3 Approaches to Annual Planning

Dec 20, 2022

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

We all know that church is a team effort, and for a team to work together, there needs to be planning and coordination. When everyone is rowing in the same direction, working for the same goals, good things happen. When everyone is rowing in a different direction, the boat goes nowhere. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

How do we plan? Who is involved? When do we do it? How do we do it?

I asked this question of three different people: a seasoned pastor that has done this for many years, a church leadership consultant who wrote the book (literally) on annual planning, and for a different perspective, a business coach who works with annual goal setting and planning. They offered three different approaches, yet with many similarities.

In this article I’ll summarize their approaches, and then share links to the interviews.

Pastor Brad Otto, Pastor, Messiah Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Proverbs 29:18a, KJV

Why do annual planning?
Brad said it helps to know where we are going this year and how we will get there. It gets everyone flowing in the same direction. It gives the pastor freedom because everyone knows their part, and there is no need to micromanage people.

Who comes to the retreat?
All team leaders, all full time and part time staff, council, and the preschool director. All in all, about 20 people.

How long is the retreat?
Pre-pandemic, it was Friday night to Saturday around 4:00, twice a year. The fall retreat was always off-site, often at Lutherhill or Camp Allen. It’s good to separate yourself from where you’re at. It helps with the thinking.

Friday during the day, Brad begins with the staff looking at the year and imagining sermon series. They look at the calendar. When is Lent? What would be a good topic? How about the 50 days of Easter? Then they look at the rest of the year. Once they have the skeleton for the year, the rest of the leaders arrive around dinner time.

The retreat is in part about leadership development. We worship together. We watch a video or two from a conference. It gets everyone thinking together, imagining together, and on the same page. We fellowship together, and then the rest of the retreat is about goal setting for the coming year. At the fall retreat in September, we set three goals for the congregation in the coming year. (The spring retreat is a check in to see how it’s going.)

Then, after the retreat, they go back and from the three congregational goals, each team sets its goals in October. What is council going to do to help us achieve these goals? What is each committee or team going to do to help us achieve these goals. Then in November, staff set goals as a part of their end of the year time, before the holiday season begins with Thanksgiving. Finally, this helps Pastor Brad set goals: “How am I going to help everyone achieve their goals?”

The spring retreat takes place between Easter and when school ends. It is on-site, like in the fellowship hall, 9:00-4:00.

How do you keep this from becoming overwhelmed or bogged down?
Vision. It all goes back to your vision. You’ll have a lot of good ideas, but not necessarily a lot of God ideas. What goals will help us accomplish our vision? The vision drives everything.

Who leads the retreat?
Pastor Brad responded that he leads most of it, though he has brought in outside leaders at times. And showing the videos brings in all kinds of liters, virtually.

How did the pandemic change the way you do this?
“We haven’t done an overnight retreat in quite a while. During the pandemic we did the fall retreat by zoom, and didn’t do the spring retreat at all, for three years now. This year we did one retreat in person. We’re hoping to get back to the overnight retreat next year, but I’m realizing it’s a big expense to take 20 people overnight somewhere with housing and food. If they can get the same amount of energy and work in a day we will. We still go off site, to a private space in a restaurant.”

Last thoughts
The early church was more about a movement of Christ followers than it was a place that you go to. The pandemic has taught us something. Like most churches, Messiah has about 75% of their pre-COVID worship attendance. 25% are online. “We’re not focused on getting the back. We’re focused on how we help move them into discipleship. We’re not about religious entertainment.”

Want to plug your book?
Pastor Brad recently finished his book Finding Myself Again: My Struggle with Mental Health and Finding Inner Peace” Check it out at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon at Archway Publishing. They are launching a five-city media blitz.


Watch the Full 30-minute Interview


Deacon Peggy Hahn, Executive Director, LEAD

Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field;
and after that build your house.
Proverbs 24:27, NRSV

Peggy and I have been friends for over two decades. She has been with LEAD for ten years. She was on the Gulf Coast synod bishop’s staff for 20 years. She and her team created the Annual Road Map.

Why do annual planning?
Planning is the only way leaders can have clarity about where they are headed, the only way that leaders can engage others about the ministry to which God is calling us. The goals we set are generally in pencil these days. They’re not in stone, but we attend to them monthly. This is critical, especially now.

Tell me about The Annual Roadmap.
The Annual Roadmap is designed for congregational leaders to lead themselves, rather than bringing in a professional outside leader to set and achieve goals. Many congregations haven’t developed the muscle of setting and achieving goals. It’s a workshop in a can for about $150. [The Gulf Coast Synod purchased a license for congregations. Contact us if you’re interested].

This tool has also been useful in community, with several congregations together. LEAD has led this at Lutherhill, and with shared ministries.

You reflect on our values, who your stakeholders are, and your goals. There is a values clarification exercise. Your stakeholders can be staff and council, youth, donors, people who use the facility (if good partnerships are already happening). Goal setting is done primarily with staff and council, and maybe key team leaders.

How many people come to the retreat?
A majority of council and a majority of staff. “I’ve never seen too many people. It can be so fun.”

