One of the most excruciating congregational projects I’ve ever experienced was a strategy planning process at a church where I served on staff early in my ministry.

Over the course of 18 months, I watched as a star-studded leadership group slogged through an onerous process of establishing a mission statement, core values, objectives and action plans.

By the end of the odyssey, nearly all the committee members were exhausted, and the 60-page detailed plan for the future was promptly set aside and ignored.

I vowed never to inflict that sort of pain upon a congregation if I ever became a pastor.

Over the ensuing years, I have enjoyed leading three different congregations that I pastored through a future-visioning process that emphasized speed and nimbleness over rigid and inflexible models.

Now, with the Center for Healthy Churches, I continue to lean into helping congregations plan and envision their future in ever more efficient ways.

One of the key learnings across many such experiences is the need to focus first upon the “why” of a congregation and the broad direction for the congregation, and then upon the specific “hows and whats” that will define the congregation or the ministry.

We often produce a rather lean final document that emphasizes direction for the future and leaves much of the implementation details for future teams to decide.

In a recent meeting with an insightful lay leadership group, I learned that this movement principle has a name and is quite prevalent in project management circles.

Organizational project management is a complex field of study and theory that is vital to computer software development, especially.

The phrase that caught my ear was “Agile Project Management” (APM). Agile management is an incremental approach to planning. An agile project is completed in small sections called iterations.

Each iteration, or “sprint,” is reviewed and critiqued by the project team, and insights gained from the critique of an iteration are used to determine what the next step should be in the project.

The main benefit of APM is its ability to respond to issues as they arise throughout the course of the project.

Making a necessary change to a project at the right time can save resources and, ultimately, help deliver a successful project on time and within budget.

One of the four core values of APM is to value “responding to change over following a plan.” That agility is what is desperately needed in much of congregational life.

What further caught my eye were the “12 Agile Principles” from the “Agile Manifesto.”

The final three principles seem especially relevant for churches that are trying to create a new and more relevant future:

  • Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.
  • The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

As I have reflected on these principles and models over recent days, I am struck by how the leadership of Jesus and the launch of the early church align with such ideas.

Simple, gifts-based and constantly improving ministry have marked us from the beginning.

Knowing what was most important allowed Jesus, the disciples and the first missionaries to say ‘no’ to many good things that were of secondary importance.

Their ability to respond to opportunities and challenges in a shifting cultural landscape have something important to say to us.

I and other folks with the Center for Healthy Churches often talk about how healthy church visioning processes begin with a “compass and not a calendar.”

The most important work a church does as it launches into the future is to clarify why they exist and what direction God is calling them.

Answering those questions may sound easy, but I’ve found it to be challenging for most churches.

Too often it is a perfunctory conversation dominated by platitudes on our way to the more exciting work of specific initiatives.

Wise leaders give thoughtful consideration to such questions, as Jesus did, before launching out into the specifics of implementation.

In the end, the best future plans are lean, simple and assume that much of the work of specific ministries and initiatives will be revealed along the way.

That agility is at the heart of relevance and nimbleness for churches in the 21st century.

Reading the story of how the early church in Acts navigated an uncertain future is a classic case study in agility planning. I am struck by how far we have wandered from that ideal.

Rather than being agile and responsive, we too often are fragile and rigid. Perhaps we can learn from computer software planners how to be more like Jesus in our view of the future.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.

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