Setting the Sail of Strategic Thinking

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” – William Arthur Ward

A mile-wide tornado with sustained winds of over 210-mph recently plowed through the suburbs of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 51 people, including 9 children. Expert meteorologists estimate the energy released by the category-5 tornado to have reached 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb!  A household of four including a newborn infant was listed as among those who lost their lives in the climactic tragedy. Officials report that the family misguidedly took shelter in a large freezer chest!

High profile discussion concerning tornado protection, and the adjuvant debate over the need for costly specialized storm shelters, community bunkers, and/or private safe rooms, predictably emerges whenever media-rich municipal calamities occur. While the public airing of such politically charged arguments are a vital component of systematically addressing unexpected tragedies, the broader topics of strategic thinking and proactive planning as a defense against predictable social hazards are quite another.

Despite their location in one of America’s tornado-prone regions, most mid-west suburbs do not require contractors to include storm bunkers or safe-rooms in their public or private buildings projects. Nonetheless, Oklahoma State Representative Mark McBride insists that the deaths caused by the recent deadly whirlwinds will inevitably force an important re-examination of local ordinances. Additionally, serious discussions have already begun with Congress to determine if and who should be required to incur the high cost of constructing such shelters.

Whatever legal resolutions are finally established, the heartrending fatalities in Oklahoma stress anew the value of long-term planning and the high price that a state, institution, or individual pays for its neglect. At issue is not whether governmental agencies should provide bunkers for their citizenry, but, if in fact, religious, business, and political leaders are willing to employ the discipline of strategic thinking to proactively minimize the impact of tempests that unexpectedly bear down upon their respective enterprises.

At issue is the optional difference between reaction and pre-emptiveness. Does the contemporary context esteem strategic thinking and its subsequent long-term formulations, or has the length of society’s spyglass shortened to the point of reluctance when invited to extend to more complex concentrations? According to the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, “if one does not know to which port they are sailing, no wind is favorable.” In other words, if a distinctive course of action has not been proactively selected, any logistical bunker-minded adjustments in response to contextual cyclones will inevitably prove futile.

Unfortunately, when it comes to more difficult societal issues, one currently observes hesitancy, at worse, a hardheaded unwillingness by many leaders to pursue the sonorous process of strategic thinking to determine the most suitable passage to future ports. As a result, America is gradually becoming a nation that prefers immediate gratifications, evidenced in the reckless approach to debt spending, consumer behavior, moral issues, and regional climactic accommodations. It appears that society prefers responding to problems with a bunker mentality rather than setting the more difficult strategic sail. What is required to annul this unhealthy drift is the thoughtful restoration of a discipline to which much of ancient wisdom prescribes, namely, strategic thinking!

Storm shelters have existed in Oklahoma for generations as family safeguards for surviving the sudden perils of lethal whirlwinds. These underground retreats, however, were originally intended to serve as root sellers and not bunkers.  They were designed for keeping wine and food supplies at a low temperature and steady humidity and not as a defense system against the shrapnel of wind propelled lumber, bricks, and roof trusses. As such, investing time and energy in digging out such strategic hollows required tenacity and forethought. It necessitated the decision to exchange the risky games of “Jeopardy” and “Chance” with the more secure orderliness of long-term reasoning.

Business and philanthropic organizations have, for years, enjoyed the benefits of such Oklahoma-styled sensibilities to update the root cellars that proactively regulate the condition of their goals and objectives. Unfortunately, many religious leaders have been reluctant to adopt similar methods. Explanations for this miss-guided attitude include a lack of business training, the belief that long-term forecasting is not biblical, and/or that it indicates a religious leader’s lack of faith. Nonetheless, religious organizations may actually benefit from instituting a more objective, systematic, and metric-based planning approach.  Rather than “bunkering down” whenever pastoral, financial and other societal windstorms catch them off guard, these groups may more wisely shape and defend their future interests by setting a proactive sail.

At a minimum, strategic thinking spawns long-term navigational charts by which religious organizations can visualize where they are going and how to more prudently set their sails for the advent of strong contrarian winds. By doing so, churches, synagogues, and other religious communities can realize the same benefits enjoyed by profit and philanthropic entities. Fortunately, an increasing number of religious organizations are presently applying these principles to purposefully mobilize and protect their respective ministry aspirations.

The following three verses cited from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs encourages strategic thinking and the prudent planning its wise counsel engenders. In fact, King Solomon, the author of Proverbs, warns that a bunker mentality, caused by a lack of vision, actually places people at grave risk (Proverbs 29:18).

  1. “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors, they are established.” (Proverbs 15:22)
  2. “Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may be wise in your latter days.” (Proverbs 19:20)
  3. “Plans are established by counsel: by wise counsel wage war.” (Proverbs 20:18)

Refusal by many religious institutions to utilize the protocols of strategic thinking has caused fraction and frustration among their more younger professional constituents. As indicated by many local and national surveys, the “bunker mentality” is actually the perceived reason for the inability of Faith-based entities to meet the ministry needs of their adherents. The problems associated with the decline of membership, financial contributions, attendance, and overall engagement, have all been shown to have a direct correlation to this lack of objective and more relevant reasoning.

