More on PCA Strategic Plan

UPDATE: Part 1 click here; part 3 click here.

My prior thoughts focused on the more mechanical issues of strategic planning: the need for good data, good root cause analysis, and then the right questions that lead (hopefully) to the right solutions.

But there is another factor that I didn’t include, which is more foundational.  That is the question of what assumptions are driving the thought process.  Back when I used to do business planning for a living, the planning cycle each year began with hammering out the planning assumptions, which had to be mutually agreed upon, and then we had them signed off on by the senior executive team.  A lot of debate and discussion went into what the assumptions should be, but once they were agreed upon and signed, they were settled and printed in a bound booklet for documentation, and became the foundational guide for the rest of the planning process.

I’m not suggesting that the PCA needs to do something similar.  But planning is impacted by the assumptions brought to the table.  When those assumptions are not made clear the resulting plan can be confusing, or, interpreted in a variety of ways by different parties impacted by the plan.  The PCA Strategic Plan also has assumptions built into it, brought to the table by all the participants in the process.

While not explicitly stated, I think the assumptions can be gleaned from the published plan, by implication from what is stated.  Figuring out those implicit assumptions is fraught with difficulty, because they can even be unintended by the authors since it is possible even they didn’t explicitly think them through or were aware of them while putting together the plan.

So in discussing below what I think are the assumptions in the PCA Strategic Plan I don’t want to claim that I know, without doubt, that these assumptions were intended by the authors.  They may not have been.  Implicit unintended assumptions are, though, one of the dangers of not thinking through what the assumptions are before the planning process begins.

The first assumption that jumps out to me is on the first page, in the discussion about growth trends.  While careful to state that numerical growth is not necessarily the proper gauge, the authors nevertheless seem to be quite worried that the slowing growth of the PCA could eventually turn negative.  This worry seems influenced by the use of the “S” curve (which is just one of several possible growth curves that describe organizations) that not just flattens but declines.  The word “precipitous” is even used in a cautionary way that seems to want to provoke worry in the reader, as well.

I mentioned sayings students remember from Peter Drucker.  Another one I remember went something like this: it is not necessary for an organization to grow bigger; it is necessary for an organization to grow better.

Before we get all worried about “S” curves or slowed growth or even possible decline, it would be better to define what healthy growth looks like in a PCA church, presbytery, or our whole denomination.  What would it mean to grow “better?”  Would it necessarily mean numerical growth?  If numerical growth is not necessarily the best gauge, what does Scripture tell us about the gauge we should use?  What biblical principles can we glean from Scripture that would help us define what kind of growth to look for?  I certainly hope for numerical growth in our churches, but is it not possible for PCA churches to “fulfill their mission,” “maintain their values” and participate in the progress of the Kingdom without numerical growth?  If not, why not?  How does growth relate to the Great Commission?  Discipling and teaching others?  Does the concept of “better” fit with our commitment to the distinct but inseparable doctrines of justification and sanctification?  Are we talking about growth in numbers or growth in holiness or both?  Or something else?

Personally, I don’t think we can get anywhere in putting together any sort of plan without answering these questions.  Without an agreed upon answer about what “growth” is or ought to be, any plan – to me – is dead in the water.  We’d all be rowing in different directions.

Which is kind of where the PCA is today, it seems.

Which is why the second embedded assumption is troubling to me.  It is the idea expressed on page three on the development of the PCA: faithful to Scripture in its first 30 seconds of existence; true to the Reformed Faith being worked out (apparently) over the last 30 years; with the next era focused on how to be obedient to the Great Commission.  As I noted in the previous post I’m out here in the PCA hinterlands in Southern California , not hip to the themes and discussion points bouncing around in areas where the PCA has a deeper presence and more vigorous and frequent communication.  Maybe this is a good assumption.  But it doesn’t ring true for me, having been in the PCA since 1995 and having, since 1999 been a frequent presbytery attendee and occasional GA attendee.

First, in my observation we’re still figuring out how to be true to the Reformed Faith.  There are still Federal Vision issues to deal with, as well as the doctrine and practice of women in the church.  There are, no doubt, other issues lurking (like whether or not it is acceptable to give non-ordained persons the title “pastor” or “minister;” whether or not the multi-site model is consistent with Presbyterian ecclesiology; what our worship ought to be like; to name just a few).  I’m no historian, but it seems to me, having been in the Presbyterian tradition since about 1973, that we are still recovering a solid understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed.  We lost a lot of that through the 19th and 20th centuries.  I’m not sure we’ve got it all back yet.

