The Holy Spirit and Strategic Planning

I have been pondering the questions Marshall Shelley raised in response to yesterday’s post. Marshall wrote: “My sense is that “strategic thinking” is the commercial vernacular today. The artistic vernacular today would be “self-expression.” What would have been the equivalents in Paul’s day? Was there a “trade language” or an “artistic language” or worldview that the apostles chose NOT to use when they opted FOR “Spirit-led intuition”?” These are questions worth considering. We know that the apostles were intentional about their leadership decisions. We also know that at strategic points they resisted cultural  or group norms.

Two examples come to mind immediately. The first was early on in the church’s development, when the apostles chose to give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word rather than personally handle the daily distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:1-4). What interests me about this decision is its emphasis on the place of prayer. Prayer was one of the priorities that shaped the outcome of their decision but does not seem to have been employed in making the decision. That is to say, they chose not to handle the problem themselves so that they would be able to make prayer their priority, but did not need to pray in order to make such a decision.

It is possible, of course, that they did pray and that Luke simply does not mention it. But if we take the text at face value, this seems to have been a “no brainer”–a decision made on the basis of previously established priorities. The other example that comes to mind is Paul’s decision not to employ the kind of rhetorical techniques that appealed to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:1-5). This involved an intentional decision not to speak in a culturally accepted rhetorical style out of a concern that it would obscure the cross. This seems closer to what Marshall describes as a “trade language” but is not directly related to “Spirit-led intuition.”

So what is the biblical equivalent to the contemporary commercial vernacular of strategic thinking? I find myself struggling to find an answer. In a way, it feels like comparing apples and oranges. The apostles’ decision to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word rather than the daily distirbution of food was “strategic” on multiple levels. Personally, it enabled them to fulfill their pastoral responsibilities without being distracted by other necessary and important work. Corporately, it enabled the church to fulfill its biblical responsibility to its widows. Missionally, it set the stage for the expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles. Indeed, the root of this conflict was ethnic in nature, a result of the tensions that existed between Hebrew culture and Hellenistic culture. The cultural dimension is further reflected in those who were selected to handle the distribution (note the preponderance of Greek names).

But what about the sort of ministry choices we usually associate with “strategic” thinking? The selection of fields of ministry, choice of personnel, and timing? This is where we move into more difficult territory. When the church of Antioch sent out Barnabas and Paul, they did so in response to a directive by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:1-3). On another occasion Paul turned towards Macedonia as the result of a vision (Acts 17:2). While I believe that the Holy Spirit continues to direct the church, I do not think the means described in these verses are normative for today. At least, they have not been normative in my own experience. But this does not mean that they have nothing to contribute to one’s “theology” of strategic thinking. They indicate that apostolic strategy was pneumatic in origin (i.e. guided by the Holy Spirit) and relational in nature.

Here, I think, is where we find the positive answer to Marshall’s question. We cannot know for certain what “trade language” they chose not to use. But we do know the kind of language that they did use. It was the language of relationship. The kind used by those who have been personally called by the living God. It was the language of accountability, the kind employed by those who are under orders and who must one day give an account to God for all that they have done. It is this personal, spiritual dimension that I fear we have lost in the contemporary church. We too are in relationship. We too are under orders. Like Paul, we too need to be “obedient to the heavenly vision.”

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John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

4 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit and Strategic Planning”

  1. I believe the Holy Spirit directs in many ways that we may directly regognise, and at times may not.

    I think we must carefully navigate the extremes, that is, conservative Evangelicals must not bristle at the term, “the Holy Spirit told me…,” or, “Let’s fast, pray and wait…”. Furthermore, Pentecostals must be more judicious with the same terms.
    We have a lot to learn from each other.

    The questions for me as I plan is, have I prayed, am I being wise, timely, and in accords with the scripture? If I am not fully sure on all fronts, I make the best decisions I can and let God guide me through any mistakes.

    Hope I’m tracking with your points John.

  2. Dr. Koessler,

    LOVE the blog. Your bookmarked in my browser and this is quickly becoming a daily spot that I look forward to visiting 🙂

    This talk of strategic thinking and Spirit-leading resonated with me as I am in the process of sending out resumes and cover letters for a place in a church. And other posts of yours have resonated as well, especially about the George Bailey Lassoing the Moon – I have such great desires to start a church and change the world – which are good and honoring to God, but as my counselor and I often discuss – God desires for me to simply be faithful with the things I’ve been given in this stage of my life. That’s for some reason more freeing to me knowing my part-time job as a host at a restaurant close to home can be a wonderful place to serve (which it is!) and knowing I’m not “behind” on some life-plan that I suspect my parents and others adhere too.

    Anyways. Liked that post. And this other idea you’ve talked about. As I search for a ministry job I’ve come face to face with strategic thinking and Spirit-leading decision making. I’ve come to learn Churches move very very slow, and their reasons often frustrate me.

    When I asked one church about the timeline they had to hire someone, the pastor responded, “Timeline? Ha, wish we had one of those.” Another pastor informed me that each resume they received goes through 3…three! committees that pray over each candidate. And every church wants “God’s man” for the position…reminded me of Moody when they searched for a new president.

    And that’s a good desire to have. It’s good to pray…but part of me thinks about scripture and I say to myself, “God already’s told you what kind of man to hire! Read 1 Timothy, make sure he lines up with those qualities, and then make sure he’s good with college kids or whatever group he’ll be working with! and Bam! Done. Hire him.” If often wonder if waiting on the Spirit to lead them towards a specific person is really just a cover up for a really long process in which they really just choose the person they want, but just feel a lot better about..or have “peace” as many say.

    Random thoughts too – I mean, we all know they were strategic and smart back then. Jesus when talking about counting the costs refers to men who plan before building a tower, or going into war. I’m sure “strategery” transfered over to the church as well. I think a big issue is we are always hoping to distinguish between God working and us working…so we can always make sure God is working, or leading, or whatever you want to call it. But I don’t know if we can distinguish that. I mean, can any action that’s wise and godly come apart from God? And yet the Spirit does lead, give visions, and speaks…not normally like that in my life, would be nice. But I wonder if God’s upstairs thinking, “I already told you how to live and what to do – be faithful, love people, and tell em about Jesus when you get a chance…what else are you looking for?”

    This was long. I’m sorry. But you make me think! And you rock!

    David

    1. Thanks, David. Great to hear from you. I know what you mean about churches being slow. I suppose it is good training to help us get used to God’s timetable. 1 day=1000 years. Turn that equation around and that’s about what it feels like.

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