February 3, 2021

How to Plan for the Future in Uncertain Times – Episode 179 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

plan for future in uncertain times

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It’s challenging to plan for the future when we’re facing so many questions and so much disruption. But you don’t have to wait for certainty to get clarity about where you’re heading as a church

You don’t have to wait for the vaccine or bipartisan support before you dig into these questions and start strategically planning for your church’s future.

In other words, you can establish who you are, get your foundation set, and start to talk about where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. You can develop an action plan and help your team understand exactly where they need to be focusing their time and energy. Your team needs that clarity. Your church needs that clarity. And you need that clarity too. 

It can happen right now without knowing what the future landscape looks like. 

This week is the final conversation in our series on How to Build a Hybrid Church. We’ve looked at how to balance in-person and digital ministry strategy, financial planning, and staff health. Today, we’re diving into how to plan for the future in times of uncertainty.

In this week’s episode, Amy Anderson and I talk through some practical planning strategies and address: 

  • 5 top reasons churches get stuck
  • 5 questions your church leadership team needs to answer 
  • How to create clarity in uncertain times 

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  2. What stories can you share of ways churches are responding well during this crisis and focusing on opportunities instead of loss?

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Of all the skills that you need to be a good leader, leading in uncertainty is normally not even on your radar until you’re forced into it. For most of us, the last year has been a crash course in developing that ability, but we still have a ways to go. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy discuss how to plan for the future when everything seems so uncertain around us. If you want to maximize your podcast experience today, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. Each week, you’ll get one email with a leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive, and some bonus resources that you’re not going to find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation on planning for the future in uncertain times.

Amy (00:55):

This is the final conversation, a series of podcasts to help churches think about next steps after surviving 2020. And I wasn’t sure how to plan for today’s conversation because I was uncertain about what our circumstances would be today. See what I did there, Tony?

Tony (01:09):

Yeah. That’s well played. I mean, but we have to have a plan, right? Otherwise we would just be sitting here chitchatting and no one would want to hear the podcast. But you’re right. It’s challenging to plan for the future in times of uncertainty, but in tomorrow’s masterclass, we’re going to unpack why we need to do that. And maybe how we engage that. This is an important topic. We don’t have to wait for certainty to get clarity about where we’re heading as a church. In other words, we can establish who we are. We can make sure the foundation is set. We can start to talk about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. In other words, we can set our direction and, this is key, we can prioritize what we need to do today. We can, we can develop an action plan and we can help our team understand exactly where they need to be focusing their time and energy. And let me just tell you this, your team needs that clarity, your church needs that clarity and in fact, you need that clarity. I mean, this is part of—haven’t you had these moments in these last number of months where you’ve sat down in your desk and wondered, what am I doing and why am I even doing that and doing anything in this season? Because it just feels like there’s just so much disruption, so many questions. Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty, but we can have clarity about the next steps we’re trying to take. And so if you’ve been waiting for certainty before you plan, it’s going to be a long, long, wait, Amy, we need, we need to begin planning today.

Amy (02:48):

I think, I think that’s, I agree with you. And I think it’s easy to say, but I think many churches that find themselves stuck right now, especially after all that we experienced in 2020, I think they’re wondering where to begin planning for the future, especially when they’re, when so many things changed, when so many things changed that were beyond their control.

Tony (03:09):

Yeah. Well, let’s do this. Let me take you back in time. So, and many, many, in many cases we want to do this, so let’s go back to 2019, maybe January, February before all that. Yeah, those were beautiful times, weren’t they? But let’s go back there. You know, at that point, The Unstuck Group had served nearly 500 churches through the years. And what we found was this, there were commonly five reasons that churches got stuck. There were some others, but these were the top five. Let me run through these real quick here. And then I think we’re gonna unpack them here in a moment. A lack of mission and vision clarity. That was one reason that church got stuck. Another reason, very common, they had become inward focused over time with no strategies to reach new people. A third reason churches got stuck—there was a failure to clarify their discipleship strategy. So there was no plan for spiritual formation. Once people connected to the church and committed their lives to Jesus. Complexity was the fourth reason. And you can think about it in terms of complexity and programming—ministry programming at the church—or, and or complexity and decision-making, which made it challenging for churches to move forward. And Lord knows, we’ve dealt with that many times as we’ve engaged with churches. And then the fifth reason that we commonly saw churches getting stuck was because leadership. And here, I would say, especially the senior pastors leadership, the senior pastor was not empowered to lead. And honestly, that challenge was more common in some of the smaller or mid-sized churches that we worked with. But here’s the good news. You don’t have to wait for a vaccine to address any of those issues. You don’t have to wait for bipartisan support. You know, we don’t have to wait for the Democrats and the Republicans to agree on this. You don’t have to wait for the Cleveland Browns to win a super bowl at we’re going to be waiting at least one more year. Amy, I’m sad. It was fun while it lasted. It was fun. Yeah. You don’t have to wait for giving to increase at your church to address these. Getting unstuck begins by addressing the things that we can control rather than waiting for certainty around the things we can’t control.

