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Wisdom for church planning

A sermon by Rod Benson

Proverbs 21:5

As a small child I lived for six years in Wollongong, an industrial city south of Sydney. Ours was the last block of land in the street to be built on. Some Sundays after church, we would go to the site and observe the progress: concrete foundations, plumbing, wooden beams, bricks, tiles, windowpanes, driveway, turf, established trees and shrubs from our old home at Robertson. And then we moved in.

I also observed my dad constructing paths and a drainage system, and a swing set for the back yard, and a large vegetable garden. Eventually there were also fruit trees – a lemon and a grapefruit tree. All of this took a lot of hard work, and an investment of resources, but above all it took careful, patient planning.

You have probably completed similar projects, large and small. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

When Jesus said to his disciples in the Upper Room, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (Jn 15:8), he didn’t expect them to sit around on lounge chairs after his departure, sipping pomegranate juice and waiting for the fruit to appear.

No, he expected hard, courageous, diligent, visionary effort. And he expected careful planning.

Proverbs 21:5 says, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.”

It took Jesus three years of diligent planning and preparation to get to the Upper Room. And before that he carefully chose 12 disciples. And before that, there was 30 years of physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual preparation (see, e.g., Lk 2:52).

Paul had a similar experience, both before and after his miraculous conversion on the Damascus Road. Without it, he would never have been able to achieve what he did, laying the foundation for church growth, doctrine and practice of which we are the beneficiaries today.

If the Son of God needed to embrace diligent planning to successfully accomplish his mission, and if Paul likewise required careful preparations for success in ministry, then so do we.

“The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” The key principle is diligence, determination, tenacity, willingness to expend significant effort, to acquire and deploy particular skills, and to release treasured resources in order to reach the goal.

So don’t be impulsive! Seek advice from other wise people. Plan to act ethically. Acknowledge that your plans are ultimately in the service of God, and must align with God’s will (cf Prov 16:1-3, 9, 33; 19:21; 20:24).

Notice also that the desired “profit” results not from clever words, or from money, skills, networks or past success, but simply from plans. Of course, planning is often far from simple. But it’s not rocket science. Good planning involves:

  • defining an objective or goals
  • establishing an overall strategy to achieve the goals
  • developing a comprehensive hierarchy of plans to integrate and coordinate activities. [1]

Good planning prevents poor performance. Lots of things have to go right in order to deliver success – whether you’re starting a new work project, planning an enjoyable holiday, cooking a beautiful meal, or growing a healthy church. But if all goes well, aligned with God’s will, then it’s going to be awesome!

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis compares our life experience, and our decision-making, to a fleet of ships sailing in formation:

The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long.

On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid having collisions … But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account.  We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to …

And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.[2]

There is a great deal of godly ethical wisdom in that quote from Lewis. Three things are necessary if I am to arrive safely at my goal:

I should plan the right actions, and follow the plan, just as there may be rules stating that it is wrong for a ship to obstruct or collide with other ships if the voyage is to proceed well. I should evaluate the results of my plan on the basis of criteria such as a desired goal, just as a ship’s direction and destination matter if it is to reach a desired port. And as I do this, I should take care to shape a good moral character, just as the engines and steering gear of a ship must be well maintained if it is to do what ships are designed to do.[3]

Planning is so important to success, and to faithfulness. Planning establishes the basis for all the other things we do as we organise, lead and control the activities that help us arrive at our chosen destination.

Not everything we do requires formal planning, but the most important things always do. Good outcomes don’t fall from the sky: someone usually plans and organises, leads and controls.

Good planning also has many other benefits:

  • it gives direction to workers (whether paid or unpaid)
  • it fosters teamwork and coordinated activity
  • it reduces uncertainty, forcing leaders and managers to look ahead, anticipate change, and develop appropriate responses
  • it reduces waste, either in labour or in duplication/overlap
  • it establishes goals and standards that facilitate effective control: have the plans been carried out? Have the goals been met? If not, what needs to change?

But planning isn’t a magic bullet. Sometimes planning creates rigidity, and locks you into a pattern or project that becomes counter-productive. All of our plans need to allow flexible responses to changing environments.

Nor can plans replace the intuition and creativity that births vision and inspires cooperation. Formal plans may reduce vision to routine, and lead to disaster. That’s why we need wise leaders. Planning should support and foster intuition and creativity, not replace it.

Planning also tends to focus attention on existing opportunities, rather than on what might be. In your planning, don’t concentrate only on tapped opportunities, but on untapped.

Finally, planning reinforces success, which may sound good but may lead to failure. The adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” can work against you, and thrust you off-course, in a rapidly changing environment. Take some risks. Cast the net wide. Do things differently.

In an interview on leadership, Dr Derek Tidball, former Principal of London School of Theology, was asked what he would do differently if he were starting out his leadership journey today. He said he would seek a mentor; and, using the image of a sailor steering a boat, he would handle the tiller differently. He said:

Most leadership is not about grand plans and great visions but day-to-day decisions; hence having the hand on the tiller is an appropriate metaphor. It’s vital to know when to push an issue and stand firm and when to let matters go as unimportant.

Most of us have the temptation to be overly dogmatic about non-essentials rather than following in the footsteps of [the New Testament church leader] Barnabas and keeping our eye on ‘the grace of God’ at work.[4]

Good planning makes a good pilot and a good voyage. There’s a reason why we don’t hear about most people, churches and businesses that don’t invest well in good planning: they falter, they fade, they fail.

Like the foolish person mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, who built his house on a foundation of sand, they sink without trace (Mt 7:24-27).

“The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” Plan to be wise – in your personal life, in marriage and family life, in business and professional life, and especially in church life, for the glory of God.


Sermon 656 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 14 February 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Stephen Robbins et al, Management: The Essentials (Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Australia, 2012), pp. 86-87.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 56-57.

[3] Based on Gilbert C. Meilaender, Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) 90-91.

[4] Brian Harris, The Tortoise Usually Wins: Biblical Reflections on Quiet Leadership for Reluctant Leaders (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2013), p. 34.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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