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Strategic Planning Retreats – Guiding Our Church’s Future

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

February 2007

“It was Saturday, a beautiful, sunny, Chamber of Commerce day and San Diego beckoned, calling us to come out and play.  Yet there we were, thirty-seven men and women gathered, voluntarily, for an all-day session designed to kick-start a five-year “strategic plan” for energizing our church’s programs and activities.”

February 2008

“It was a day of questions – tough ones with no easy answers.
 “First out of the box – ‘what excites you about this retreat?’  The answers ranged from ‘knowing the future of UCCLM is in our hands’ to ‘new faces,’ coupled with a rather rueful recognition that dealing with change may lead us to lament, with Mother Theresa, ‘I know the Lord won’t give me more than I can handle…but I wish He didn’t trust me so much!’

March 2009

“’How do you feel about change?’
“Thus began Round III of UCCLM’s Strategic Planning saga.
 “With that the floodgates opened.  ‘We like who we are as a church.’  ‘Change is essential for growth…do we want to grow?’  ‘How do we avoid hurting those fearful of change’? ‘Change happens:  best to work with – and guide – it.’”

Excerpts from articles in Joys & Concerns, our church newsletter, these quotes capture the essence of what we at the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (CA) set out to do – and provide the merest foretaste of what we have accomplished with our annual strategic planning retreats. 

Someone once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will do.”  There is a great deal of truth in this saying.  God has called each one of us and our respective communities of faith to spread the Good News of a loving, all-embracing God.  As a church, sometimes we tend to allow that call to develop naturally.  When I look at Jesus’ ministry one thing is very obvious to me:  He had a plan.  Jesus knew what it took to spread His message and He knew where his ministry would end.  Jesus was intentional in the way he delivered his ministry; not much was left to chance.

If we are the Church of Jesus Christ, then we, too, have the responsibility to be intentional in the delivery of our ministry.  That’s why strategic planning is of great importance.  We are on a journey.  As such, we need to map out that journey and plan where we want to go.  Strategic planning begins by asking four important questions:  Where have we been?  Where are we today?  Where do we want to go?  And, how long it will take us to get there?

There is one more important question that should be answered before a congregation engages in strategic planning:  If we were to close our doors today, what voice will not be heard?  This is a question about how relevant our ministry is to those around us. 

At UCCLM we hold annual strategic planning retreats.  Our first retreat began with members of Council, staff and other key leaders.  Today, the retreat is open to all members of the congregation with an interest in the future of the church.  Over 60 people actively participate in the process.  Over the past four years, our congregation has steadily grown in numbers and in programs.  We have experimented with a variety of worship experiences, engaged in the ONA process and developed goals and objectives for every church board.  We even called a new Associate Minister.  Everything we do is strategically planned and developed.

A side benefit of our strategic planning is financial.  UCCLM is one of the few churches in the Southern Association that has not had to reduce its budget during the current financial crisis.  In fact, we have increased our budget by an annual average of 10% for the last four years and are on track to meet our budget this year.  Overall, our pledges continue to increase and there is excitement about the ministry we deliver.

This is not to say we do not have spontaneity. As my seminary homiletics professor used to say, “You must write your sermon and then leave a blank space on the paper.  That’s for the Holy Spirit to speak.”  Ultimately, we hope that our planning process allows for the Spirit to move any way the Spirit wants.  In other words, there is fluidity in our planning process and we adapt as we go.  Another blessing of our planning process is the fact that we are not afraid of trying new things, even when the plan doesn’t work.

One of our members, Doug Brunson, put matters in perspective when he said, “Strategic planning is hard for most of us.  We can see problems that exist now and those tend to be our focus.  But all of us recognize our need to reach out to grow our membership to not only replace attrition but also to serve others who will be encouraged, helped, loved more by being part of us.  Strategic planning helps us set priorities…to understand what the various Boards are doing and how we are impacted by actions that others are undertaking.”

As one example, he pointed to some of the many jobs and questions our Boards would need to tackle if starting a second, non-traditional service:

• Diaconate – music selection and support, staffing (lay and ordained), order of service, time of services
• Christian Education – Will there be Sunday School and child care?  How do we staff and support the service?
• Trustees – Will we need to change the scheduling of utilities and the cleaning service?
• Membership and Fellowship – Do we need another coffee hour?  How do we support visitor follow-up?
• Media Subcommittee – How do we let people know about this new service?
• Stewardship and Finance:  What will it cost?  Can we afford it?

And that was just for starters.  Other goals, based on our Core Values, were:

• Share God’s word, stressing that the Bible is open to interpretation and that God is still speaking.  Spread that word, here and with our neighbors.
• Love people, all people, everywhere.
• Do no harm.
• Live our understanding of Christian values, showing our beliefs by our actions.  Be models of what it is to be Christian
• Make ourselves available (known) to everyone.
• Be advocates for justice.
• Meet community needs.
• Share our wealth.

So, how was this to be accomplished?  That, of course, is where the strategic plan – defined as – “a moral document stating “this is what is important” and spelling out “where we would like to go as a church” – comes into play. It should be alive, evolving, approached as one tries on clothes for a good fit.
We spoke of all accomplished “naturally” in the “family church” we were and wondered where, in our new incarnation, we’d find a comfortable middle ground between organization and organic growth.

A look at the results of three years of strategic planning produced this list:

• Membership growth
• Associate Pastor/Youth and Young Families
• Our “Summer Worship Experience” – a trial run for that 2nd Service!
• Diversity
• Youth mission trips – to Puerto Rico, Arkansas and Northern California
• Corporate planning
• Receiving members of New Creation UCC into membership when their church closed
• Receiving The Powell Award for inclusiveness
• Paving the parking lot
• Improvements in and greater presence at the Charley Brown Children’s Center
• UCCLM 101 – our membership class
• Sunday Morning Live – a new adult Christian Education program
• Weekly Bible study – A new approach and growth in attendance
• Expanded newsletter, Joys & Concerns
• Extensive Publicity
• Establishment of our Visitation Team
• New Sound system
• Ever-expanding Website
• More small groups
• Greater community involvement
• Board nights, when all Boards meet simultaneously
• Fair Trade sale
• Endowment fund and, of course,
• Strategic planning retreats

Among the suggestions for further growth were missions, relational groups, lay leadership, open accessibility, high visibility, parking, landscaping, additional space and, bolstering them all, solid financial resources.
The planning process calls for us to be visionary, to examine doubts, fears and contradictions slowing progress and to determine objectives and establish timelines for meeting and measuring them.  Suggestions for implementation included:

• Increase UCCLM presence at the Charley Brown Children’s Center
• Prepare a budget breakdown that clarifies how money is used
• Further opportunities to contribute financially — endowment programs, annuities, wills
• Expand faith-based projects and funding
• Develop short-term special interest  covenant groups

A lot to think about, a lot to do.  But, then, think what we’ve already accomplished.  In conclusion, our strategic planning process has empowered UCCLM to deliver effective ministry to our local community and beyond.

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