A Road Map for Ministry
By Mark D. Burkhardt, Director for Outdoor Ministries, ELCA
What are the unique needs of your constituent congregations and communities? Does your outdoor ministry organization know what kinds of programs and services it wants to offer in the next few years? What are the financial, facility and staff resources it will take to accomplish these programs and services? Have you identified who you might collaborate with in order to accomplish your goals? What benchmarks will your board use to measure progress? These are the kind of critical questions that a growing number of outdoor ministry boards are using to intentionally plan for the future of their organizations.
One of the most challenging and fulfilling things I do these days is to work with boards to develop a strategic plan for ministry. One of the reasons the planning process is so challenging is that boards face the temptation of trying to meet the needs of everyone. The planning process forces a board and staff to assess available resources and make some hard choices about what can be accomplished realistically in a limited period of time. Resistance to planning can also arise out of a fear that the process will stifle the creative spirit. In fact, I believe planning does just the opposite—it empowers people to think creatively. A good plan helps to focus the resources of the organization on a particular area of ministry and, at the same time, allows for creative responses to emerge.
So where does a board start? It starts with a commitment. Planning isn’t that difficult, but it does take a significant commitment of time and energy. While it’s possible for a board and staff to guide themselves through the planning process, it’s often helpful to use the services of an outside consultant or facilitator. A good planning consultant will help to manage the process and free up board members and staff to focus on identifying the critical issues and strategic goals. Planning consultants are often skilled professionals who work for a fee. Some consultants are professional leaders from the church or nonprofit world with planning experience who may work for an honorarium and expenses.
The planning process usually takes about six months if managed effectively. It involves a careful analysis of the constituency and service area, including some significant opportunities for listening and information gathering. A thorough assessment of the organization's strengths and weaknesses should also be completed, especially an analysis of financial and program participation trends. A summary of these findings is then provided to the board for discussion, preferably in a relaxed retreat setting. With the help of a skilled facilitator, a board can usually develop a basic plan using a two-day retreat format. Additional details can be added to the plan at a later date. Finally, the board should formally adopt the plan as the organization's guiding document.
A well-written plan usually guides the life of an organization for a period of 3-5 years. We used to talk about 5-10 year strategic plans. Now it's 3-5 years. Change happens more quickly today—demographics are shifting rapidly, populations are more mobile, economies can swing drastically overnight, and modern technology leaps forward every few months. A shorter plan with more rapid response times increases the odds of staying in tune with the people, churches and communities being served.
Once the plan is adopted, it becomes the road map for the organization. Responsibility for each goal is assigned to a board committee, task force or staff member. Major decisions about the allocation of resources are made using the plan as a guide. The plan helps the board and staff focus their efforts more effectively and provides time lines for accomplishing goals. Whenever the board meets, it needs to set aside time to measure the progress of the organization against the plan and make necessary adjustments.
The real benefit of planning is the energy and focus that it brings to a ministry. I often encounter outdoor ministries that seem to be doing a lot of good things, but they lack focus and direction. The board struggles in knowing how to allocate resources and staff members seem scattered in their efforts to respond to a variety of needs. Some outdoor ministries are simply going through the motions, repeating the same cycle of activities year-after-year with no real thought as to how the world is changing around them. In situations like these, board members and staff are more likely to grow tired, frustrated or lose their enthusiasm for ministry.
Outdoor ministries that engage in an intentional planning process significantly increase their capacity to respond to the needs of their constituency. They are better able to concentrate their efforts in areas of maximum impact. They become better stewards of the resources with which they have been blessed.
Is your ministry lacking focus and direction? Does your organization need a blast of new energy? Try the planning process—it works!
For more information on strategic planning resources, contact the ELCA Outdoor Ministries office. 1-800/638-3522, ext. 2593.