people who have some emotional motivation for the general task you have in mind. (The important word here is “general,” because you haven’t started planning yet.) They are the first asset.
  2. You come together in a place where you can spread out—open space on walls, tables, or floors is important. You briefly characterize the idea of asset-based planning and review the general task or goal that brought you together.
  3. Using the questions, “What are you good at?” and “What do you like to do?” each participant describes or characterizes each “asset” he or she brings to this general task, listing each one on a separate piece of paper.
  4. When all participants’ assets have been listed, together you construct a “map” of the assets, grouping them into categories. When it is completed, this map becomes visual proof of your giftedness as a planning group and of your willingness to use your assets for a purpose.
  5. With the map in front of you—on the wall, tables, or floor—you try to discover what specific tasks you might work on together, aiming at the outcomes that brought you together. One guideline to follow: “We will do only what we’re good at and what we like to do.”
  6. Having decided what to do next together, you agree on specific responsibilities, a time line, and the next time you’ll come together.

Asset-based planning is a way of behaving that, over time, yields a way of thinking. At the same time, this way of work requires changes in your way of thinking. I offer you the following assorted comments to help you explore asset-based thought and behavior.

  • This approach is not magic, nor does it work everywhere in your congregation. (Some tasks, mostly those required by law, must be done, whether or not someone enjoys doing them.)
  • Asset-based planning will eventually affect the way you conduct yourselves in every aspect of your life together.
  • The first steps in the process—carefully listing assets and mapping them—take longer the first time around. Once you have constructed the assets map, subsequent planning consumes less time.
  • Asset-based planning may result in your eliminating some goals, some work. You may not have the assets to accomplish everything you want to do. “Trying too hard” often comes from wanting to do what you lack the capacity to do.
  • If you keep at this asset-based approach, you will find assets multiplying. Assets develop inside individuals; assets are attracted to your congregation; and assets emerge from unexpected places. Where needs-based planning keeps sucking capacity out of you, asset-based planning keeps adding to good things God has plopped down onto your congregation like second helpings at a Thanksgiving dinner!
  • Because they build capacity, asset-based approaches sustain liveliness in your congregation.
  • Because it is positive, forward-looking, and realistic, the asset-based approach can gradually displace the burdensome emotions that you may drag along behind you like a trash-filled wagon with square wheels.
  • Although you can start thinking this way easily enough, learning the skills of asset-based planning requires some training. Luther Snow’s book is a great place to start.
  • Asset-based planning takes care of two invisible “action stoppers” in congregations: lack of volition (will to work) and capacity (ability to work). Because you work at what you want to do and are good at doing, these necessary prerequisites for excellence are virtually guaranteed.

Adapted from Not Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations , copyright © 2001 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form.


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Featured Resources

AL245_SMNot Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations by Bob Sitze

Bob Sitze offers a new vision for congregations and their leaders, a vision that releases us from the growing burden of trying harder to invent and implement “better” worship, evangelism, stewardship, small groups, long-range planning, and mission statements. Sitze argues that congregations will find joy and fulfillment by more closely matching their expectations for ministry with personal and corporate assets.

AL284_SM The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts by Luther K. Snow

Luther K. Snow shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets in order to act on them in ministry and mission. Tips, techniques, stories, and lessons drawn from the experience of diverse congregations will help readers discover how asset mapping works and why it strengthens faith and community. Snow shows us how to turn over control and open ourselves to the unexpected and amazing gifts of God.

AL278_SM Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change by Mark Lau Branson

Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.