Second, I’m not convinced that being true to the Reformed Faith is something that is that distinct from being obedient to the Great Commission.  For me, I am confident that a biblically grounded faith – the Reformed Faith – will result in biblically grounded behavior, such as being obedient to the Great Commission.  They go together.  We can’t assume the work of the former is done, so now let’s move on to the latter.  Challenges have arisen and will continue to arise to biblical orthodoxy – that hasn’t changed since the beginning of the Church and I don’t see that it will.  We need to stay vigilant.  The Strategic Plan has a “feel” of wanting to put doctrinal issues behind us so we can focus on “the work.”  I for one am not willing to go there.  We need to remain vigilant.  We also need to have confidence that our doctrine is a powerful catalyst for holiness in life and obedience to God in all areas, including being ambassadors of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This leads me to a third area.  It is not so much captured in any specific section or language, but seems to interweave through the document.  I am actually quite certain that it is unintended.  But I sense that this assumption is present.  Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that an assumption that should be there isn’t.  That is the reality of sin.  Not just sin “out there.”  Sin in our own midst.

Why might our doctrine not produce godly obedience?  Because we are sinful men.  This is key.  No strategic plan of any kind, no matter how well pursued in its analysis and implementation, can deal with the issue of sin.  Because what deals with sin are the means God has given us to deal with it: the preaching and teaching of the Word, the sacraments, prayer.

There is an implicit assumption, then, that the tactics or methods or steps or means or themes presented are the solution to our problems, rather than dealing with the presence of sin as the root cause of those problems.  Some of those methods or tactics or means or themes might be helpful – but IMVHO only after dealing with the sin at the root.

Why are there not enough safe places?  Sinful men.  Why don’t we work effectively with those around us?  Sin.  Why is there a lack of seats at the table?  Sin.

If safe places is a reasonable goal, then the issue to be addressed is why they don’t exist; why can’t supposedly godly men, leaders in their churches, interact with one another in a God-honoring way?  Sin.  Panels and discussions and whatnot may or may not work, especially if there is still sin present.  The men who participate may still be timid or hold back. 

Do we need to work with other churches and denominations?  Why?  Why not?  If there is, and we don’t, then the cause is ultimately sin.  Abandoning supposedly/apparently ineffective groups like NAPARC in favor of…..who?…..doesn’t really solve whatever the problem is unless we understand why or why not these interactions work.  If NAPARC really is ineffective then it likely is due to sin.  Why don’t we deal with that, pastorally?  We are elders after all.  Shepherds of the sheep.  And in our Presbyterian polity shepherds of each other as well.  Are we loathe to take up that task? 

Do we need “more seats at the table?”  Why?  Why aren’t there more?  What would motivate men who are leaders and shepherds of their congregations NOT to involve others?  I submit that it is sin.

What is the precious remedy for sin?  God’s Word.  Why not apply it to the problems we think we have?

I think the reason is that the methods of the world around us are so attractive.  Strategic Plan!  That’ll fix things!  But it won’t.  And I say that as someone who loves the process and value of strategic planning.

Or at least it won’t if we don’t approach it in a deeply rooted biblical manner.  These are not tactical or strategic issues in the “classic” sense.  They are spiritual issues.  Matters of sin and holiness.  Do strategic planning in the church?  Sure.  As long as its ground, foundation, focus and purpose is to deal with sin and promote holiness.  As long as it is biblically sound and focused.

Do that and – whatever “growth” is – we will see it.

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5 responses

  1. Thank you very much for writing more about the strategic plan. Your new comments really added a lot to your former essay. This is helping me in my own thinking.

    • Thank you for your kind comments. I hope they are of benefit to many. I think there is a way to plan strategically that is also biblically sound. A lot of effort, and much of it thoughtful and insightful, went into the current plan, but ultimately I believe it falls short of what we need.

  2. I’d agree that the “Strategic Plan” is not really a strategic plan. In fact, it’s almost an admission that we don’t have one. The PCA is at something of a crossroads now, and there is not a lot of commitment to retaining a central identity.

    In the past decade, confessionalists–who are a substantial minority within the denomination–have gained disproportionate influence over the GA and the SJC. As a result, the decisions of GA tend to reflect the interests of the confessionalists. In a way, the evangelical types can only blame themselves for this, as they tend to avoid GA like the plague. But still, it creates a situation in which the majority of the denomination finds itself a bit at odds with the denomination’s governing bodies.

    At the same time, the EP has grown to the point where it is more of a viable option than it would have been 10 years ago. So, many evangelical-type churches in the PCA are saying, “We’ll stay in the PCA for now, but we’ll start looking at the EP if the confessionalists start harassing us.”

    So, the denomination is stuck. GA is where the power is, but the evangelical types would probably leave the denomination before they started going to GA regularly.

    I don’t see an easy answer. I don’t think that there is an easy answer, which is why the “Strategic Plan” is pretty short on strategic planning. In a way, the PCA grew out of an opposition to liberalism in the mainline church. But now that mainline liberalism is in significant decline, the PCA’s evangelicals and confessionalists are realizing that they don’t agree on a lot.

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