Conduct an annual church planning session

If your board is suffering from the church board blahs, an annual planning session can add new life to your meetings.

Laurence G. Downing was pastor of the Green Lake church in Washington when he developed this article. He now pastors the Anaheim church in California.

Mr. Chairman, look around here. Not even half the board members are present tonight, and I have to say I don't blame them. All we do is rehash the same old stuff. Who cares what color somebody paints the halls? Aren't there more important things to do than argue about whether we should spend $50 on new locks for the Dorcas room? What's our job, anyway? Perhaps it would be better if I resigned my office."

"Pastor, I'm willing to serve as an elder, but I would rather not come to board meetings. As you know, I have so few evenings free that I don't see how I could find time for another meeting. And Pastor, to be honest, I can't get too excited about spending an evening trying to find a substitute assistant pianist for the Sabbath school. I know it is important to keep the wheels turning, but I wonder if we could perhaps use board meeting time more effectively."

These statements, and others like them, came from competent, dedicated, caring people. They indicated to me that my board members were suffering from a common malady called church board blahs.

While not usually fatal, the malady's symptoms, including low attendance at meetings, long debates over trivial issues, and board member malaise, can hamper the board's effectiveness. Even the pastor is not immune to this disease. I have suffered from it myself, and I do not like what it does to me.

Qualified people who are willing to accept a church office and serve on the board are a precious commodity. Careful, reasonable, creative thinkers on a church board are invaluable, and I want to keep everyone I can find. Even though I am not the board chairman, I feel a responsibility for how the church board functions. When board meetings become a bore or we find ourselves spending inordinate amounts of time on trivial pursuits, we are in trouble. And when the board is in trouble my ministry is in trouble.

When I went seeking a cure for the blahs, one suggestion stood out above the rest: the annual church board planning session. What follows is an elaboration of the rationale for an annual planning session, a sample program, and a description of some of the problems that you might encounter in trying to implement the proposal in your church or district.

First, I learned that not everyone shared my enthusiasm for a weekend planning session away from the church. The most common response to the proposal was Why can't we do it right here at the church after the worship hour? What's the point in going away? In response I put together a short statement that included the following:

1. There would be opportunity for people to become better acquainted. Even those who have known each other for years may not have had an opportunity to share ideas and information in a guided and nonthreatening way.

2. There will be time for uninterrupted work, play, and talk.

3. Leaving familiar surroundings enhances attention to a specific task.

4. Meals will be provided. (The women caught this one right away.)

5. Child care will be available. (Also a favorite with the mothers.)

Prior to the board meeting when I brought up the planning session concept, I made it a point to talk with certain key leaders. Each board member has an equal vote, but every board has thought leaders whose influence extends beyond their vote, so I shared the concept with several of these people and sought their input.

These private discussions indicated that people were not certain what the purpose for church planning sessions should be, and since I did not feel I had all the answers to specific questions, I purchased several copies of Lyle Schaller's Effective Church Planning and suggested that each board member read it. Schaller makes a powerful statement for church planning and presents reasons why it is important for the board to lay a strong philosophical framework to serve as a foundation for all church programs. The book made a positive impression on those who read it.

At the next meeting, the board appointed an ad hoc committee to study the proposal and bring back a recommendation. The ad hoc committee recommended the retreat, and the board accepted the recommendation. It was further voted that the pastor, along with those whom he might select, should design the weekend program.

Preparation

Preparing the program outline is the key to a successful weekend, and the pas tor plays the major role in determining the direction the program will go.

It is important that we have in mind what we would like the participants to accomplish and that we seek ways to fulfill these intentions by creating a program schedule that is logical, interesting, and workable. The challenge is to design an agenda that provides the participants with a clear and reasonable outline that facilitates a natural flow from one process to another. It should provide opportunity for intense study as well as time for social involvement and personal reflection. Since time is a factor, the assignments should be brief enough to be completed, but detailed and broad enough to be interesting. How this is put together will depend on the pastor's resources and innate ability, but there are methods one can use to make the process easier.

