The five essential steps of strategic planning are preparation, assessment, engagement, plan development and implementation. Each time this process is completed the parish becomes better and better at answering the question: “What do we wish to become?” and therefore exercising a choice for a preferred future.
The Five Essential Steps of Strategic Planning
There are many reasons to plan and many effective ways to go about the planning process. There are also some common ways that planning goes wrong, but a well-conceived structure can tilt the odds toward success.
Divide a planning process into five activities: preparation, assessment, engagement, plan development and implementation. They are sequential, with some overlap (e.g. once it starts, engagement keeps going for the rest of the process). This framework is an effective starting point for thinking about the requirements of any planning process. It is a deceptively simple organizing principle.
Preparation begins with the design of a process that is attuned to the nature, needs, situation, culture, and experience of a specific parish. A well-designed process will engage issues and parishioners in a way that will lead to a relevant, meaningful and strategic plan for a particular parish. A formulaic process that may have worked beautifully for one parish may fail miserably to meet the needs of another.
It is important to start with a clear work plan and timeline. If the parish is using a consultant these issues will likely have been included in an initial agreement, but conditions evolve, and they should be discussed and adjusted throughout the planning process. If the process is being run internally, an explicit work plan and timeline are, if anything, more essential, to avoid the dangerous tendency to drift.
If the impetus for planning did not come from the parish council, it is critical at this point to get full parish council commitment to the planning process. If they don’t feel they own the process and the plan, they probably will not follow through to monitor implementation and the plan will fall flat.
Also part of preparation is selection of a planning committee chair with leadership and management skills and a capable committee. The job descriptions of the chair and the committee will vary greatly from one parish and its process to another, as also may the timing of their appointment, but for the process to result in success, the right fit can be critical.
The next step is to gather information and frame the critical issues, starting with a preliminary articulation of prospective major issues. At this early point, they are best stated in broad and conditional terms, but they give a starting point for the exploration. They will be tested, probably reshaped, possibly changed, and certainly refined as the process evolves.
One source for the initial major issues list is a round of interviews with the priest, staff and parish council leaders. Whether the process is being led by an outside consultant or an internal committee chair, it is important to review assumptions, expectations, and perceptions of needs with the parish’s primary leaders. This may provide an initial consensus to test, as well as a sense of where differences may have to be navigated.
Another source is a review of relevant documents, such as any past plans, minutes of parish council meetings, committee and staff reports, surveys, demographic studies, etc. This is also the time to think in terms of an integrated plan, drawing in an understanding of related planning of a different scale or nature (program, development, operational, technology and facility plans, for example).
The next, broader action is the gathering of any available relevant data that might inform the process. Externally, this could be demographic or economic trends, and benchmark data from comparable parishes. Internally there are, ideally, some performance measures that the parish tracks, along with other historical data.
As the final piece of assessment, transitioning into the engagement phase, conduct a parish council self-assessment. This puts the parish council in a reflective frame of mind conducive to thoughtful inquiry. It offers an opportunity to consider parish strengths and weaknesses in the context of inclusive mutual responsibility. This helps to get parish council members thinking first in terms of their fiduciary role and personal commitment rather starting with an externalized sense of what others (the priest) needs to do.
Meaningful parish council self-assessment requires a tool appropriate to the parish council’s situation and needs. The Stewardship Advocates Library has a parish council self- assessment questionnaire. Or, some parishes may find it more useful to develop their own self-assessment tool for a particular set of issues.
If strategic planning in parishes is to a great extent the development of consensus around mission, then engagement is the heart of the process.
A parish council meeting, or preferably a retreat, usually should be the first step of the engagement process. The retreat agenda typically offers discussion of the work done to date and solicits thoughts about such things as mission, vision, values, critical issues, opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the specifics of the situation, the session might go only as far as open-ended brainstorming, or it could go forward in defining the outlines of the plan.
A retreat often requires an outside facilitator, especially when there are any contentious issues or tensions among any of the parties. Parishes that conduct planning on their own often bring in an experienced neutral party for the retreat.
Once the parish council has had the opportunity to set a direction, other organizations and the general parish can be consulted, through open meetings, focus groups, and/or surveys.
Many parishes resist consulting with their parishioners about mission, values, or even program content because they think they might be opening fundamental and nonnegotiable issues to debate. When done well, however, there are only positives in this communication. Talking about mission and values need not suggest that they might be changed by majority vote; it does however, acknowledge the importance of understanding and discussing differences of perspective. Respectful listening and inclusiveness offer learning opportunities of one sort or another for all parties. See Library article on polarities for additional help.
