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Thinking Out Loud

Planning for the Morrow

by User Not Found | Aug 23, 2011

This blog post was written by Susan R. Garrett.

Dr. Susan R. Garrett is Dean and Professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Much to my surprise, I discovered this past spring that strategic planning can be fun. This finding was an unexpected benefit of my work with Louisville Seminary’s Strategic Planning Committee, which is chaired by President Michael Jinkins and includes faculty, administrators, staff, Board members, our student body president, and a local church leader. Our committee began its work in February by listening to the community and seeking its wisdom. Since that beginning we have prayed together, researched, imagined, estimated, assessed, persuaded, refined, and listened some more.

We agreed right away that Louisville Seminary is called to provide transformative theological education for the practice of ministry in an increasingly diverse world, and that the strategic plan must build on our institutional strengths even as we innovate. We then undertook the work of evaluating the numerous creative proposals submitted to us and began fashioning from them a coherent and visionary plan. In early June, we met with Jeff Call, a gifted facilitator who helped us progress from the stage of improvisation and creativity to laying out concrete steps for implementation. Jeff taught us how to create “SMART goals”—objectives that are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.” Seeing the plan taking shape on the projector screen was exhilarating!

It seems intuitively obvious that leaders must plan for an institution’s future if they wish to be faithful servants and good stewards. Financial, ecclesiastical, and social and cultural circumstances are all dynamic; opportunities and threats must periodically be assessed and strategies reconfigured, or the institution risks becoming irrelevant and unable to fulfill its mission.

I have noticed, however, that the necessity of such planning was not “intuitively obvious” to Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount he exhorted his disciples to trust that God would care for them: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:25, 34 NRSV). I also recall the Epistle of James, whose author echoes Jesus, but in harsher tones:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15 NRSV)

But aren’t both Jesus and James being naive and utopian? They are advocating a way of life fit for 60s flower children, but not for complex institutions in today’s difficult business environment. They do not take account of the need to make prudent use of resources entrusted to us. Their teachings are in conflict with the best managerial intelligence of our day.

I think the key to resolving this conflict is to attend to Jesus’ and James’ underlying logic. Both teachers were worried about the psychological problem known in the biblical era as “double-mindedness”—a problem addressed in Jesus’ warning about wanting to serve “both God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24) and in James’ contrast between “friends of God” and “friends of the world. Those who are double-minded profess to be friends of God, yet act as friends of the world. They lack singleness of purpose, being fundamentally motivated by worldly standards of value. In their desire to achieve worldly success, they fail to honor or trust God.

What would it mean to be “single-minded” in strategic planning? Can we design “SMART goals” that are not just smart but also wise? I think that, with prayer and humility, we can. To do so requires that we stay resolute in keeping our institutional mission and vocation before us. We must trust in God’s providence and in the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17). This wisdom helps us to discern God’s way for us and will enable us to persevere when tests and trials undermine our best-laid plans (as happened with Abraham: see James 2:21-23). We prepare for the future, even as we trust that our future lies wholly in God’s hands.

The Strategic Planning Committee looks forward to sharing the results of its work in the near future. May God continue to bless Louisville Seminary, and through this institution reap a harvest of righteousness.

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