First, locate congregational members who have group leadership experience and work with them. If you have no qualified members, consult other clergy or community people. The important thing is to find someone who understands group process. The pastor who depends on his or her own skills alone is asking for trouble.

Our session planning group tries to organize the planning session in such a way as to avoid problem-solving situations and to ignore those items that have so often occupied our board meeting agendas. It has been our purpose to consider proposals that explore fundamental issues affecting our church goals, purposes, philosophy, hopes, and dreams. We want to see the bigger picture, and from this perspective dream our dreams and look at opportunities awaiting our attention.

From the long lists of ideas produced at the annual planning session (see accompanying box for a description of how the lists are produced), some are realistic, others are less so. The best become the center for building the monthly board agenda. Each month presents another opportunity to consider, and to seek to implement, a proposal that came from the planning session.

After the session

We take the newsprint papers on which we have recorded the suggestions from the groups back to the office. There the secretary copies each suggestion and mails a list to each board member.

Now the important question: What difference has the planning session made? Our board meetings have become more issue-oriented and we get out earlier. We now have an accountability system. We can look back at what came out of the planning session and see what we have done to satisfy our hopes and dreams, and what we still need to accomplish. And each subsequent monthly agenda has involved at least one item that originated from the planning session. From this process the following programs were initiated by the board and became a part of the church program:

1. We initiated a secular campus ministry and worked with the conference to hire a campus chaplain.

2. We hired a community service and interest coordinator.

3. A pulpit/parish committee was established.

4. A sermon series on developing and maintaining spiritual life was presented.

5. We initiated a fellowship time at nine o'clock Sabbath morning during which people can share a hot drink and conversation.

Since that first planning session I have modified my views. Renting a full-service retreat center is expensive. As a compromise we tried renting a room in a nearby Christian retreat facility. This too proved to be expensive. As we discussed possible meeting sites, the church facility seemed the most reason able. Therefore, for my last four years at Green Lake we met in our church. I also found that we could accomplish our goals by 5:30 Sabbath afternoon, and the agenda now reflects this.

In July of 1986 I moved to a new congregation. Four months later Ernie Furness, my fellow pastor in the congregation, and I led our church board through a weekend planning session. We met in the church and experienced a similar response to the one I had had with the Green Lake church.

District planning

One problem many of my colleagues face is how to adapt the board planning session to the multi-church district. I spent six years of my ministry in a district, so I am not unfamiliar with the special needs of the multi-church pastor. Congregations within a district have separate and distinct personalities, and the fact that they share a common pastor is no assurance that they share much else in common.

From my experience I believe that a joint planning session is less than ideal. It may in fact be more negative than positive. While I had not developed and used a program as detailed as the one above, the early roots for church planning rest in the experience I had in district churches. After the first year or so in a district, it began to dawn on me that I could not use the same programs and approaches in each of the three churches. Each church had its own needs, abilities, community, and possibilities. They even had their own separate, be it undefined, goals. It became my purpose to find a method for defining the undefinable and to explore with the board members what they would like to accomplish in their congregation and community, and how they would like to do it.

On two occasions I conducted joint planning sessions. I was not particularly pleased with how either one went. I found that there is a subtle dynamic present within a district that tends to separate rather than unite the churches. The members of one congregation did not participate, a few members from the second church came, but most of the participants were from the congregation nearest where we met.

Attempting to divide the participants by church left a couple of small groups, and putting them all together meant that groups were working on issues that were pertinent to only one portion of the group. My 'solution was to meet separately with each church. I would propose that it might be well to do the same with this program. Certainly the same week end agenda could be used in all the churches within a district, but it is my belief that each congregation should meet on its own.

Whether one meets with congregations separately or together, whether one uses a "canned" agenda or develops a customized program, may not be important. What I believe to be important is that we pastors encourage and facilitate the yearly church board planning session. I found it one viable option in the war against the church board blahs.

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Laurence G. Downing was pastor of the Green Lake church in Washington when he developed this article. He now pastors the Anaheim church in California.

April 1988

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