Monday, September 12, 2011

Retrosynthetic Analysis

One of the areas where churches are known for wasting time is in strategic planning.  Churches often develop a "five-year plan", only to have it gather dust on a shelf and be supplanted within three years by a new five-year plan.

I believe that strategic planning is incredibly important.  However, my approach to strategic planning was shaped by the two areas of my secular expertise: synthetic organic chemistry and software development.

What each of those two areas have in common is that you begin with a vision of the finished product and then work backwards, step-by-step, until you have the basic building blocks you need to create the finished product.  In organic chemistry, this was called "retrosynthetic analysis."  You start with a target molecule that you're trying to make.  You draw it on a blackboard and ask: what would I need to make it?  You analyze it and think: "If I had compound B and compound C, I could make A."  But then you need to make B and C.  So you analyze them and say: "if I had D & E, I could make B, and if I had F & G, I could make C."  You then keep working backwards, sometimes for a couple of dozen steps or more, until you get to basic compounds whose synthesis is already known or (better yet) can be purchased from a supplier.

This is how I think strategically about my church.  One advantage of this method is that it forces you to have a specific vision about where your church could be.  And I encourage you to make this be a BIG vision.  So big that you can't (at first) imagine how you'd get there - the point of the process is to create a pathway you hadn't imagined before.

In churches, there isn't a single vision for your church - the vision is an amalgam of visions for different program areas.  You may have a vision for worship, a vision for children and youth, a vision for mission, etc.  Together they form a vision for the church.  Working backwards from a large vision is the best way to foresee the route to get there, the resources you'll need, and the intermediate phases you'll pass through.

Let's look at how this could work for church school.  Let's say you're in a very small church but your vision for church school is a weekly average of 80 children.

The first question is: what would you need for a church school of 80 kids per week?  The answer might be: 6 classrooms, 18 volunteer staff, and a 1/2-time Christian Education director.  Does your church have 6 classrooms?  Maybe you do, but 2 of them are rented out or being used for something else.  Know that someday you'll need them back.

Then you ask: what would you need to get to 80?  Now the point of this exercise is that you don't know.  So the question really is: at what point would you be confident that you'll get to 80?  The answer might be: "40 - if we get to 40, there'll be no way to stop us from getting to 80."

So then you run the same questions: what does 40 look like?  The answer might be 4 classrooms and a volunteer Sunday School superintendent. 

When would you know for sure you could get to 40?  Maybe the answer is 20.  What does 20 look like?  Maybe it's 3 classes run by the Christian Education Committee.  When would you know you could get to 20?  Maybe it's when you have 6.  What does 6 look like?  One class with a dynamic teacher.

How do you get to 6?  Start with one family.  How do you get one family to stay?  Perhaps by convincing them that you have a vision.  And know that one family isn't just one family, it's the foundation for your future.

What do you gain by working this way?  Now that you've worked backwards from where you want to be to where you are, you can look forward one step at a time.  At the size of having only one family with kids, you have a vision to encourage them to stay and help build something significant.  And you know you need to be looking for that one great teacher.

At 6 kids, you know you need to be thinking about laying the groundwork for a multi-class structure and looking for a person who might be a volunteer superintendent.  And when you finally recruit that superintendent, you can do so with a limited mission: to grow the church school from 40 to 80.  Knowing that it is a closed-end assignment can make it easier to find the right person - and easier to avoid the problem of having a position outgrow the person. Quite often I've found myself looking for a transitional person, not a permanent solution. 

When you get to 40 kids you know you need to get those rented classrooms back.  No long-term rental agreements on your space!  

Now do these steps work infallibly?  Of course not!  There will be many mid-course corrections along the way.  And notice that there are no timelines on this plan.  Each phase happens as it happens.  But it keeps you thinking big, it keeps you aware of the intermediate progress you're making, and it keeps you looking out for what you're going to need next.

This method helped me clarify the first steps I needed to take in jump-starting our Adult Education program, our Stewardship program, and our Mission work.  Some of the steps have seemed small, but I know they're actually more significant than my people realize.

Too many pastors have the attitude that all they need to do is help the church take a step forward and then see where it takes them.  My contention is that motion without vision is how you walk into walls.  There is no such thing as leadership without vision.

And notice that this method doesn't work with vague, amorphous visions.  If your vision for your church only goes as far as words like "warm and fuzzy", this won't help you get there (since "there" isn't defined).  But this is a way to realize big, hairy, specific visions for your congregation.  My vision (and I hold it very close to the vest) actually starts with my retirement.  I'm 50.  By Social Security standards, I expect to retire at 67.  I have a vision for what I'll be leaving in the hands of my successor.  I've had that vision since about a year after I started here six years ago.  It took a year to get the vision.  Will I be here until retirement?  Maybe, maybe not.  When the congregation cannot or will not advance toward that vision any more - that will be my signal to leave.  So I can't guarantee that I'll get there, but I know what "there" looks like.

If you start with a vision - even a big vision - and plan backwards from your vision to where you are, you can see that what you thought was impossible is actually doable.  And isn't that what faith is about?

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Brief Rant...

As Hurricane Irene approached, I checked the websites of four decent-sized Presbyterian churches in our area to see what decision they had reached regarding worship services on that Sunday.  To my surprise, two of the churches had no mention of Irene through the entire weekend - despite learning through other means that they, like most every church in our area, had cancelled services for the safety of our congregants and at the request of local authorities who did not want non-essential cars on the road.

In this day and age, there is no excuse for a stagnant, out of date website.  Almost everyone who visits our church looked us up online before visiting.  Your site should look as if it gets an update of some kind every single week.  Period.  I don't know what you think is more important than updating your site, but it isn't. /rant off