Amy (05:41):

Very well said. So let’s take that a step further. What are some key questions that need to be answered in order to help churches get unstuck in those five areas?

Tony (05:51):

Yeah, so, getting clarity about what we know will help our churches get unstuck and have a greater kingdom impact. And I think there’s opportunity around each of those five. So let’s take them one at a time beginning with clarifying mission and vision. Here I think you and your team need to come to agreement on some of these key questions, like what’s our purpose. Why do we exist as a ministry? What’s God calling us to in the future? And I liked the way in the last episode, Amy, you kind of said, pretend as if you already are in the future. Talk in present day terms about this is where we are today. This is what we, what we experience. And I think that’s a beautiful way of thinking and praying through and dreaming about what God has for your church. Another key question related to clarifying mission and vision is as addressing this, how will we know whether or not we’re winning with our mission? And you know, that I think is, it’s just, uh, it seems to be an obvious question, but too many times we just see churches kind of going through the motions of doing church. And, because Sunday’s always coming, I get it. I mean, that consumes our time and our ministry effort. But at some point we need to step back and ask God, what are you really hoping to accomplish through our ministry? What’s the kingdom impact that you’re hoping to see through our church? And so getting clarity about what the win really is for our mission, I think is critical.

Amy (07:25):

Can I just jump in, as you were saying that, mission and vision, there’s often a lot of confusion around those phrases. And I think the key, as you were saying that about vision, if church, if churches have a vision statement, you do not have a vision. You know, we say it all the time, it’s that specific picture of the future. How many people have begun a relationship with Christ? How many hours have you served in your community? What impact have you made? And you can’t capture that in a statement. And so if you have a statement for your mission and a statement for your vision time to get back to the hard work of really creating that preferred future for your church. Sorry I jumped in. All right. So let’s jump to number two, where you’re talking about really reaching new people in and moving externally focused instead of internally.

Tony (08:14):

Yeah. So again, the reason, the second reason we talked about that churches get stuck is because they become inward focused over time. And I don’t think any church intentionally tries to do this Amy, but they just naturally drift in that direction over time. And so the response, again, we don’t have to wait for the pandemic to go away. We don’t have to wait for the vaccine. There’s we can bring clarity to some of these areas today. And in this case, it begins with defining what does that reach strategy look like for our church. And some of the key questions that we need to address in order to bring some clarity to that reach strategy include these questions—Where has God placed our church? Again, we’re trying to define mission field. Within that mission field, who should we be focused on reaching? What’s important to the people that we’re trying to reach? You know, what are some of the opportunities they’re facing their lives? What are some of the challenges that they’re trying to overcome? And Amy, you and I were just talking again this morning, the more specific you can get around the questions that people are asking about opportunities and challenges in their lives, I think it, it helps us to better define then what our ministry outreach strategies need to look like. And then what’s our ministry strategy as a church to engage people in our mission field? And we’ve talked about this a number of times in recent months, but thinking about that spiritual journey that people go on, go on from being not interested to becoming spiritually curious to becoming followers of Jesus, to being discipled, and eventually we want people to become disciple makers. We’ve talked about this a number of times, how in most churches, what we see is the ministry strategy is just focus on steps three and four in that spiritual journey. And so somehow we, I think we need to be considering every step that we want people to take. And this reach strategy really focuses on the very beginning of that spiritual journey. How do we connect with people? How do we engage with people? How do we start to help them take steps around some of those key opportunities and challenges that they’re facing in their lives?

