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Why pastors should be both goal-setting fanatics and cynics

I decided to post this again because today I came across a vigorous debate in the business world about "goal setting gone wild."  The post below originated as a lecture to Christian ministry students at Taylor University about the benefits and dangers of goal setting. 

 Original post: June 24, 2006

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Part I: Four reasons why goal-setting is indispensable to pastoral ministry:

1. Without clear goals, we will often end the day having accomplished nothing important.

The youth pastor textbook Youth Ministry Management Tools includes this nugget of wisdom:

“You’re almost guaranteed trouble if you come to the office without a plan for the day. It’s amazing how time slides by and, to your dismay, you discovered you haven’t accomplished anything close to six hours’ worth of results from your day’s activities. Ministry is not about us simply putting our time in at the office” (Ginny Olson, Diane Elliot, and Mike Work, Youth Ministry Management Tools. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001. p. 73).

Without thinking through goals, we will have no criteria by which to sort through the demands upon us. We will need to instantly analyze whether we should do what someone asks us to do. These rushed decisions will produce mistakes. I often feel angry at myself for not accomplishing more in a given day.

2. Without clear goals, our fellow workers in ministry will not know which direction we are going.

Have you ever tried to “caravan” – drive with a number of different vehicles to the same location? What happens is that people have to go through red lights to keep up with each other. The lead car often has to pull over in unsafe places for the other vehicles to catch up. Safety experts say the safest approach is to give each car a set of directions and to communicate by cell phone if someone gets lost. In the same way, it is very difficult for our fellow workers to keep up with us if they don’t know where we are going. It is better to give them the map ahead of time. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster, 1999) which is based on 80,000 interviews, believe one of the most important things managers can do is “define the right outcomes” for the people they are working with. We don’t need to supervise every little detail someone is doing if we have described to them the final destination.

3. It makes sense to focus on a few things because we can’t do everything.

Rick Warren gives this illustration in his book The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission (Zondervan, 1995, p. 157).

“Imagine what would happen to a commercial radio station if it tried to appeal to everyone’s taste in music. A station that alternated its format between classical, heavy metal, country, rap, reggae, and southern gospel would end up alienating everyone. No one would listen to that station!”

Pick something and do it well. Every 6 months, I need to articulate a new set of challenges to keep me motivated. You probably will too. I often list a whole bunch of ideas and then have someone help me to narrow them down to a few that I should focus on.

4. With clear goals, extraordinary things are possible.

Practice makes perfect. It really does. If you work at something steadily, you can accomplish extraordinary things.

Anders Ericsson’s work, “compiled in the The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, a 900-page academic book that was published last month [June 2006], makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated . . . ‘I think the most general claim here,’ Anders Ericsson says of his work, ‘is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it’” (Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, “Freakonomics: A Star Is Made,” NY Times Magazine, May 7, 2006).  See also How to Grow a Super Athlete in Play Magazine, February 2007.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a major league baseball player. I loved throwing a ball against the back of our house. It would bounce back to me and I would practice fielding it. I would even try to throw the ball to my right and left and practice diving plays. I did this thousands of times. From the time I was six, I was known as a good infielder. The more I was affirmed, the more I practiced. I ended up playing baseball through college. On the other hand, I disliked playing the piano. I would practice the 15 minutes per day that my mother required but not one minute more. Because of my minimalist approach to practice, my recitals were traumatic. I was always surprised at how badly I did. When I would sit up there on stage, I would expect to do well but I would always get lost and mess up. The point is simple: what we like to do, we do often and thus get good at it.

Pastoral theology author Eugene Peterson entitled one of his books, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (InterVarsity, 2000), based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote which reads: "The essential thing in heaven and earth is . . . that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results . . . something which has made life worth living" (Beyond Good and Evil, 1907, section 188.)

When I reflect on these reasons for goal-setting, I am inspired to dream a little. What do I want my life to look like in 10 years? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I hope my ministry is doing? . . .

Now, how can I break that end goal into small parts? And what can I do today to take a small step toward those goals?

Goal-setting keeps us focused, effective, inspired, and fruitful. Four cheers for fanatical goal-setting. And now . . . why we should be very suspicious of goal-setting.

Part II: Four reasons why we should be suspicious of goal-setting in pastoral ministry:

1. We are often fooling ourselves to try to set long term goals.

“Precise long range planning isn’t difficult. It’s impossible!” says Jim Plueddemann, professor of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at his blog. My 21 year old students often have trouble picturing what ministry they will be doing in ten years. I’m sympathetic to them because I don’t know either. I like being a pastor and being a professor. Will I be doing one or the other or both or neither in ten years? What should I be planning for?

Consider again Rick Warren’s quote that we cited above.

“Imagine what would happen to a commercial radio station if it tried to appeal to everyone’s taste in music. A station that alternated its format between classical, heavy metal, country, rap, reggae, and southern gospel would end up alienating everyone. No one would listen to that station!” (The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission. Zondervan, 1995, p. 157).

What Warren does not say is that there are huge ramifications when one narrows one's audience--many which are unintended.  [I have written more about Warren's approach at: A wider target: Deconstructing and redeploying the Seeker Sensitive Service planning of The Purpose Driven Church and Strengths of the Purpose Driven Church and Sober Advice For Those Considering the Megachurch]. When we specialize too quickly, we may miss the richness of learning a bit about the other genres of music. People donate to NPR (National Public Radio) stations precisely because they are not driven by commercial interests but rather play a variety of jazz, classical, news and talk in an attempt to edify the listener.

When a church decides to “target” ministry to married upper-middle class businessmen, often the poor (or “underresourced”), single, and disabled are subtly treated as inconvenient to the programming. A church may be better off intentionally having a more general focus.

