Planning for the next program year after 12+ months of pandemic ministry pivots and continued uncertainty about what will be possible in the fall feels daunting. Even so, I am going to suggest a process grounded in your ministry mission, informed by logical assumptions about what lies ahead, and flexible enough to pivot if needed.
Shifting From My Technical Planning Model
In the “normal” times of my ten years of ministry, I used a three-step yearly planning system that worked well:
- Review the multi-year strategic ministry plan, setting measurable goals for each focus area.
- Create a yearly calendar, starting with big events and church seasons, then continue drilling down to weekly ministry dates and communications deadlines. PlanIt! by Peer Ministry is my go-to template for this process.
- Select curriculum and then create the year-long lesson plan calendar for each group or class. Click here to download my excel lesson planning calendar.
The planning process that was effective before Covid-19 was primarily a technical rather than an adaptive one. According to Ron Heifitz, technical challenges are those that can be “solved using existing know-how and the organization’s current problem solving processes.” Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are ones in which known solutions don’t yet exist. Adaptive challenges are exactly the kinds of challenges faith formation leaders have faced this past year: How do we create experiential Sunday school online? How do we build strong, faith-forming relationships when we can’t gather in-person? How do we equip parents to nurture faith at home when the demands of online school are overwhelming?
An Adaptive Planning Process
I abandoned my three-step process for an adaptive planning process, which I admit I am making up as I go. I hope it can be a guide for others not sure how to start planning for fall. Ideally, this process would be used with a team of 3-10 other staff or lay leaders. Listening and paying attention to the needs of your community are the important first steps.
Step 1: Noticing & Identifying What’s Most Important
Start by brainstorming a list of things you notice about your ministry and your community right now. Circle and share the 3 that seem most important. Approach the task with an attitude of curiosity, trusting that what you notice is informative rather than “good” or “bad.” I recommend “time-boxing” or setting a strict time limit for this step.
Step 2: Analyze Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, & Threats
Analyze what you have noticed using the SWOT technique. Continuing with an attitude of curiosity, categorize your team’s lists into Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (to your ministry purpose). Mark any that seem particularly important or pressing.
Before you continue to the next step, take a moment to offer prayers of thanks for the strengths and opportunities that have arisen in challenging times as well as prayers for guidance in addressing any fears and concerns that have arisen.
Step 3: Make Logical Assumptions
Research and list logical assumptions about ministry in the fall. The sample list below was curated from several sources including “Church in these VUCA Times,” “Becoming ‘Anticipators of the Future,’” as well as experts in psychology, education, and leadership:
- People will expect online or hybrid ministry.
- Small groups will be safer and more comfortable even after mass vaccine distribution.
- Sunday school and church attendance trends will shift in unknown ways, creating the need to measure engagement differently.
- Clear pathways will help new and returning members engage with the church.
- The effects of large-scale communal grief and trauma will continue to impact society even as we desire to get on to our normal lives.
- Faith milestones and rituals (baptisms, confirmation, receiving a Bible) will continue to be important to families who desire a sense of normalcy.
Step 4: Make Adaptive Shifts
Develop a list of ministry shifts, informed by your list of logical assumptions and your SWOT analysis. This is a time to revisit your ministry purpose and goals, being especially mindful of places where you need to prune. Establish your faith formation events and classes based on these shifts. For example, this may be an opportunity to shift further away from age-leveled ministry toward intergenerational and small group ministry.
Step 5: Consult Reopening Guidelines
Consult church reopening guidelines to establish group sizes. Churches with larger ministries may need to create smaller groups in multiple rooms or time slots. Talk with your church leadership about any potential changes in the worship schedule and room availability.
Step 6: Employ The Technical Planning Model
The previous steps will provide you with your overall blueprint for ministry for the coming season. Once you have established your structure, you can begin calendaring events and lessons using the “normal” process above. Until pandemic uncertainty recedes, consider shifting from year-long planning to seasonal planning.
Step 7: Take Care Of Yourself
Maintain your Sabbath; don’t burn out. The past year has been exhausting, often thankless, and left many wondering if anything we did made a difference. If no one has told you, allow me: The work God has called you to continues to make a difference in the lives of children and families who are wondering where God is in the midst of a global pandemic. Your emails and notes, your take-home kits and drive-throughs, even your chaotic Zoom gatherings have all demonstrated Christ’s love in action. What you are able to do with your budget and in your role is enough. Trust that the Holy Spirit continues to use your gifts for transformation of the world.
Please take care of yourself. Take some time off. Schedule the doctors appointments that have been postponed. Plan something that feeds your soul. Your loved ones and the Church need you in the months and years ahead.