A primary responsibility of leaders is to help the congregation understand where it is going, why such a direction is important, and how to get there. By leaders, we mean not only pastors or rabbis but also congregational members who hold formal and informal positions of leadership. Leaders need to help people find worthy goals. They need to have a plan to structure work and maximize the resources of the congregation. They need to build agreement in the congregation about the plan so that people are willing to move together toward the goal.

Planning can be challenging in the contemporary congregation, where people share a common faith and values but may have very different preferences and needs. Some leaders want to reach out to potential members of the congregation, while others would prefer to direct resources to support current members. Some desire help for their own spiritual growth, while others would like a congregational initiative to address community issues that might shape or support other people. Some want to emphasize ministry with youth, while others hope for help in developing small sharing groups for adults. Some want change. Some want stability. The conversation about what a congregation is to do and where it will direct its resources can be quite complex.

What is a leader to do? How do you negotiate all of the preferences and opinions in order to come up with a plan that all agree with and are willing to support and work on?

Leaders can be misled by such questions because these questions imply that there is a plan that will address everyone’s interests and meet the congregation’s spiritual and organizational needs. This dependence upon a plan assumes that the leader is the chief problem solver and that planning is all about finding a “solution” that will satisfy the various voices in the congregation while simultaneously addressing significant faith questions about the purpose of the congregation.

Planning does not center on problem solving. The leader is not responsible for discovering the perfect solution or for creating a perfect planning process to get people to arrive at a perfect plan. Instead, the task of the leader is to help the people have a purposeful and meaningful conversation about who they are and what they believe is important to do.

Planning is conversation because it truly is dialogue. People explore their differences and their perceptions. People risk saying what they believe to be important. The talk is full of stories, memories, and hopes—the kind of conversation that strengthens and transforms people. It is conversation because it will follow its own unpredictable path. Different from problem solving and decision making that focuses and limits, conversation wanders and explores. It can be structured to have purpose. But conversation cannot be predicted or controlled.

Conversation is holy because, at its best, it is about a people’s understanding of their identity as a faith community, their sense of purpose, and their relationship with God. Though the holy conversation may take a multitude of shapes and directions, at its heart that conversation centers around three critical formation questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What has God called us to do or be?
  • Who is our neighbor?

Congregations need structured ways to talk about their identity, purpose, and future, and they need a path to develop consensus and a commitment to act. Several focusing questions will help you discover the appropriate planning needs of your congregation. Keep the following questions in mind. They will aid you in deciding what is important to your congregation.

  • What holy conversation about the congregation’s future do I believe we need to have at this moment in history?
  • When I consider the full planning process, what part is most important and appropriate for us to work on at this moment?
  • What strategies can I develop and use to involve people in a structured, open, and positive way?
  • What tools or information will we need to have this holy conversation?

One of the intriguing stories in Hebrew Scripture, in the book of Exodus, refers to “pitching tent.” When the Israelites wandered in the desert, they moved when the pillars of cloud and fire moved; that is, when they had a clear sense of direction. When they were not sure about their next step, they “pitched tent” and waited to discern the next steps of their journey. This suggests that discernment does not operate on a knowable timetable. Instead, the plan and the path were developed within a discerning relationship with God. They were not able to rush ahead directly to the Promised Land. Their lingering in the desert demanded a high level of trust in God, both that their journey had purpose and that manna would be provided each morning to sustain them on the way.

In fact, the story of the Exodus can be instructive for a congregation’s planning. In the wandering in the desert, it is clear that it was the journey much more than the destination that shaped the people. Had Moses been a better planner and pathfinder and discovered a straight route to make the trip to the Promised Land in a matter of months instead of wandering for years in the desert, the people may not have been changed when they arrived. They might have arrived much the same as they left Egypt—as a slave people. It was the journey—when they had to ask questions of how they would form community and what was important about their relationship to God—that shaped them into a nation.

Allow planning and discernment to take the needed amount of time. An axiom of general systems theory is that a congregation (or any system) cannot learn faster than it can learn. Don’t rush ahead, despite the reality that there will be those in the congregation or on the board, including yourself, who will be anxious to get to the “answer” and know what to “do.”