The elements of strategic thinking and long-term planning should, therefore, be seriously considered by leaders of religious organizations to stem this negative trend. Such a comprehensive method should include: (a) the assessment and revitalization of mission and vision, (b) accurate identification of community needs, (c) modeling of future scenarios, (d) development of SMART goals, (e) formulation of suitable plans, strategies, and tactics, (f) evaluation and refinement of implementation, (g) management of human, capital and financial resources, and (h) the honest and progressive communication of outcomes.

Published results from several studies (Kegin, 1991; Clinton, Williamson, & Stevens, 1995; Malphurs, 2006; Marshall, 2006) as well as the National Council of Churches (2006) indicate the following statistical benefits of adhering to the aforementioned strategic methodology:

  1. Currently, 80% of North American religious organizations are on the downside of their life cycles. Strategic thinking/planning positively reverse this trend.
  2. Strategic thinking/planning positively affect overall financial conditions.
  3. While larger religious institutions are more likely to engage in strategic or long-range planning, its benefits are also enjoyed by small entities willing to fully engage the process.
  4. The leadership perception of local leaders (pastor, rabbi, etc.) of a religious institution is greatly enhanced when they are seen as the primary person relied upon to provide direction and leadership in the planning and decision making process.
  5. Strategic thinking positively influences the engagement level of constituents.
  6. Strategic thinking/planning positively enhances the perception of the greater community towards individual religious organizations.
  7. When vision and outward relationships become secondary to the protection of internal ministry structures and leadership legacies, the life cycle of a religious organization will begin a downward slope.

According to numerous reports, over 85% of North American religious groups have increased their previous institutional metrics using strategic planning to reaffirm their identity, direction, and strategies in ways that allow them to more effectively advance their respective mission. On the other hand, 59% of the religious leaders whose institutional levels have remained stagnant or are in a declining spiral, neglected, falsified data, or intentionally overruled the entire strategic process! Despite these and other assured results, far too many religious organizations cavalierly disregard the discipline of such strategic reasoning. Those that have chosen to engage the methodology as a way to objectively evaluate and thereby re-invigorate their ministries, have shown remarkable growth, overwhelming vitality among its membership, and sustained financial stabilities.

Appreciated as a spiritual as well as synergetic administrative collaboration, long-term strategic planning provides religious leaders the prospect of proactively advancing the grand and historical commission of their respective entities. This is done while simultaneously encouraging constituents the opportunity to design and refine specific ministry aspirations within unique local contexts. By effectively matching human capabilities to ministry opportunities members are energized to provide a personal stewardship that more respectfully engages their hard-earned time, talent and financial resources with a clear, and meaningful purpose. As a result, unproductive ministries and programs that drain limited resources are identified, adjusted, and/or replaced with those that more appropriately serve actual community needs.

The key to incorporating the progressions of such strategic thinking within any religious organizational culture is the insistence of competent leadership. Faith-based entities can no longer tolerate “illusionist leaders” that may appear to cast the impression of long-term strategic reasoning but who, in all honesty, remain shackled to status quo and more risk-averse thinking patterns, characteristic of a “bunker mentality.” What is required is courage and authenticity.  Leaders who, in the words of Winston Churchill, are like “kites who rise highest against the wind – not with it.”

Like Churchill, one of America’s most quoted writers of inspirational maxims, William Arthur Ward, also insists that such authentic leaders are not pessimist who complain about the wind, nor Pollyanna optimists who expect the wind to change in and by itself. Rather, authentic leaders are realists who adjust and hold taught the spinnakers of their respective institutional sails to harness the wind’s oncoming velocity. Religious organizations who are fortunate to have such courageous helmsmen guiding their strategic planning teams, tirelessly studying the societal horizon for the countless navigational hazards that might obstruct the successful mooring at aspirational harbors, are fortunate indeed!

Religious organizations are called to serve the needs of a constantly changing world. To this end, they should consider strategic thinking/planning as a dynamic visioning partnership with God that seeks enduring spiritual as well as institutional revitalization. They should avoid identifying it as a managerial effort, but emphasize its ability to humbly channel supernatural power through limited human efforts. This cannot be done, however, by “bunkering” in their respective freezer chests when, at the first sign of contrary whirlwinds, the rafters of their self interest begin to shake.

Storm shelter design has advanced considerably since Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz failed to enter the root cellar of Aunty Em’s Kansas farm. As a result of her sacrificial desire to protect her dog, the famed fictional character was rewarded with the difficult but valuable quest of re-discovering the very purpose of humanity’s heart, mind, and strength. As religious organizations face the cyclone of declining members, finance, and perception, a similar quest may be in order. Strategic thinking/planning may provide the “yellow-brick road” whereby religious organizations can begin to proactively address the tornados that continually menace the heart, mind, and strength of their own aspirations.

The 14th century English theologian, philosopher, church reformer John Wycliffe suggests that “the higher the hill, the stronger the wind . . . the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.”  In the end, the deadly lure and velocity of such winds can only be managed by leaders who choose the strategy of the sail to the safety of the shelter. They reject the celebration of their strategic position in favor of using their position to celebrate their God-given ability to strategically think and plan.

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).

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