Thoughts on proposed PCA Strategic Plan

UPDATE: Part 2 click here; part 3 click here.

Following are some thoughts and reflections on the recently released PCA Strategic Plan.  I offer them up for consideration, as I probably have a slightly different perspective on the plan and its content.  The plan documents can be found at the PCA web site.

By way of introduction: I’m a nobody in the PCA.  Came to pastoral ministry later in life, though having served for a number of years as a deacon and then ruling elder.  I’m a newbie TE, stationed out here in Southern California, far away from where the action is in our denomination, and therefore little connected with those who move and shake among us.

I’m also not an expert in strategic planning: written no books or articles on it, not a paid consultant.  I’m just a guy who studied it in school and practiced it as an analyst for a number of years at a large aerospace company.

Nevertheless, as a PCA teaching elder and as one who before that has had practical experience in the task of business planning, I do have what I hope are some helpful thoughts on the plan that apparently will be brought up for approval at this year’s General Assembly.

A little more on my background.  My bachelor’s is in Industrial Engineering.  IE’s are the so-called “efficiency experts.”  My degree emphasis was business management, as I took my degree at a time when IE was expanding beyond manufacturing into other areas of process improvement, management and efficient planning and implementation.  My perspective on industrial engineers?  Good ones are inherently lazy, while at the same time driven to get things done.  As such we by nature look for the easiest way to get it done, since we don’t want to expend too much effort along the way.  To accomplish this requires good strategic planning!

I have an MBA, emphasis in strategic management.  I had the privilege of taking classes from Peter Drucker, whose name some of you may recognize, and who thought and taught strategically.  His principles were expounded in little phrases that captured the essence of his thought.  Students remember different ones.  Among others, I remember these:

It is better to be conscientious than clever.

It is better to get the wrong answer to the right question than the right answer to the wrong question.

Strategic planning must “devolve” into near-term actions.  IOW, strategic planning is not what we hope to do or hope to be in the future, it is what we are committing ourselves to do now – actions we are taking now – that will get us where we want to go.

Keep those in mind because I will try to relate them to the PCA Strategic Plan.

But let me say this first: clearly, those who put together this plan have done a great deal of work, no doubt put in a tremendous amount of time and thought and effort, and are to be thanked for what they have done.  There is much that is good and helpful in the plan.

Nevertheless, the plan I think falls short.  Significantly short.  As it reads now, I personally don’t think it has much likelihood of accomplishing what it hopes to accomplish.

As best as I can summarize, here is why… 

  1. There is a lack of data and/or incomplete or poor assumptions
  2. There is a lack of root cause analysis of that data to determine actual problems/issues that need addressing
  3. This leaves in question whether the problems addressed are the real problems/issues
  4. The proposed solutions may not be the right ones
  5. The proposed solutions may not even be effective if they are the right ones.

I’ll try briefly to address the above in turn.

Data/Assumptions – An “S” curve is presented.  Is this the real shape of the PCA’s growth?  Is there really a decline imminent?  There is no data other than a couple sentences about growth rates and how they are slowing down.  I do not doubt that data.  But (to borrow from Inigo Montoya), does it mean what the plan implies that it means?  Implied is impending decline (see the paragraph below the “S” curve).  Is this a valid assumption or concern?  Why?

On the second page is a chart of possible attitudes/responses to change.  Three are given.  Respectfully, this chart is unfair.  It proposes three alternatives, two of which are so distasteful as presented as to force readers to put themselves into the middle, “favorable” category that (by implication) ought to be supportive of the forthcoming analysis and proposals.  Are those three alternatives really the only three?  The chart feels manipulative, especially since I as a reader (I can only speak for myself but would not be surprised if many others react the same way) cannot find myself exclusively in any one of the three choices.

The third page has a similar table – maybe the portrayal of the PCA’s development is accurate, but on what basis?  Mere assertion?  I don’t have enough data as a reader to be sure that the picture presented is fair or true.

Another assertion that is really an assumption, not supported by data or analysis: “…failing to define our mission guarantees our demise” (page 3, bottom paragraph).  Really?  Based on what data/analysis?