Similarly, a student may be better off cultivating a number of ministry skills in a small church (including teaching, administration and pastoral care to a variety of age groups) as opposed to immediately specializing in a large church by being the director of small groups to single men who are between the ages of 21 and 25.

Setting goals helps us to focus and narrow down. But sometimes intentionally keeping a broad scope reflects the fact that we cannot know the long-term. Sometimes it is better to keep our options open.

2. Goals that focus on the A, B, C’s, (attendance, buildings and cash) are not God’s primary goals.

I tease my students that anyone can come up with an instant “vision” for any ministry. If they say they are interested in inner-city basketball ministry, I say: “I have a vision of (a) thousands of kids streaming into a (b) gorgeous 20-court basketball facility in downtown Chicago and (c) hundreds go to college with money donated by NBA players.”

Another student is interested in family wilderness ministry. I immediately throw out a “vision” of (a) thousands of families going to a (b) 500,000 acre park where they can whitewater raft and mountain climb and (c) there is a staff of 300 full-time trained Christian guides.

In each case, I am illustrating that anyone can articulate “a vision” in terms of attendance, buildings and cash. Jim Plueddemann says it this way: “If you have precise, predictable goals you are aiming at something of secondary importance.” There is nothing wrong with these ABC goals but we must realize that they are secondary. Pluddemann goes on to say: “The most important goal is to glorify God and help others come to Christ and progress in their pilgrimage toward Christlikeness. Such goals are imprecise.” Glorifying God and helping people grow in him are our primary goals. It is also difficult to precisely measure them.
Therefore, if we have accomplished our ABC vision, but have not glorified God, we have not accomplished anything. If our goals are ABC-oriented, let’s make sure they don’t get in the way of our primary goals.

3. Written vision statements are overrated. You can still have vision without them.

Thom Rainer did a study of churches that went from “good to great.” He calls these churches “breakout churches.” He and his researchers found that formal “goal-setting” and “strategic-planning” processes did not play a role in these churches becoming more effective.

“Our research team did not hear any of the leaders of the breakout churches mention any efforts to discover vision. Yet they all have a clear and compelling vision today . . . What these thirteen churches had in common was a vision that ‘discovered’ them rather than a painful search to find out God’s specific plan . . . The Vision Intersection Profile is when the Leadership’s Passion, Community’s Needs, and Passion/Gifts of the Congregation intersect” (Thom Rainer, Breakout Churches: Discover How To Make The Leap. Zondervan, 2005. pp.112, 113, 114).

Some people are already focused and inspired. They don’t need some goal-setting mechanism to get them going. These bureaucratic processes can sometimes drain energy from the really passionate people instead of inspiring the unfocused. Writing down your personal goals or articulating a mission-statement may actually lead to a subtle feeling that the work is now over!

“We found a lack of written vision statements among the breakout churches. Conversely, we found written vision statements in more than 70% of the comparison churches. The leaders of the comparison churches seem to think that, if they could just get an idea in writing before the congregation, the people would follow. The breakout leaders discovered vision long before any statements were written, if they were ever written.” (Thom Rainer, Breakout Churches. p.115).

4. It is more important to fan your passions and riskily attempt action than to articulate your goals.

Tom Peters, author of the book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, writes:

"Plans? Goals? Yes, I admit that I plan and set goals. After I’ve accomplished something, I declare it to have been my goal all along. One must keep up appearances: In our society “having goals” and “making plans” are two of the most important pretenses. Unfortunately, they are dangerous pretenses -- which
repeatedly cause us to delay immersion in the real world of happy surprises, unhappy detours, and unexpected byways. Meanwhile, the laurels keep going to those mildly purposeful stumblers who hang out, try stuff with reckless abandon-- and occasionally bump into something big and bountiful, often barely related to the initial pursuit” (Peters, T. The Bookstore Journal. Feb. 1991 quoted by Plueddemann).

The secret of an effective life is not how to do SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely). Rather, it is closer to what Rainer discovered in studying great church leaders.

“Breakout church leaders understand the incredible brevity of life. They desire to make a difference for the glory of God in this short period. And they trust in a God of miracles for whom all things are possible” (Thom Rainer, Breakout Churches. p.127).

Conclusion:
So do we set goals? Yes! We use goal-setting to keep us focused, effective, inspired, and fruitful. But goal-setting must be done with humility, depth, passion and trust.

This should be our prayer. God, show me what kind of person you want me to be in 10 years. God, show us what kind of church you want us to be in 10 years. We want to glorify you. We want to see people grow to know you more. We will risk because we trust you. What step do you want me to take today?

Update May 20, 2009

There was a lively debate about goals in
The Academy of Management Perspectives
Issue: Volume 23, Number 1 / 2009
(Not available for free online).

There were two opposing articles:

"Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting" pp. 6 - 16
Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, Max H. Bazerman

"Has Goal Setting Gone Wild, or Have Its Attackers Abandoned Good Scholarship?" pp. 17 - 23
Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham

Now you can read one of the camps' response.

"On Good Scholarship, Goal Setting, and Scholars Gone Wild"
Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, Max H. Bazerman
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
Working Paper 09-122

This group wants to be cautious about goal-setting.  Here are two good quotes from their working paper.

"There is mounting causal evidence linking goal setting with a range of behaviors including a shift in risk taking (Larrick, Heath, & Wu, in press), greater unethical behavior (Schweitzer, Ordóñez, & Douma, 2004), and a narrow focus that draws attention from other important elements of the problem (Staw & Boettger, 1990)." p. 5

"As financial crises, Ponzi schemes, and the collapse of the automotive industry demonstrate, the combination of unethical behavior, risk-taking and poor judgment can be toxic. We are not implying that goal setting was the primary cause of the current crises. Instead, we suggest that we should develop and sharpen our understanding of those contextual factors that produce harmful behaviors." p. 8

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