Life is what happens while you are planning it

On New Year’s Day people often write annual resolutions and promise to make positive changes in their lives. Obviously it is impossible to be productive as individuals or a church in the months ahead without careful planning.

For many churches, however, January is not really the beginning of the year, but nearly halfway through a program period that begins after Labor Day. It is almost time, in fact, for sessions to begin thinking about short-term goals and budgets for 2013 and projections for the next decade or more. As Jesus teaches in one of his parables, people look foolish if they do not calculate long-range costs, and their hasty decisions may lead to disastrous results (Luke 14:25-33).

The problem with goal-setting, of course, is that many situations can intervene to ruin our agendas. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower was reported to have said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” If congregations were making goals in 2006, for example, how many of them would have forecast a huge recession in 2008-2009? How many anticipated the natural disasters that damaged churches in many areas of the U.S. in 2011? (Our presbytery was severely hit by flooding from Hurricane Irene, a tornado, and a blizzard, all in less than two months.)

Perhaps for sessions and church leaders it is just as important to determine congregational operational principles as it is to set long-range program and financial goals. We all know from personal experience how quickly our own plans can be unimaginably disrupted. When my wife Barbara discovered that she had kidney cancer in the spring of 2010, our life seemed to stop dead in its tracks. After we recovered from the initial shock and fear, we had to make crucial decisions immediately. All of our plans for retirement and travel suddenly seemed totally unimportant and we realized that everything we were doing in our work, in our house, with our family, all these things, had to be put on hold so we could focus with the doctors and the hospital to find ways to restore her to health. When the Mayfield Presbyterian church building (Albany Presbytery) got hit by a freak lightning storm not too long ago and their building was burned so badly that it could not be repaired, after sorting through the rubble of their sanctuary and the remains of their hopes and dreams, the pastor and the congregation realized that the people in the church were much more important than property and programs. Now they are meeting temporarily in a high school auditorium and are also making a healthy recovery.

What principles of faith will guide your congregation if life around you changes radically and quickly? What will you do if your pastor retires or gets seriously ill? What happens if pledges decline radically, unexpected capital expenses arise, or your neighborhood becomes violent? On the other hand, how will you respond if the Holy Spirit presents you with wonderful opportunities you never could have anticipated — burgeoning church membership, a large bequest that makes new mission miraculously possible, or a major positive change in housing or the business community around your church?

As church leaders we can do much more than be experts in long-range planning. We can also think clearly about the principles that make us people of God. We can articulate the central elements of our faith that will guide us and sustain us in times of change. Most certainly we can remember that no matter what happens, we can trust in our God to lead us, at the beginning of the year and “at all times” (Psalm 62:8).