The story of the Exodus also reminds us that leadership is a dance in which we seek a more distant future that is both meaningful and faithful while simultaneously managing the specific day-to-day realities of the trip. A rabbi once shared a more contemporary midrash about the relationship between Moses and Aaron in the desert that points to this dance of equal necessities. Moses’s task, of course, was to envision the future. It was Moses who went off alone to encounter God face to face. He returned with new energy, a sense of direction, and a visible radiance from the encounter. Aaron, on the other hand, was the voice of management. He structured the trip from day to day—organizing tasks, assigning responsibilities, and making decisions.

In this midrash, the teller focused on the part of the story of the delivery of the commandments. It was visionary Moses who, alone on the mountain with God, received the commandments. It was Aaron who waited below with the people, organizing daily life and trying to address the needs and anxieties of the people. The irony of this story was that just as Moses was receiving the commandment not to make graven images, Aaron was working below with the people who were busy creating these very same images in an effort to offer a visible leader (“gods . . . who shall go before us”) on their journey. (See Exodus 32:1–35, especially v. 1.)

The lesson of the midrash is that both Moses and Aaron were needed for the journey. Leadership needs to search for vision and ask the big questions of purpose and identity. Management needs to take care of the travel—determining the steps to take, giving people appropriate tasks, and making clear decisions. The only risk is to let Moses and Aaron get too far apart. It was when Moses and Aaron (vision and management) got disconnected that things fell apart. A planning process cannot be all vision without structure and direction. Neither can the planning process simply be a list of tasks or exercises that will magical
ly lead somewhere. The leader and the planning team must be willing to dance between Moses and Aaron—to slow down enough to allow vision to take shape while also structuring a plan that will assist the people to move toward a future. Being flexible about the planning process, instead of rigidly following a set process, allows the congregation to be open to discernment. Structuring the planning conversation with appropriate questions and tasks allows the congregation to move ahead and make progress on the journey.

Every theory, program, or practice of planning is based on a set of assumptions about what is needed by the congregation. Planning based on the assumption that the goal of the church is membership growth will direct attention to membership and attendance data. Planning based on the assumption that the purpose of a congregation is outreach and evangelism will direct attention to community demographics. Given the importance of such underlying assumptions, these are some that rest behind planning as holy conversation:

  • Change happens through conversation.
  • A planning process provides direction and structure for conversation.
  • Planning is about making decisions.
  • Congregations have short attention spans.
  • Planning, when well done, will bring people to points of disagreement and competing preferences.
  • Planning is about finding more than agreement.
  • Planning depends upon structure.
  • There is more than one way to plan, and it is important to be authentic.

Planning is a holy and structured conversation among multiple partners—the congregation, the leader, the tradition and texts of the faith, and the discerned will of God. The leader seeks a way to ask important questions appropriate to the congregation in a way that allows all parties to the conversation to be as natural and authentic as possible.

Adapted from Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, copyright © 2003 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at alban@div.duke.edu and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

Resources for Ministry and Mission in Uncertain Times

We’ve listed some resources that you may find helpful.



AL276_SMHoly Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann cast planning as a “holy conversation,” a congregational discernment process about three critical questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do or be? Who is our neighbor? Rendle and Mann equip congregational leaders with a broad and creative range of ideas, pathways, processes, and tools for planning. By choosing the resources that best suit their needs and context, congregations will shape their own strengthening, transforming, holy conversation.

AL341_SMWhen Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations by Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont

In When Moses Meets Aaron, Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont help clergy responsible for several-member staff teams learn to be both Moses and Aaron—both a visionary and a detail-oriented leader—in order for their large congregations to thrive. They immerse the best of corporate human resource tools in a congregational context, providing a comprehensive manual for supervising, motivating, and coordinating staff teams.

AL278_SMMemories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change by Mark Lau Branson

Professor Mark Lau Branson invites us to join in a process of appreciative inquiry—a transformational organization change process—that can result in a major shift in congregational conversations and a new sense of hope. Branson leads readers through the foundations of appreciative inquiry and bracingly explores biblical texts for understanding the practice in a faith context.