In the not so distant past, organizations thought they should do a strategic planning / visioning process about every ten years. Organizational life ran smoothly enough that leaders could trust such a plan to provide them with plenty of guidance for the coming decade.

As the pace of change ramped up during the early 21st century, however, that planning horizon started to shorten.  First it went from ten years to five.  Then people started developing five-year visions but knew they would need to come back and tweak them every couple of years.

At this point in the pandemic, though, doesn’t the whole idea of having a multi-year planning horizon seem oddly quaint? 

Most of my conversations over the past few months have been with pastors and ministry leaders who have despaired of being able to do much advanced planning, if any at all.

This shift, which is as much a shift in feeling as a shift in thinking, came sharply into focus for me during CHC’s recent webinar with children’s and family ministers.  These excellent leaders were tired. They realized their initial strategy for dealing with ministry during a pandemic had turned out to be unsustainable.

In the first several weeks after the virus struck, they had worked heroically to create an on-line version of everything they formerly did in person.  They even decided to do more, creating daily ways to check in with church members.

It wasn’t long before they hit the wall.  They found they couldn’t maintain the frantic pace they had set for themselves. They began to let go of the illusion that they could fully recreate their ministry on-line. They started scaling back expectations.

Now, they readily admit they don’t have the slightest idea about how to plan next summer’s mission trip and aren’t even trying.  They don’t have a clue about how to plan for Advent.  Heck, they’re not even sure how to plan for next week!  Any offering they imagine has to be tweaked almost continually between conception and delivery.  Nonetheless, they continue to do ministry faithfully.

Several memes have popped up on social media to give voice to what many of us are feeling.  My personal favorite came from a member of our presbytery’s Pandemic Pastor Posse.  The PPP is a peer learning and support group I helped create for pastors who had started a new call after the pandemic began.  They are still trying to figure out how  to connect with their new parishioners when they can’t meet them for coffee. 

The meme featured a video of a burning garbage dumpster being swept down a street by raging flood waters, with “2020!” superimposed onto the footage. 

That pretty much captures it all.  There have been moments when all of us have felt the temptation to throw up our hands and quit trying, even though we know we won’t.  We won’t, because this crazy ministry is exactly what God has called us into in this moment.

So what possible value can a strategic vision can provide for a time like this?  I was mulling over this question a couple of weeks ago at the same time I was grumbling about the most recent Facebook update that changed the look of my whole timeline.  (See, I can still multi-task!)

One thing I didn’t like about the new look was that my introduction section had disappeared and been replaced by a “bio” under my profile picture.  I dutifully went in and populated that bio with an updated version of what has been my most basic guiding principle for ministry (and life).

“After 70 years, I’m still praying for God to give me just enough light to see the next step to take.”

This doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep sense of where God is leading me over the long haul.  It just means I hold onto that sense of direction more gently, so that I’m not surprised when life (or a pandemic) causes my path to shift or even disappear for a while.  It helps me remember that it is God who maintains that pathway, not me.

Similarly, I believe it is critically important for a church and its leaders to have a clear sense of where they believe God is leading them over the long haul. 

It’s important for churches to have a grounding sense of purpose: an understanding of the particular gifts God has given them and the particular ways God wants them to use those gifts to bring healing and hope to their members and to the community around them.

I’ve worked with many churches and leaders over the years to help them develop a vision and accompanying strategy that is deeply rooted in their unique gifts and stretching them toward their unique sense of call.  They have not forgotten that vision as the pandemic has scrambled their strategy.  That vision remains their long-term goal. 

The difference is that they have adapted by giving themselves the grace not to worry about being unable to see too far ahead.  They have – in a whole variety of ways – started to pray for just enough light to see their next step forward, trusting that God will be gracious to give them that light.  They step into that light and continue to look for more.

Be gracious to yourself.  Be gracious to your colleagues in ministry.  Know that whatever you are doing is enough and faithful and is giving hope to the people you serve.  Focus on doing what you know to do in this one moment and then keep looking for that next step. It will – by God’s own grace and light – show itself soon enough.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.