Jul 06, 2015


What’s Your Ministry Strategy?

Steve Lutz writes on how you can determine how your strategy is distinct from your vision and tactics… and why it matters.

What’s your ministry strategy?

If I asked you (or even better, your students) that question, what would be the response? Maybe something like this:

  • “We’re here to make disciples.”
  • “To know Christ and make him known.”
  • “Equip students with real faith for all of life.”

All of these are fine answers. And all of them are wrong.

Oh, they are good descriptions of vision, mission, or purpose. But they are not strategies.

A bit flustered, you try again at describing your strategy.

  • “We’re having a leadership retreat before the semester starts.”
  • “We plan on doing a lot of outreach to get to know freshmen during the first week of class.”
  • “We’re introducing some new training materials for small group leaders.”

Sorry, these aren’t strategies either!

Strategy is a crucial yet overlooked leadership discipline, because it is often misunderstood and poorly executed.

I’m going to describe two fundamental mistakes you may be making with your strategy, and then give you five questions to help you get clarity around your strategy. Here’s the first mistake:

  • You confuse Strategy with its cousins, Vision and Tactics.

A typical college ministry spends a lot of time talking about vision and purpose, and lots of times in meetings planning things (events, programs, and food. Always food).

In other words, we talk about the big picture, and we talk about the details. Unfortunately, we’re often missing the crucial step in between, and it’s the step we need to make sure our hard work in the details actually carries out our vision. We’re often missing Strategy.

I’ll often hear people talk about vision and strategy interchangeably. They are different.

VISION addresses WHY we’re doing what we do. It’s what we want to see happen in the future. It describes what sort of people, what sort of ministry we want to become. It describes the changes we want to see. It’s a description of our most compelling future state.

STRATEGY, however, is WHAT we’re doing to achieve our vision. It describes our key activities and events. It’s the philosophy of ministry that begins to shape the look and feel of our ministry.

TACTICS describe HOW we do the WHAT. They address the nitty-gritty, on-the-ground details. Tactics are daily decisions about the right way to effectively carry out the strategy.

One way to think of these is by altitude. Vision is at 30,000 feet. It’s all forest, no trees. Strategy is 10-15,000 feet. It sees the forest, but also sees the contours of the ridgeline, the peaks and valleys, the rivers and dry spots. Tactics are on the ground. Tactics deal with particular trees. All three of these perspectives are important. You will miss crucial things if you do not constantly toggle between each of them.

Another way to think about this is by playing a game. The Vision is simply to win. The Strategy is your philosophy, your approach. In RISK or Settlers of Catan or Monopoly or Chess (the ultimate strategy game), do you charge right out, or hold back? Do you always go after the same cards or pieces, or wait to explore the mistakes of others? The Tactics are how you carry out your strategy, piece by piece, move by move.

One more analogy: In football, the Vision is to win the Super Bowl, win the national championship, win the conference. The Strategy is what you’re doing to win: Do you run a Spread offense? A West Coast offense? 3 yards and a cloud of dust ground-and-pound? The Tactics are the play calling, the match ups, the use of time outs.

So in ministry: the Vision may be something about making disciples, knowing Christ and making him known, or any of the many threefold descriptions like Win/Build/Send, Christ/Community/Calling, or Love God/Love Others/Reach the World. Vision statements are remarkably similar from ministry to ministry.

It’s at the strategic level that we start to see distinctives emerge. Strategy indicates that one ministry wants to make disciples through a centralized weekly fellowship group, while another avoids a large-group altogether and focuses on a network of small groups. One group’s strategy involves or springs from a local church; another’s doesn’t even mention the local church.

Tactics then get into things like Welcome Week activities, how people are placed in small groups, who the fall retreat speaker will be, etc.

In each of these, your Strategy takes its overall objective from your Vision, and then governs every aspect of your Tactics. Knowing the difference between these three, and giving appropriate attention to each, makes a huge difference in your ministry.

