Vision and Planning for Small Churches

For some, planning ahead is one of the most difficult parts of leading a small church. In under-staffed and under-resourced situations, “each day has enough trouble of its own” might be the truest thing Jesus ever said. It’s difficult to look ahead one week, let alone plan ahead for a whole year. Yet, for a small church leader, the practice of planning ahead with vision and detail produces some of the greatest benefits for the church and the church leader. This article will explain the process of visionary planning and provide resources to get you started for free using Google Docs.

Planning vs. Relying on the Spirit

First, let me dismiss this false dichotomy. When I talk about detailed planning for the future, I inevitably get a rejection from someone who would rather just “rely on the Spirit.” Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” It is absolutely true that God’s purpose will triumph over even the most detailed and visionary plan for your church. But, this does not mean we shouldn’t make great plans. It is not unspiritual to plan ahead. Part of the promise that Peter saw being fulfilled at Pentecost was that young men would see visions and old men would dream dreams. We can spiritually plan ahead by relying on the Spirit as we plan and the being prayerful and open to the Spirit as we execute our plans and visions. The Apostle Paul was a master at this. In Acts 16 he planned to go deeper into Asia but was blocked and called to Macedonia so he headed for Europe. (Acts 16:6-10) Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” But what did the execution of that plan look like? He stopped to preach, heal and train along the windy path that led to his goal. He was attuned to the Spirit while he stayed focused on the plan God gave him and we can be too!

What Happens If The Plan Needs To Change?

Not if, but when. The plans that we make for our church always get changed by all kinds of factors including our all powerful God. It has been my experience that having good plans and organization actually makes it easier to change plans. (After all, you’re not really changing your plans if you never had any plans to begin with.) When you have a good framework for your week, months and even your year then you’ll have to change plans less and the changes will usually be less jarring. I’ll show you how to make plans that assume change is coming and are built with flexibility below.

But I’m Not Creative!

Yes you are! If you have the Holy Spirit you are creative. In the first chapter of the bible, the Spirit hovers over the waters and then God’s voice creates and orders our world. That same Spirit lives in you. The voice of creation echoes in our hearts as we bear the image of God and read his inspired word. You are creative but it takes desire, focused time and practice to bring out the creativity God has given you. I don’t actually consider myself a creative person. I don’t have any creative talents like playing an instrument or artistic abilities. Yet, I have a reputation for being a creative minister. Here are some ways to stoke your innate creativity. Use these as a starting point for church planning.

  • Pray by listening: If you are doing all the talking in your prayer times then you’re doing it wrong. God wants to speak to you but you have to listen. I probably spend about half of my prayer walks listening for the voice of God. That might sound strange (God doesn’t actually talk to me) but I get flooded with ideas, I see things more clearly, I hear scriptures that I’ve read and I receive encouragement when I pause my talking and listen in prayer. My mind also wanders sometimes but that’s okay – who knows where God wants to take my wandering and wondering mind!
  •  Take notes: This is so important. You can take notes in a journal or on your phone. I personally prefer to use Google Docs because it puts my notes on all of my devices and makes them searchable. I’m not as organized as the spreadsheets below would indicate but being able to search every note I’ve taken and every sermon I’ve written makes up for a disorganized drive. I’ve got several documents that I take notes on for different subjects so that whenever an idea strikes me (and they are rarely strike when I’m at my computer) I can write it down in a useful place and come back to it. I’ve got a doc for writing ideas, our core group, our staff, my family, sermon ideas and for the year ahead (to name a few). I don’t want to miss something the Spirit is trying to show me!
  • Collaborate: Maybe you truly aren’t very creative. I bet someone in your leadership circle is. Moreover, if you gather all of your leaders together and brainstorm you’ll get more ideas than you can handle. We’ve had retreats focused on vision and planning where we used various group brainstorming techniques to tap into God’s will for the church. I’ll write another article about the ways we’ve “visioneered” as a church, but here are a few keys:
    • Lead and get out of the way – When you are leading a time such as this it’s important to provide structure and keep people on track but to not dominate with your vision.
    • No idea is a bad idea at first – Start with wide open brainstorming. Write down and encourage every single idea in the first round of talking and praying. Then as you re-gather later, start to narrow down ideas into themes and activities that work together.
    • Start with WHY – We often stay in the action modes of deciding what we should do and how we should do it but what if we start with the biggest questions: Why are we a church? Who has God called us to be? Then the what’s and how’s come out a lot clearer.
    • Spend time in prayer together – Jesus in Gethsemane, the 12 in the upper room, the leaders in Antioch… when we pray together God reveals his plans and all we have to do is figure out how to jump on and enjoy the ride.
    • Build Buy In – Planning together helps everyone feel like they own the ideas (because they actually do!). You’ll get so much more joyful energy from your leaders and disciples if they are involved in the planning and not just expected to follow through on your ideas. There’s so much power in ‘we’!

Organizing Ahead

For many, coming up with ideas, thinking ahead and dreaming are not actually the problem. But putting those plans on paper in an actionable and effective way end up being the road block. How do we go from visions and dreams to calendars and schemes?

Instead of just planning ahead we need to organize ahead. Here’s where I like to use Google Docs. There are many church planning software suites out there that you could also use but Google Docs are free and free is a magical word for small church leaders. I’ll provide all of the templates I use and you can take them and make them work in your situation by clicking ‘file’ – ‘make a copy’. It’s important to note that adjusting to a new framework takes time and it might not work at all in your situation. It’s okay to keep trying new things until you find what works for you.