Amy (10:39):

Yeah, I think too many times we think that, well, if we just do church really well for our regulars, they’re going to go out and reach people and, you know, introduce them to Christ. And I just think we have to, we have to really step back and think through how as a church do we prepare people and how do we come alongside people? And how do we become a place that actually is attractive to those people that are outside the church? So, well, you know, I like that one a lot, so I could talk about it for a bit now.

Tony (11:06):

Yeah. So that, does bring us to the third opportunity for bringing clarity for our church. And that’s around confirming our discipleship strategy. And so, again, you would think this would just be something that every church would have in place, because we are about making disciples. It is core to our mission as a church, but again, many, in many cases, we find this hasn’t been clarified. And so key questions that you might want to address here with your team. We think you should address include how do we help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. How do we help people grow in Christ? How do we help people produce more disciple makers? How do we, how do we help disciples become disciple makers. And Amy, I mean, you just suggested as churches, we should have reached strategies to engage people outside the church and outside the faith. But if our discipleship strategy is effective, if it’s doing what I think God has designed the church to do, to encourage people, to take steps of faith, ultimately we’re going to be producing disciple makers. And they also will be on mission individually to engage with people outside the church and outside the faith. And so this is where there really should be overlap between our reach strategy and our discipleship strategy. But it is, it’s a place where many churches just don’t have clarity.

Amy (12:37):

That’s right. That’s right. It should be a loop, right. As we become disciples and disciple makers, then we’re engaged in reaching others. Alright, so the fourth, the fourth, most common reason churches got stuck was around complexity. You said in programming and decision-making what are some key questions there?

Tony (12:55):

So yeah, the key questions in order to reduce complexity include what do we need to prune to focus on the things that are most important to helping us accomplish our mission and vision. And here’s the good news. The pandemic ,COVID, has really encouraged pruning. I mean, it’s just been almost impossible for churches to do everything that they used to do before we came into this season of COVID. And so you can just blame COVID for some of the necessary pruning that needs to happen, and people are going to understand that. But this is, this is an opportunity to prune back and to bring more focus to your ministry strategy. Another key question is how can we streamline governance? And decision-making so that we’re mobilizing people to engage more in ministry. And going back to some conversation that we had before the holidays, Sean and I did a couple of podcasts specifically on governance, and I was sharing the story of one church that had a board and 39 other committees in those podcasts. This, this is a time that we can bring more clarity and streamline our governance so that we don’t have people meeting and talking about ministry, but rather more people actually engaged in ministry.

Amy (14:20):

You know when I work on decision rights with churches, Tony, we often talk about a common decision right is majority vote, right?You know, we’ll, we’ll all vote and see which one is the best one. And we’ll go with that. And I often say it actually creates less buy-in, that decision right. Because there’s so many more losers than there are winners, but it’s amazing to me how many churches are still having majority vote as a decision right. Yeah. It just echoes why it’s stuck. Alright. Number five about leaders, what kind of questions do we have to ask there?

Tony (14:54):

So here are the key questions are, how can we give freedom to our senior pastor and our ministry staff to use their leadership gifting to the fullest? And how can we continue to raise up the next generation of leaders in our church? And this, uh, Amy, I may have mentioned it earlier. It seems that, you know, and not all cases, do we see a distinction between smaller churches and larger churches, but this seems to the bigger area for churches that are smaller, that causes them to get stuck is they view people in leadership roles as controlling people rather than empowering people. And so somehow, especially in smaller churches, we need to address those key questions that I just mentioned, but it’s less about control. It’s more about empowering leaders to use their leadership gift. And again, related to all five of these areas, we don’t have to wait for the pandemic to be behind us to get more clarity in these areas. We can establish intentional strategies today. So, and by the way, that’s what healthy churches are doing right now. We’re having conversations with healthy churches that are engaging these types of conversations. They’re bringing more clarity. And even in the midst of these days where no doubt about it, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what tomorrow might look like. These healthy churches are moving forward in the season as well. And Amy, I think one of the churches that you mentioned you’ve had the opportunity to work with through the pandemic has been Venture Church. I think they’re in California. Is that correct? So can you share a little bit about how they’re taking steps in this area to move forward?

