Prince Raney Rivers: Why are we planning instead of ministering?

A plan can become an idol. Yet the planning process itself can be transformational.

“Why are we doing this anyway?”

That’s not the question I wanted to hear after giving an update on our strategic planning process.  It was, however, the question I needed to hear. 

The process has been time consuming and labor intensive.  Initially, I envisioned a simple, streamlined process to enable the church to establish shared ministry and mission priorities.  For good reasons, the process has been stretched along the way like a pair of new shoes.  We are better off as a result of the changes we’ve made, but we also created more committees and held more meetings than we initially anticipated.

So, why are we doing this?  The question was asked out of a sense that we should be doing the work instead of planning to do the work.  It’s hard to argue against that.  I confess that I sometimes worry about becoming legalistic in our planning and ignoring the hurting and marginalized because their needs don’t fit into our timeline. 

When Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, Luke says that a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years (13:10-17).  She was bent over and could not straighten up.  When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”  The synagogue ruler became indignant with Jesus because he had healed on the Sabbath.  He didn’t mind Jesus’ healing ministry.  He just wanted Jesus to do it later.  A plan, even a plan to serve God, can become an idol that keeps us from seeing where God is at work right now. 

So why haven’t we pulled the plug and scrapped the plans?  I can find plenty of anecdotal evidence that churches are doing less strategic planning than they were ten years ago.  I recently read an article critiquing the way in which we often put planning ahead of praying.  We can end up with plans that are more self-aggrandizing than they are Spirit-led. 

Planning is time-consuming and certainly not fool-proof, but halfway through the process I am a firm believer in the benefits.   One of the greatest benefits I’ve seen is not so much the unfolding plan itself with its specific goals, timelines and measurable outcomes.  The greatest benefit has been the process. 

In traditional churches, there is often little space to create conversations around the question posed to me.  Why are we doing this anyway?  Programs, events and committees are often layered on top of one another year after year and no one knows why we’re doing what we’re doing.  We just do it because we’ve always done it. 

I don’t know what your experience with strategic planning has been, but I am hopeful that we will look back in a few years and realize our planning was not merely strategic, but transformational.  My prayer is that every meeting and committee will be an opportunity for God to reveal a larger vision of what the church can be as we commit ourselves to holiness, justice and love.  That’s why I am doing this.

I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.