There are many other examples like this.  But let me address one more – a very important one since we will apparently be asked to vote its approval later at GA.  In the Funding Plan Model document, there is a table that lays out the proposed registration fee structure for churches, based on size and tithes and offerings.  Ideally, this table ought to be compared to how those same categories of churches are supporting GA and the various committees today.  Otherwise, how do I really know that this is a better approach?  (more below)

Root Cause Analysis – the issue here is that when assertions are made (as above) without the support of an analysis, we really don’t know what the root cause problems in our denomination are.  Clearly, the Administrative Committee is underfunded.  Why?  The Executive Summary of the AC Funding Plan Model, in its third bullet point, gives a number of assumptions as the “consensus” cause of the failure of the per capita partnership shares asking model.  Strategic planning requires not consensus assumptions, but hard, honest analysis of the actual data and its root causes.  The real issue is not the assumptions given (which are likely all true, but that’s not the point).  The real issue is the questions that go with the assumptions: Why don’t all churches give?  Why don’t all churches give to every Committee and Agency?  There are reasons for this – all I’ve ever heard are anecdotal stories.  What are the real causes?  Only when we know the real causes, backed by hard data and brutally objective analysis, can we come up with any solutions to correct or fix the root causes.  We need to move away from theoretical speculation (no matter how wise or experienced the speculator, or how much of an “expert” or “leader” we think he is) to solid analysis.  This requires asking hard questions.  The right questions.  Not so much “what” is happening, but “why” it is happening.

This is what my old teacher meant when he talked about asking the right questions, and about being conscientious rather than clever.

I don’t think the current plan asks the right questions.  The plan has a speculative, theoretical character to it that is what Drucker meant when he talked about being clever.  It’s not that the men who worked on this plan didn’t work hard or conscientiously.  It’s not about their effort.  The documents produced are evidence of their hard labor.  I thank them for their willingness and diligence in it.  But it is about their method.  It is hard slogging to do the data-driven analysis necessary for good strategic planning.  But it is tremendously seductive to theorize, especially when you have a roomful of experts and denominational leaders.

This same problem is evident in other areas of the Strategic Plan.  One example: why are there no safe places?  Is it the lack of a place?  Or is it the fact that the places that do exist (sessions, presbyteries, GA) are peopled by sinful men who at one extreme may be out to mean-spiritedly hunt heretics rather than mentor a wayward brother, and at another extreme may be too cowardly to admit that what they really teach and practice may be out of accord with our standards, despite their vow to do so?  Or is it that the previous is how we unfairly stereotype each other?  We won’t know why there are no “safe places” until we ask the hard questions.

Do we really not have enough non-white middle-aged men participating (probably also true)?  Where is the data?  And if so, what is the real cause?

Problems and Solutions (#3-#5) – Root cause analysis tells us what the real problems are.  Once the real problems and issues are identified, then real solutions can be explored, debated and proposed.  

Without good data and analysis, without determining the actual root causes, any solution is in reality a shot in the dark.

Take, again, the proposed registration fee structure.  The whole proposal is predicated on an unstated assumption that every church and pastor will participate.  The word “required” is used rather frequently, but no mechanism to ensure participation is proposed.  A huge loophole is evident in the last sentence of page 3 of the Funding Plan Model: “Such a procedure [to ensure participation in the fee structure] must do all that is reasonably possible to assure willing participation.”  IOW, this whole proposal relies on voluntary participation.  Just like the current one.  So, what really will change?  Why should a church that is sending no commissioners to GA pay any sort of a fee?  The table on page 2 anticipates almost $1.8 million in collections.  On what basis – voluntary participation?  What if only half the churches participate?  What’s their motivation?  What’s the consequence of they don’t?  Implement this proposal and I suspect we end up a few years down the road exactly where we are today.

This is why hard data and analysis is needed.  How many churches send commissioners today?  What size are they?  How much do they receive in tithes and offerings?  What would they pay in order to continue to send commissioners to GA?  What would the resulting total be?  Would it be different than today’s total from fees and askings?  How different?

A similar problem is present in the tables beginning on page 19 of the Strategic Plan.  Where is the data, where is the analysis, what are the root causes of the problems such that the proposed solutions will be effective?  Maybe the means will be effective – maybe not.  We have no real basis to judge.  Why are these themes the most important?  Are they even really relevant?  Do they represent real problems or imagined ones?  Why?  On what analytical basis?

I could go on but will try to wrap this up with a few more thoughts.

The lack of good data and analysis tends toward platitudes instead of real strategies.  This happens time and time again with for-profit companies large and small.  It also tends toward internal inconsistencies.  I’ll pick on the first theme, since it comes first: Safe Places.  The goal is to, “Establish safe places to talk about ways to advance Biblical Belief, Ministry & Mission.”  Great.  But, respectfully, so what?  It sounds wonderful.  It also sounds platitudinous.  Why do I say that?  Because it can be interpreted in about as many ways as there are TE’s and RE’s in the PCA.  “Safe place” to the more conservative side will tend to mean one thing; to those on the more progressive side another.  Even the steps are subject to interpretation.  What will really happen in these meetings?  How?  It’s all rather unclear and poorly defined.  Why aren’t our presbytery meetings already safe places (gets back to root cause analysis)? 

