Six Attributes of the Strategically-Minded Priest


“Perception is strong and sight is weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.” – Miyamoto Musashi


Parishioners need the priest to think strategically regarding the future of the parish, for if he does not do this with his theological education and "view from a height", who will? Yet, daily demands of parish work push this seeming luxury out of consciousness and off the mental desk.

Every priest's temptation is to deal with what's directly in front, because it always seems more urgent and concrete. And often it is actually urgent and concrete. Unfortunately, however, if that approach is consistently employed then the parish is put at risk. Failure to reflect upon an optimum future for the parish means that the default future will come to pass – one that is neither chosen or desired. As one consultant graphically stated, "We can't keep pulling the bodies out of the river. Eventually we have to go upstream and discover what is causing this!"

The parish council in particular needs the priest to think strategically. Their default mode is to focus on operations and tactical issues – PPP – the Present Pressing Problems. Exceedingly rare is the parish council that consistently embraces and practices strategic intent by its own initiative.

Adaptive strategic priests — the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain, quick-changing and secularizing environment – do six things well:

They Anticipate

Most of the focus at most parishes is on what’s directly ahead and on the calendar. These leaders lack “peripheral vision.” To anticipate well, strategic thinkers:

  • Look for program and ministry-changing information technology trending outside the parish
  • Search beyond the current boundaries of the official membership by seeking new perspectives in what is working in other churches or parishes
  • Build wide external networks to help you scan the horizon better, perhaps though the use of an advisory committee (see Library on this subject)

They Think Critically

“Conventional wisdom” opens the priest up to fewer raised eyebrows and second guessing. But, if you follow every management fad, herd-like belief, and safe opinion at face value, the parish loses its mojo, so to speak. Critical thinkers question everything. To master this skill strategic thinkers force themselves to:

  • Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things, in terms of root causes
  • Challenge current practices and mindsets, including their own
  • Uncover fear-based, political, or personality-driven parish council decisions or policies

They Accept Ambiguity

It's unsettling but very much a part of the human condition and societal realpolitik. Faced with it, the temptation is to reach for a fast (and potentially wrongheaded) solution because most people most of the time are uncomfortable with ambiguity. A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. To get good at this, they have to:

  • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
  • Encourage others to do the same
  • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously

They Act Decisively

Many leaders fall prey to “analysis paralysis.” Processes and policies need to be developed and applied, so that an equitable and workable position is achieved. To do that well, they have to:

  • Carefully frame the decision to get to the crux of the matter
  • Balance speed, rigor, quality and agility. Leave perfection to God
  • At times take a stand even with incomplete information and amid diverse views

They Build Consensus

Unanimity is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. To pull that off, they need to:

  • Understand what drives other people's agendas, including what remains hidden
  • Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it's uncomfortable
  • Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support

They Embrace Life-long Learning

As the parish grows and develops, honest feedback is harder and harder to come by. Success breeds euphoria and the arrogance that the parish can do no wrong. Successful strategic thinkers are most at risk here. They have to do what they can to keep honest feedback coming. This is crucial because success and failure–especially failure–are valuable sources of community learning. Here's what they need to do:

  • Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs (anonymous parish surveys?) to extract lessons
  • Shift course quickly if the parish is off track
  • Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that provide insight

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