Respectful listening, of course, includes the requirement to respond. Frequent communication is highly recommended throughout a planning process about what has been heard, what has been learned, and what might be done differently. If parishioners feel that their comments and concerns are being heard and considered, they tend to be very flexible about how close any resulting action needs to be to their initial positions. Ongoing communication inspires confidence and trust, and strengthens the parish.
4) Plan Development
Once the critical issues have been identified, explored and analyzed, a plan can be built. Depending on the situation, the plan might be developed entirely by a planning committee, or by subcommittees or by an even broader group.
The plan is typically structured with mission-based goals (broad statements of how a specific functional area is responsible for support of the mission) and supporting objectives (focused areas of action that will support the goal). Once the goals and objectives have been drafted, the parish council confirms that these goals and objectives describe the efforts needed to address the critical issues and approves the plan.
In this approach, neither goals nor objectives are measurable. With the goals and objectives providing a structure, the planning committee oversees the development of measurable action items. Each action item needs to have not only measurable results, but also a timeframe, a responsible party, and notation of resources required.
One very effective way of gathering the action items is to assign every functional area within the parish the task of coming up with action items not only for the objectives that are clearly theirs, but for all of the objectives they think they can contribute to. This approach strengthens both the plan and the parish directly with a sense of common purpose.
Of course, the planning committee and/or senior staff, and perhaps the parish council, need to review and edit the action items for relevance and effectiveness. They will also likely have to add in some action items; confirm the timing, assigned responsibility and projected resource requirements; and prioritize them to reflect affordability and achievability.
At this point the plan is complete—but the planning is not.
The distinction is often made between the planning process and its product, the plan. A better approach is to think of the completion of the planning document as the point of transition between one process (planning) and another (implementation).
A plan that is not implemented is far worse than no plan at all. The goodwill generated by engaging parishioners in a transparent inclusive process turns sour when no action results.
If the plan has been developed properly, implementation should flow rather easily. The assigned action items become job responsibilities and are reviewed in the normal course of supervision.
The progress of implementation should also be tracked as a whole and reported to the parish council regularly. An effective combination of tracking tools is a one-page matrix of action items, showing where progress is ahead of schedule, on track, or behind and critical metrics to show results achieved.
Over time the action items may need to be adjusted to reflect changing conditions, so a framework should be established to do this. Otherwise, if the plan has a five-year horizon it may well be that after three years, 80% will have been completed and the other 20% is no longer relevant. An ongoing process for updating the plan can extend its useful life, increase its effectiveness, and help to create a culture of strategic thinking, which in the end may be more valuable than the plan itself.
At some point the plan will need wholesale refreshment, or a new planning process will need to be started. The good news is that if the first plan has been done well and documented, the next one will be a lot easier.
The Committee Chair
There is not one job description for a planning committee chair, just as there is not one planning process that fits all situations. However, some desirable characteristics are worth noting. The chair needs to have some understanding of planning and governance, or be eager to learn. She or he should be a leader and a manager, since both sets of skills are critical to completing the process successfully. She or he needs to be willing and able to commit the time required to make the process a success. And it is an extra bonus if the chair is a future parish council leader. Since there is no better way to develop a thorough understanding of a parish, the chairing of a planning process is the best possible leadership development.
It is often valuable to assemble a plan in two versions, one with the action items, for internal use; the other with just descriptions of the goals and objectives for public consumption. An extra benefit of this approach is that each version can be refined with reference to the other. Are the action items necessary and sufficient to accomplish the objective as described? Does the description of the objective correspond to the action items identified?
It can be said that truly important goals are qualitative, and not measurable. But goals are achieved through actions that can be measured. The trick is to measure the right things. That is why a strategic planning framework starts with mission as the ultimate goal and then down through mission-based goals and their supporting objectives to measurable actions. The right actions—not always easy to identify—will reverberate up the chain to mission. The dash board is a mechanism that distills this connection between actions and goals into a few key indicators of progress. (Stewardship Advocates Library offers a suggested parish council dashboard in excel) By identifying, quantifying and monitoring these indicators the priest and parish council can track whether their strategy is working. This can help them maintain focus, dismiss distractions, and adjust as necessary until they are confident they are on the right course.