How many goals?
Three. Three goals is perfect. We cannot ask congregations to take on any more. We used to do 5-6 goals. It’s too much.

How long is the retreat?
“The material is set up for eight hours of content. Two hours on Friday and six hours on Saturday. You can delegate some things to be done by teams afterwards and bring the retreat down to a five-hour window. We’ve also broken it down, so the retreat can be done in four two-hour blocks.”
“My only bias toward retreat is… that being together even for the course of a day creates space and focus, where we’re not also constantly also dealing with other things pulling on us…” Peggy also strongly suggests that the retreat not be done at the church.

Who leads this?
It is designed for the pastor or council president to lead. Leadership is often shared. Sometimes colleagues from across the synod are invited to lead. Peggy’s staff has also led many of these for congregations and synods. When finances are a constraint, we still need to set goals, so they made The Roadmap affordable. This could be done at a conference gathering.

What is the outline of the retreat?
“The first night focuses on values, using the Church Vitality tool or our LEAD value cards.” If your values are in place, written and shared, there is no need to do this portion of the retreat other than reviewing those values.

“Saturday we use the SOAR process: strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results.” What are our strengths with regards to our stakeholders (not just those who show up on Sunday morning)? What opportunities do these strengths provide? What are our aspirations, hopes? What results do we want to see? That’s the whole retreat up to the last session which is the communication plan. Sometimes that is done by another team after the retreat.

The annual Roadmap has been used by thousands of congregations across the U.S. and Canada. Peggy emphasized that this is not strategic planning, which would include a longer timeline and listening to a wider audience of neighbors and community. The Annual Roadmap is a baby step for the larger LEAD Journey. For strategic planning and the LEAD Journey they use the LEAD Playbook.

Is there anything else you’re doing that you’d like to plug?
LEAD has been working on strengthening the multicultural church. In partnership with Luther seminary, they did some listening around the ELCA with non-white leaders across the U.S. “This has been life-giving.” People appreciated being heard. We had a non-white listening team. There were many tears. We have to learn a new operating system. Read the whole BIPOC Listening Project Report here.


Watch the Full 30-minute Interview

Jim Johnson, Head Coach, Contractor Coach PRO

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:19, NRSV

Jim Johnson is a former member and youth leader at Tree of Life in Conroe. Now he lives near New Braunfels, Texas and worships at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Canyon Lake.

What do you do?
Jim was a contractor for quite some time who built some presentation software, then transitioned to coaching contractors across the country and the world.

Why is annual planning important?
It gives you a target. If you just go day to day, you’re kind of lacking a purpose. It creates accountability. You work toward something bigger than yourself. You need a north star. In the church we have our north star. It helps you use your gifts and resources.

Knowing not everything is applicable to the church, how do you approach planning?
We approach it like a military mission from the president to the generals, then to the next level of command. In the church we have a mission too. God’s mission.

What does annual planning look like in your world?
“It looks like saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a goal.’ We have a six-step process where you go from dreams to what is possible, to what fits us, what has impact, to what affects our community.”

Where and how is this done?
“We are strong believers in getting the key leadership together offsite, two days, no phones. We get focused. It’s a white board session. In our world, we take that goal and give it an operational name.”

One goal?
“Not always. There can be two or three, but not more. Keep it simple. It’s one goal, but the goal is made up of two or three things we are going to do. We work with companies to think about 3-5 main objectives that will help you achieve your goal. We determine the metrics. They aren’t always financial. It might be getting 300 five-star reviews. It could be employee satisfaction. You’re here now, but you want to get to there. What are the plan standards? We actually create a scoreboard. What are the 6-8 things are we going to track that tell us whether we’re moving in the right direction?

What’s the timeframe from the goal to the objectives to the metrics?
“Two days. And there’s more. Then we break it into 13-week quarters. Each quarter has tactical operating priorities: TOPs. What things need to happen each quarter to make the year goal? For a church this could be something like, in the first quarter we’re going to learn how to do a YouTube video.” Each TOP has an owner who is in charge of working on it. Then, with each of these TOPs, there’s a list of actions that need to be done. So, they set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely), but we call them smart actions, to make it clear it’s something we are doing, not something we are waiting to magically happen.

How do you not get bogged down?
“You have to absolutely trust your leadership. In a church you have to trust your council. When you have a lot of good ideas, look for some underlying thread that ties them together. Wrap them into groupings. That will give you clarity. You can’t do it all. What’s a priority? What’s God’s plan for your church.”

Jim’s approach takes a look at the whole project. When businesses get serious about building an excellent company that bears fruit they plan the work and work the plan. Why would the church not apply the same discipline and commitment? Set your hand to the plow and don’t look back. Is the work of the church less important?

The plan involves a self-assessment. The quarterly meeting is a sit rep: situation report. How are we doing? The weekly meeting is the mission meeting.

Who leads the meeting?
“In our world it is the owner. The second person is the scribe, the person who takes the notes and tracks things.”

Obviously, there are some specific differences between a for-profit business and a non-profit church, but there are also some similarities. There are things we can learn.


Watch the Full 30-minute Interview

These three approaches give us different ways to go about planning. If you have questions, I invite you to check out their web pages and even contact them to learn more.