Goals need to be clear, concrete, concise, widely accepted and agreed upon.  I suspect the various themes proposed will be interpreted differently by different people.  As a result, if implemented, the steps will be subject to futility and frustration, as different parties go into the process with different assumptions and expectations.  Clear goals enable the “devolving” of strategy into near-term actions that actually have a strong likelihood of achieving the desired results.  The steps outlined in the various themes tend to be rather vague, and the only near-term action proposed is the change in registration fees, which doesn’t clearly connect (at least to me) to the achievement of the goals presented.

The inconsistency comes in some of the proposed future steps.  In the theme “More Seats” there is a clear desire to bring some of the younger members of the PCA to greater participation in the committees and boards of our denomination.  But, to be a little picky, means #1 mentions younger generational “leaders.”  Why “leaders?”  Isn’t an elder already a leader by virtue of his office?  Or, if “leader” means something on a denominational level, how do these leaders become leaders?  IOW, if they are already leaders then they already have a seat at the table.  If they don’t have a seat, they’re probably not leaders, and so won’t be invited to have a seat.  It’s a catch-22.  Or take means #4, the idea to have some sort of certification program for non-ordained folks.  Setting aside the question of just why such a program is needed or what it will actually do, look who sets this up.  Not younger folks.  Not a wider spectrum of TE’s and RE’s from across the PCA.  It’s put together by the same old experts and officials and leaders who occupy the privileged places within CEP, RUM, our college and seminary.  Same old ivory tower folks.  Some seat, eh?

And speaking of seats, there is the implication in the registration fee proposal that people are voting at GA who aren’t paying their fair share.  First, every commissioner pays the registration fee.  Second, if 49% of our churches are really less than 120 members, then in all probability a good number of the commissioners already pay more now to attend GA than they would in the proposed structure.  I’d encourage promoters of this proposal to avoid any talk of “pay to play.”  We’re already paying to play.

A couple more quick items: first, can we abandon the buzzwords like “missional?”  I know it’s trendy, but it also has an unclear meaning, unless you’re “in the know.”  I realize this is a bias of mine, but when I see buzzwords like this I am inclined to believe that bandwagon thinking is going on, and hard, objective, brutal analysis is shunted to the side.

Second: I felt as I read this plan that its thrust is to move the PCA away from its roots to become something like a more broadly evangelical denomination.  I know there is language in there about preserving our roots, but it came across – to me – as half-hearted.  There is a sense that the PCA is in, or about to be, in crisis.  That our growth might stop or that we might even shrink.  That the solution is to broaden ourselves, to reach out to others in ways that de-emphasize our Presbyterian and Reformed distinctives.  Parts of theme 3 feel like a set-up for another controversy a la Machen and foreign missions.  There is language there that seems to want to prevent that, but it didn’t strike me as strong enough to avoid the end result of compromise of our core beliefs.  I’m not convinced of the impending crisis, and as a result I’m not convinced of the necessity of the changes.  Abandon NAPARC?  Really?

There are other issues, but I’ll stop there.  This is already too long.  My apologies to all!!

To conclude: I love strategic planning.  A good plan would be good for the PCA.  Respectfully to all those who put such hard work into this one, and acknowledging that it recently passed unanimously when voted on by denominational leadership, this is not that plan.  As it is presented I can’t see myself being able to vote for any part of it at the upcoming GA.

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8 responses

  1. Thank you for your excellent, but not thorough enough, analysis. I would like to read more of your ideas. I too get the idea that change is afoot. “It’s time for change!” Where have I heard that theme before? 🙂

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the PCA’s Proposed Strategic Plan « Heidelblog

  3. Great thoughts

    From one unfortunate soul who labors in the PCA Heartland. I think California would be preferable…

  4. Good job! As an OPC minister I am especially concerned about the PCA withdrawing from NAPARC. The OPC benefits greatly from its fraternal relationship with the PCA. Everything about this strategic plan seems to me to come from an ideology that is uncomfortable with Reformed doctrine and every step is calculated to steer the denomination rather quickly away from that doctrine into the waters of broad evangelicalism.

  5. Thanks for your insights.

    I know that this is the tendency of any strategic plan, but I was also concerned that the Strategic Report thinks that we can solve ecclesiastical problems primarily through better management structures.

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