  • The Idea Sheet – This is the document that I start working on a year in advance so I can gather ideas early and often. It’s just a Google Doc (You can view 2020’s doc here.) (Here’s 2019) (And 2021 in progress) I usually take a personal retreat in August where I solidify general plans for the next year. If we have a leadership retreat in November, I use the plans as a loose structure to guide the retreat and let the leaders fill in the details through prayerful brainstorming.
  • From Ideas to Plans – This is the crucial step that many miss. Get those ideas parsed out into actionable plans. I just use a spreadsheet with multiple tabs. I can quickly see what I’m supposed to be doing day to day. There’s no worse feeling than not knowing what to do as a small church leader. An organized spreadsheet means that you just go about your assigned tasks.
  • How It Works
    • Planner – The tabs on the bottom flow through the action items of the church. Each week I can see what’s coming up for the months ahead and begin planning weeks out with our small staff. (2019’s is more populated than 2020 because…Covid!) Even if you are a staff of one, it is a major stress reliever to look ahead 5 or 6 weeks and begin putting the pieces in place for great events. You can also look back and assess how things went. For recurring events we took notes so we’d remember a whole year later what we wanted to change and not repeat the same mistakes.
    • Sunday – We aren’t a Sunday only church but Sunday is still our best chance to hit it out of the park and inspire the church. Planning makes it possible to not just survive on Sundays, but to have engaging and excellent services every week.
        • I like having year long themes for the church. Within those themes it is essential to break things down into smaller themes. 4-5 week micro themes seem to work best but with purpose and planning you could even go 12 weeks.
        • In 2020 our theme has been 2020 Bible Vision. The WHY behind this theme was that we had a lot of young Christians (can I get an amen!) and I wanted them to read the whole bible as we embarked on a new decade. So we worked the whole year around this idea. Because I started praying and planning a year ahead the plans grew into something greater than the size of our church would seem to allow.
          • I found a reading plan from a past year and adapted it for daily reading. The sermons each Sunday would come from the readings and the monthly themes are based on that month’s section of the bible but always look to Jesus even in the Old Testament.
          • I asked other small churches from the Midwest if they’d like to join us and two said yes (Fort Wayne and DeKalb!) This allowed us to share sermon, activity and media ideas and act like a bigger staff.
          • I thought about making it interactive to keep people engaged and to enrich the experience. took 20 minutes to set up. I made a template so people from all three churches could contribute a daily video and blog entry that would have some coherence. Here’s the result: Each day our members get a quiet time of the day’s reading in their inboxes and almost 20,000 people have visited the blog so far this year. (From 3 churches totaling less than 200 members!)
          • This didn’t really take too much effort but thinking ahead allowed it to become more robust.
          • Every Sunday I know what I’m preaching about and I can work ahead and make each sermon better, tie in songs for enriched worship, and because it’s exegetical bible preaching even Covid couldn’t touch it. The bible can always speak to whats happening in our world. You can plan a whole year if your year is planned around the bible instead of being topical.
        • 2021‘s theme will be To Live Is Christ and we’ll look at being a disciple of Jesus through the eyes of the greatest disciple: Paul. This was inspired by a historical fiction book on the life of Paul that I listened to while running and then I sat down and wrote out the plans (link above). Now that I know the theme I can think and pray about ways to add layers of impact to the plans! Exciting!
    • Sunday Hosts – How often do you get to church and remember that you forgot to ask someone to do communion or contribution? It happened every few months when we were a very small church. So, we set up a system where our ministries “host” the service on a rotating basis. They get an email 8 days before their Sunday so they can use the Sunday before to tap shoulders of people in their ministry to lead the parts of the service. We use Breeze CHMS for automated emails, texts and database. ($50/mo and well worth it!)
    • First Friday/Workshops/Midweek – We use a combination of First Friday meetings and workshops to provide the teaching and fellowship of Midweek services. Those kind of got blown up by Covid but you can check out the tab.
    • Bible Studies – We keep our bible studies moving with this tab. I want to know who the point people are in each person’s study. We want to make sure people are being asked to study quickly and not coming to church for weeks before being engaged. We want first time visitors to get a mug and a welcome to church gift. All of that can be tracked weekly. Not everybody who studies gets baptized but I don’t want the reason someone doesn’t get dunked to be because of an organizational weakness from the church!

Overall, having a system and planning allows you to provide more quality than your size. God is not a God of small things and small churches can do so much more than it would seem if leaders are willing to think ahead and therefore have more time and energy to put into upcoming plans instead of getting stuck in a week to week pattern of putting out fires. Week to week is not a good way to build wealth or a church!

Follow Through Builds Trust

Lastly, one of the often unrecognized or unspoken challenges that small churches face more than larger churches is legitimacy. In a larger church you can look around and see that 300 other people think this is a good place and there’s a good plan and that critical mass inherently builds trust (whether it is deserved or not). A church of 40 meeting in an elementary school gymnasium doesn’t have legitimacy built in. Trust must be earned. Having good plans and communicating those plans (using the word ‘we’ and building a lot of buy in) will help with legitimacy but the biggest benefit comes with following through.

Don’t just make great plans. See them through. The spreadsheets we use help us to execute the plans we’ve made, tweak them when necessary, and help the church to feel stable and cared for. I love God’s conversation with Moses in Exodus 3. Moses wants to know how he can trust that God will come through. In Exodus 3:12 God says you’ll know, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt.” In other words, after you complete it, you’ll know that I was trustworthy. Completing the visions, dreams and plans of God with excellence is a fast track to having a church that trusts in God and even trusts in us as the leaders that he’s called to do his will!

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