This week I will be printing copies of the policy and procedures manual of our church for the church board. The manual has existed as a series of computer files, some of which started as proposals, developed into proposed policies, were discussed and never implemented. Others were drawn up as descriptions of activities and events that occurred in the church. Some were drafted by committees, refined by the board and then passed. Some have been modified many times since they were originally approved. We have been reluctant to print copies of the manual because it is constantly in flux, being modified and changed over and over again. In the computer are copies of policies that were adopted and later abandoned. A church is a living, growing institution that isn’t defined by policy.

At least that is how our church works. We try to demonstrate some consistency. We try to learn from the past. But we also are flexible and our experience has taught us that just because an idea doesn’t work the first time we try it doesn’t mean that it is a bad idea or that it will never work.

It has been my theory that, for the most part, successful churches are not policy driven. They are, rather mission driven. A need is seen. Action is taken. Then if we need to continue the mission, we refine our practices by learning from our experiences.

Back in 2013, Paul Brown wrote an article for Forbes magazine, “If You Want To Be Successful, Don’t Spent Too Much Time Planning: A Case Study.” Like many other articles, I read it online and though, “there is some sense to this way of thinking.” Unlike other articles, I’ve returned to it several times. The article is aimed at entrepreneurs not at religious leaders, but there is something inherently entrepreneurial about successful ministry in the 21st Century. In the article, he states that he is not against planning and gives four steps for planning:

Forecast the future.
Construct a number of plans for achieving what you want, picking the optimal one.
Assemble the necessary resources.
Go out an implement the plan.

The problem with planning, according to Brown is that it starts with the assumption that you can forecast the future with a high level of certainty. He goes on to say that the number of extremely predictable situations in everyday life is decreasing while the number of variables is increasing.

Ministry takes place in the realm of human relationships which are filled with infinite variations and rarely predictable.

Ever since the 1970’s, I’ve sat through dozens and dozens of strategic planning sessions. There have been a number of them in the churches that I have served. Not too many years ago, just before I discovered the article by Paul Brown, our congregation used an outside consultant to engage a strategic planning process. I used to work as a planning consultant for other congregations, so I understood the process. There was a fair amount of resistance to the process, but we proceeded to set our goals, establish objectives, consider how we would measure our objectives, vote on the plan and then largely forget about the whole process. Real life simply didn’t want to follow the script.

One of the steps, early in the process was a brainstorming session in which participants were encouraged to think what might happen if the church had no financial constraints. “What would you do if you had an unlimited budget?” Several ideas came out that we have never been able to afford.

In my own life, I have done a fair amount of planning. Some of my plans have worked out. Most have not. There have been other situations in which I’ve found that flexibility and innovation are far more important than planning. A congregation that is serious about embracing its future is bound to encounter situations that are unfamiliar and unexpected. Sometimes you just have to “wing it.”

Brown suggests an alternative model for business: Act, Learn, Build, Repeat.

He doesn’t discard the concept of planning, but he does propose a different kind of planning. He suggests that we often find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and the first thing we do is to take one small step in what we hope is the right direction and then pause to see what we have learned from taking that one small step. He claims that the act, learn, build, repeat process requires far fewer resources, especially in the startup phase.

When I think of the planning processes in which I have participated, most have failed to produce significant results. The problem is that we invested a lot of energy and resources in researching, planning and gathering resources while the world was changing all around us. While we were refining our plans the world passed us by. Often we worked on solving problems that either never existed or that were solved by someone else while we were busy planning.

So I will be printing the manual, but I’m not going to print very many copies. If things happen as I expect and intend, those who look at the manual will discover that it is in need of many changes. The printed copies will soon be filled with marks and suggestions. Maybe we will engage in some substantive conversation about the way we want things to work. A few policies will engender enough passion that someone will take on the task of rewriting them. We’ll go back to a set of computer files again with some policies that serve us and to which we refer from time to time and others that are forgotten in the process of running a church from day to day.

Not every document produced by the church becomes scripture. Most should not become scripture. In theology we speak of the canon of scripture as being complete. The Bible that we have inherited is the same Bible that we should pass on to our grandchildren. There is no need for additions, deletions or revisions. That allows us to focus on interpretation.

So far, that only applies to the Bible. It definitely isn’t true of the policy manual.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!