Amy (16:41):

Yeah, well, they were like every other church out there in may like, Oh my goodness, like what, what do we do next? How do we respond? But they had already kicked off the unstuck process. And so I was up next to do their planning retreat. And the pastor was just like, I don’t know if this is the right time for us to do this. And we just continued the conversation. You know, we gave all of our churches, like, we’re not going to talk to you for two weeks, like figure out kind of the emergency things. But through the conversation, you know, we just both settled on this is the absolute right time to continue planning because we need to get ahead of where is God leading us? How do we process everything that’s going? And for them, it was number one, this, this clarifying mission and vision, their mission was clear, but it’s a church it’s about six years old and they’ve had an amazing first six years. But he actually said in our early conversations, like we can’t just rest here. And he said, I’ve never been very good at vision. And I think we need a fresh vision. And so that’s where that team really dug in. And once they had clarity on their destination, I mean their action initiatives that they’re going after this year, in fact, they’ve gotten, they’ve got something, they call Love the 760. I hope I said that right. But that’s their area code. And they are fueling thousands, tens of thousands of hours into their community because they had that, that clarity came and then they just moved into action.

Tony (18:01):

I love stories and that’s not the only story. I mean, we could go on and on of churches that we’ve been working with over the last number of months that they’re not waiting, they’re just, they’re just, they’re leaning in, they’re locking arms together and they’re moving forward in the midst of this. And it’s fun to watch how teams respond to that kind of leadership. And especially in seasons like this, where there’s so much uncertainty around us, but we’re seeing churches that in the midst of all this are thriving because their leadership understands the priority of continuing to move forward.

Amy (18:37):

I had to laugh when you started this podcast and you said, you know, if the lead pastor is sitting in his desk and wondering, you know, what they should be doing, I find most pastors are wondering what everybody else is doing because programs have been pruned. So if you think your staff is idle, they need that vision. You know, they can’t wait to roll up their sleeves. All right, well, let’s wrap this up. Tony, why should churches plan for the future and pursue clarity, even when so much uncertainty exists in the world around us?

Tony (19:06):

Yeah. So, it’s funny. I went back and looked at some of the content that you and I created at the very beginning of this pandemic. And one of the key themes in that content was even in this season of crisis, you need to have alignment on your team. Everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction. And one of the key ways that you get to alignment is when you get clarity on these five key areas that we talked about in today’s conversation. When you get that, you’ll notice everyone will begin to pull in the same direction. And frankly, ministry is just more fun when everybody knows this is why we exist. This is where we’re going. These are the wins that we’re pursuing together. These are the initiatives that we’re prioritizing as a team when everybody knows the answers to those key things, ministry is just more fun. And I’ve been a part of teams like that with that type of clarity, Amy, I know you have as well, but more important than the fun factor in all of that is there’s more kingdom impact that occurs when everybody is aligned. I love Paul’s challenge to the church in Corinth. He said it this way, “I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ to live in harmony with each other, let there be no divisions in the church, rather be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.” It’s about getting that alignment right about who we are in Christ and then our mission together as a church and the church needs type of reminder again today, Amy.

Amy (20:49):

Especially today. Yeah. Well, Tony, great stuff today. Any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (20:57):

Yeah, again, tomorrow’s a big day because we’re going to go a lot deeper on not only planning in times of uncertainty, but a few other key topics. And it’s all related to our masterclass tomorrow, which is on, it’s called your church survived 2020… now what? And the focus tomorrow will be on for these four key questions—how do we build a hybrid church? How do we staff and structure and find team health, given everything that we’ve experienced in the last year? How do we find financial health, when I know a number of churches are struggling financially in the season? And then again, we’ll go deeper on the conversation that we started today about planning for the future in times of uncertainty. So if these topics are similar to the questions that you’re talking about now with your team, I invite you to join us. I invite you to have your team with you in this conversation, and you can register for that masterclass tomorrow. You can register at theunstuckgroup.com/masterclass.

Sean (22:03):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony just mentioned, don’t forget to sign up now to be a part of the upcoming masterclass focused on all the new realities that we’re facing in ministry in 2021. You can learn more about the content and sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/masterclass. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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