Strategic Plans are Key To Congregations' Future

By Donald E. Skinner

The First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, ME (185 members), has managed to keep busy in recent years. It built an addition to its building, survived a minister's sabbatical and resignation followed by an interim minister and the search for a new minister.

When finally, Rev. Erik Wikstrom was settled in 1995, there was an opportunity to think beyond the next immediate problem. "We came to realize the congregation hadn't taken a look at the big picture in a while," said Wikstrom. "All those things that had to be done were done and we had time to refocus ourselves. As one member said, 'Okay, we've built our building, now what are we going to fill it with?'"

With no big project to drive it, the congregation felt the need to take time to think about its future. It embarked on development of a long-range plan. The congregation circulated a questionnaire, had group discussions and congregational meetings and organized a task force that met weekly for four months. At the end of a year a plan was in place that included eight new goals for the next five years. "It was embraced by the congregation," said Wikstrom. "It felt like a good thing, to refocus ourselves."

Wayne Clark, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) director of congregational fundraising services, encourages every congregation to have a long range plan, or as he prefers to call it, a strategic plan. "Long-range planning implies that you start with what you have and build from there," he said. "Strategic planning is more of a clean slate approach and is less confining."

He holds weekend workshops for congregations that want to develop a strategic plan. "I encourage congregations to get very clear about their vision; who they are as a congregation and where they are going."

During a weekend workshop, called Searching for the Future, Clark helps a congregation do the following:

  • form a Strategic Planning Committee
  • divide into focus groups where participants contribute their visions of the future.
  • develop a mission statement
  • create a "starter list" of goals and objectives
  • determine what resources are needed to accomplish the goals

"Ideally," said Clark, "at least a fourth of the congregation should participate in the weekend workshop."

"Development of a strategic plan should take six months to a year," Clark said. "Resist the temptation to do one in, say, six weeks, just because it's a prerequisite to a capital campaign or other project. Unless the roof is literally falling in, congregations usually have more time with building programs than they think they do," he said. "If you forge ahead without a well thought out strategic plan people won't feel invested in it."

The mission statement should be fifty words or less, written in lay terms. It should give members enough information to look at it and say, "Oh yeah, that's us," Clark said. It should give outsiders enough information so that they want to know more. And remember that it's a fluid document. Re-examine it once a year and revise it occasionally. It's okay to laminate it and put it on the wall, but don't put it on your congregation's letterhead because then you'll be reluctant to ever change it.

Wikstrom, at Yarmouth, said he tries to read their long-range plan occasionally and also brings it up when a new project arises, to determine if it fits within the plan.

"The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Clemson, SC (110), prepared a long range plan in 1994 and found it helpful recently, when recruiting a minister," said Holly Ulbrich, immediate past president. "During the search process we revisited it to see how much progress we had made in three years, as part of the packet we were assembling. The exercise proved extremely useful and I would recommend an annual revisiting."

In the past four years the UU Church of Spokane, WA (363), raised a million dollars for a new building, hired an architect, built the building, moved into it, and sold its old facility.

"It was only at the end of that process, looking back at all it had accomplished, that the congregation realized it needed a long range plan," said Rev. Linda Hart. "We had built this incredible building, but the leadership realized the only thing that made all that possible was that we had been able to envision what we wanted. It was their sense if we didn't continue that visioning process we wouldn't get anywhere."

The congregation developed a five year plan that set out specific goals for each year and gave the congregation a new direction. "Good leadership is key to a strategic plan," Hart said. "What made it work for us, more than anything, has been having a couple of leaders who have been willing to see it continue. Long range planning is probably our best organized committee right now. The members continue to talk to the congregation and staff and keep the plan in front of them, reminding them of the plan's goals and finding out what still needs to be done and what has to be done to make it happen."


You can email Wayne Clark, UUA director of congregational fundraising services.

District executives can also help congregations develop mission and vision statements and strategic plans. Contact your local district UUA office.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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