Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The art of open-handed planning

I’m sitting here at my desk and going over a document entitled Our Saviour’s long-range strategic plan. It is a rather lofty document carefully crafted to ensure solid numerical and spiritual growth here in our small church.
And it was never fully implemented.

That’s supposed to bug me. A lot. And just a few years ago, I think it would have. After all, I myself spent dozens upon dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of hours researching and preparing this plan. It is based upon observation of the character and needs of the community. It takes into account the present state of our church and what we are presently able to accomplish. It has specific, simple, measurable goals and targets that are broken down into smaller simple, measurable goals and targets. The goals have timeframes attached to them. The big picture of the plan reaches out into the community as well as shores up the spiritual maturity of our present members. I tell you without hesitation and with pardonable pride that this is a textbook example of a solid church plan.

But it never got to the point of being fully implemented.

You know the reasons why it didn’t: Life happened. “Man plans, God laughs.” That sort of thing. Things got messy and unpredictable. Unemployment in the area skyrocketed from pretty bad to just plain horrific. The housing market collapsed and foreclosures set in. Local industry was paralyzed both by scandal as well as Detroit’s inability to sell enough vehicles. Add to that a church financial panic as well as a dash of church conflict, and the grand master capital-P Plan is tossed like a coin into a drawer of well-wishing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought that the plan had been tossed. But it hadn’t been. Not really. Because the plan was still there. And as I go over it, I realize we learned something about church planning we hadn’t known before.

On the plan there were new ministries to be started. A few were birthed, a few have matured and are now running on their own, and a few died before they ever saw the light of day. But here’s what interested me the most: in the place of those planned but now-dead ministries a few other ministries were conceived. God-ordained circumstances in both our community and our church prevented us from doing a few specific things that we had planned on being extremely important, and in the end led us into doing other things that are now bearing fruit for His Kingdom.

What happened when we set aside the master plan last year was amazing: Along the way we unintentionally learned the art of open-handed planning. We had prayed over the plan, we had crafted the plan, we had presented the plan and we had agreed to work the plan. And then God changed the plan.

If we would have stubbornly held on to the grand, master capital-P Plan and insisted God follow our lead, this church would have tanked. And yes, I’m serious about that. I believe it’s entirely possible that we would have closed our doors if we had insisted upon following our plan and demanded God follow our lead.

But instead of clinging to our plan, we clung to another more precious piece of paper: God’s Word. And there we found that in the midst of a veritable manure-storm called life God still has His plan. For us. For our community. Rather than fight God, we learned (again, unintentionally!) to sway with His wind, to go with His tide, to live by His seasons. In other words, we learned to hold everything—even our plan!!—with an open hand so that God could take away what He desired to take away, but so that He might also give what He desired to give. And the curious thing was that, in the end, we found that He still gave us some of the desires of our hearts, but according to His will and timetable, not ours.

Open-handed planning is a bear, I’m not going to kid you about that. All of the up-front effort of research and prayer and the hard, hard work of crafting and tweaking and re-tweaking a plan to be just so must still be done because, after all, there are no shortcuts to arriving at a good plan. But when you plan with an open hand, you reserve the right for God to be God alone, for Him to act with or without your advice, without your input, without your plan. When He acts, you must be prepared to set or even cast aside entire portions of your precious plan in order to follow His lead.

What does this ultimately mean? When a church practices open-handed planning, God will get the credit for what happens in His church. The church acknowledges that they thought they had a good plan, but God one-upped them with a better one. And the church takes their proper position as God’s servants.

Good, open-handed planning is an artful joining of solid strategic planning and a confident faith in the God who holds not only today in His hands but tomorrow, as well. To me, that sounds like the perfect approach for a church.


  1. Anonymous9:11 PM

    God be praised for your reverence for His word (this statement reminds me of the "tremble" of Isaiah 66:2) and for your demonstrable growth in grace (cf. 1 Timothy 4:15). Grace to you as you continue to serve the Master on the other corner of town!

  2. Isn't it exciting (and a bit scary) when God does that to our carefully-made plans?! A church living by faith - who'd'ave thought?