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I have just finished reading the latest issue of the United Methodist Relay, the monthly newspaper issued by the Greater New Jersey Conference of The United Methodist Church, which includes the church where my wife Joan and I are members (Vincentown United Methodist Church). Since this was the first issue of the paper following our Annual Conference meeting in June, its content was almost entirely about proposals adopted at that meeting, with emphasis on one proposal in particular – the Strategic Ministry Plan. This came as no surprise. The proposal had been publicized for months.
It seems to me that the proposal grew out of the realization that our United Methodist Church, along with other major religious denominations in the United States, was in a serious state of decline. This plan is intended to revitalize the churches of our Conference. Background information explains that only 14% of our churches are considered to be “vital” churches. The key characteristics of “vital” churches are that they are “making disciples, becoming more engaged in missions around the world, connecting with local communities, developing small groups, and strengthening leadership at all levels”. The goal and hope of the plan is that by 2018, 5 years from now, 41% of our churches will be “highly vital” churches, demonstrating these characteristics.
I should have been greatly enthused about the adoption of this plan. But to be honest, I didn’t feel very enthused. I couldn’t help but remember that over the past 45 years, in my direct involvement in strategic ministry planning, as a layperson and pastor, I have seen, heard, and experienced many attempts at church revitalization, but with little lasting, wide-ranging success. So my first thought was a question. “Why should I believe that this latest plan is finally going to be the one that will turn the church around?”. My answer to that question was “you shouldn’t believe that this latest plan is finally going to be the one that will turn the church around, because it won’t be.” So then the question was, “does that mean that all the time and effort that I and others have put into developing strategic ministry plans over all those years, including this newly adopted plan, was useless and wasted?” My answer to that question was “no, it was not a waste of time and effort.” So how can I say that it will not be a waste of time and effort to develop a plan which will probably never be totally and precisely fulfilled?
To begin with, as I look back over the years, I now realize that it is not realistic to expect that a strategic plan of any kind,is ever totally fulfilled in terms of content, schedule, or ultimate results. I believe that’s true whether it is applied to a business, government, the military, an educational institution, or a church or church related organization. Nevertheless, without such plans, there eventually is chaos, and ultimately that can lead to death and destruction. So today I believe the more realistic question is, “what should we expect as a result of our strategic planning efforts, including those for the church?”
Strategic plans, like those which I have been involved in developing for many years, and which have been adopted by our Conference, are developed and applied by human beings. No matter how enthused about and involved in them we become, sooner or later, they will no longer be sustained. This is just a reality, due to changes in personnel, circumstances and situations, and the increasing pace of change in the world. In these times, most of this is beyond our control. The result is that we finally realize that all of this change has been going on without our noticing how it is or will be affecting us. Finally, someone begins to see the reality. And it doesn’t look good for us.
Then someone says “we need to do something to turn things around”. Some will respond by saying “Let’s do it the way we used to do it under the old plan. It worked back then.” But what worked back then does not always work now. Others will say, “let’s do something really new and different. The old ways won’t work anymore”. But sometimes some of the old ways will work again. And all too often we end up arguing about old ways or new ways, forgetting that at some point all new ways will eventually become old ways, and some old ways will in fact become new ways for new generations.
What I have come to believe, based on my experience, is that what we should be saying, as individuals, or as organized churches, and as larger groups of churches (like our Conference)is “Let’s take time to discern God’s will as to what he wants to do with us in terms of ministry(not want we want to do), and how he wants us to participate with him in whatever that happens to be.” If we listen carefully, that will always work, whether it’s an old or a new plan. That’s the plan we should and must adopt. Whether it be a long range strategic plan, or a plan for the year or just a few days or weeks ahead. I believe that’s what our Conference has done and is doing, concerning the newly adopted Strategic Ministry Plan. I believe that the plan has been discerned as part of God’s will. But that’s not good enough.
One of the problems with strategic plans is that they are quickly forgotten. Our Bishop has said that he will assure that the plan will not end up “on the shelf”. I believe him. I believe it is his intention to assure that the plan will be implemented. I believe that the Conference staff members will do their part. But then it is up to the pastors and members of individual churches as to what they will do about the plan. They will have to decide to participate. Ultimately, each individual, including pastors, will have to discern how God wants each of them to be involved.
It’s not enough to adopt a plan. We have to seek God’s continual guidance and direction as to how to accomplish it. We also need to rely on God to give us the grace we need to do our part. That means the time, effort, money, knowledge, skill, and whatever else we need to fulfill the plan. We can count on God to fulfill our hopes, even when the situation seems to be hopeless. By ourselves, despite all the planning in the world, we can do nothing. But with God, if our hope is truly part of God’s plan, then we can do all things, because God can do all things.
We will all have to be in constant touch with God to assure that we are getting it right. From time to time, we can expect to hear from God with new or revised directions. Usually that’s because we didn’t hear God’s message as we should have, the first time. Or conditions, or people, or something else has changed. So we need to discern how God wants us to carry on in the midst of change.
I believe there is only one Strategic Plan for Ministry that will ultimately be fulfilled, once and for all. That is what I think of as God’s ultimate plan. It is a plan that applies to all people, individually and collectively, past, present, and future. It is the plan that those of us who are part of the church pray for every week as we pray The Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God invites everyone to participate with him in fulfilling that plan. Within that ultimate plan, there are many smaller plans. Plans for “what should I be doing with my life today?”. Strategic ministry plans to carry us through the next few years. Plans to keep moving in the direction of becoming the people God created us to be. What kind of people were we created to be? People who love God and love each other as we love ourselves – as God loves us. If that is our ultimate plan and hope, then I believe that hope will be fulfilled. Because it is God’s plan. And when our hopes are in accordance with God’s plans, then those hopes will always be fulfilled.
Grace and peace, Ray Gough
Thanks for your attention. We look forward to hearing your comments about our web-site. We also invite you to send us stories of your experiences and observations of present hopes and hope fulfilled, so we can spread them around the world via this web-site. This is one way we can all join together to help keep hope alive.
May God be with you,
Patty Perez and Ray Gough