2) You confuse Strategy with Operational Effectiveness

Have you ever collapsed on your couch at the end of a long ministry night, and railed against all the other things competing for students’ attention? Then as you think about your own event, you make notes of all the things you could have done better? You vow to work harder. But what if you’re giving it your best effort…and it’s still not enough? 

As we assess our effectiveness, it’s possible to assess ourselves with a more hopeful conclusion than “We just need to work even harder.” Though we’re trying to work more efficiently, we’re often not working more strategically. In fact, not knowing the difference is a big part of our problem.

In his legendary Harvard Business Review article entitled, simply, “What Is Strategy?”, Michael Porter says this:

In many industries, however, what some call hypercompetition is a self-inflicted wound, not the inevitable outcome of a changing paradigm of competition. The root of the problem is the failure to distinguish between operational effectiveness and strategy.

Porter defines Operational Effectiveness as doing essential activities better, that is faster, more error-free, more efficiently. Doing things the right way, or the best way, is “necessary but not sufficient” for true and sustainable growth. That’s why we work to tighten up how we do things, but feel so exhausted at the end with little to show for it, relative to the effort we put in.

Porter goes on to say that we need to think Strategically, which emphasizes what is distinctive about us. It means doing different activities from the competition, or doing similar activities in different ways. We underestimate the importance of strategy, instead thinking that vision and operational effectiveness will be sufficient.

Do you see what this means for you and your ministry? You have been set free to not have to be super-efficient at everything! You may not need 14 more staff positions and quadruple the funding after all! (Thinking strategically is dangerous because it may remove some of our built-in excuses).

It’s important, but not sufficient to merely be efficient. Striving for near-perfection is frustrating, and will likely take away time, energy, and attention away from those things that we need to do differently. So don’t simply do things the right way. Do the right things!

Questions to Clarify Your Strategy

Here are some questions you can walk through with your team in order to identify and better articulate your strategy. After talking and praying through your Vision (and this can’t be done often enough), and laying out the difference

between Vision, Strategy, and Tactics (as I’ve done here) grab a white board, and start sketching out some strategic questions. Strategy forces us to ask some essential questions, like:

1. What makes us unique and distinctive?

Our ministries only “compete” with each other in the most superficial of ways. We should view ourselves as on the same team as anyone on our campus who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, no matter the differences in strategy. But its still important to identify what makes us unique, so that we can focus our energies on parts of the student population not being reached by current ministry efforts. Homogeneous ministries mean that only part of the campus will be reached. Dare to be different!

2. Which of our activities “fit” with our Vision and Strategy; and which do not?

An honest audit of our calendar will reveal things that used to work but don’t work anymore, or that we continue to do “because we’ve always done that,” or someone’s sacred cow that should be put out to pasture. Strategy forces us to fit our time, energy, and resources to the vision, and to rid ourselves of what doesn’t.

3. Who are we trying to reach and serve?

In this case, answering “college students” is not specific enough. What kinds of college students? What subgroups? If you’re stumped, spend time scanning through the list of registered student organizations for ideas. Then ask who your ministry is equipped to reach, and how you plan on doing that.

4. What are we saying “No” to?

The discipline of saying “No” regularly and strategically is one of the hardest skills for leaders to develop. While Vision can often be wide and expansive, Strategy helps us realize that for every Yes we say to one thing, we need to say No to others. Vision wants to do everything; Strategy lives in the real world and requires trade-offs. It might be helpful to develop a “No” list; those commonly requested things that you have decided beforehand you will not do, for strategic reasons.

5. What is sustainable?

Are we trying to do things that we simply can’t continue doing, with the time, energy, and resources we have? Better to do a few things well than many things not well, or not at all.

Having a robust conversation around these questions will go a long way towards filling out that middle ground between Vision and Tactics, and help you not only do things right, but to do the right things.

about the author

Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz is the lead pastor of Wellspring Church in State College, PA Penn State University. He is also the author of two books, King of the Campus (2013) and College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture (2011). He frequently speaks and writes on college ministry-related issues, and consults with college ministries across the country.