How Do You Plan Successfully?

By: Don McMinn

A dramatic account of personal planning and goal setting was recorded in the March 24, 1972, issue of Life magazine. At the age of 15, John Goddard set down 127 “goals” which he wanted to accomplish in his lifetime. He accomplished 103 of these goals by the time he reached 47 years of age.

Included in these “life-purposes” were to: climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Ararat, Mt. Fuji (and 14 others); become a physician; retrace the travels of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great; study the Hopi Indians; land and take off from an aircraft carrier; type 50 words a minute; learn French, Spanish and Arabic; circumnavigate the globe; milk a poisonous snake; fly in a blimp; climb Cheops pyramid; read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and achieve 110 other goals, similar in variety and scope.

It would be interesting to discover what prompted Goddard, at the naive age of 15, to consider and record the direction and goals of his entire life. (I would also like to tap in on the determination and resoluteness with which he pursued and accomplished these goals!) Needless to say, if he had planned to achieve such specific objectives, he would have fulfilled few of them.

There are very few purposeful events that occur in life that are not first planned. Some may be planned at a dinner table while enjoying a cup of coffee, others in an intricately involved planning session at the office or at a conference. Regardless of where or how plans are made, planning is important and it must be viewed as a necessary and worthwhile endeavor.

Without effective planning, your life and ministry are destined to be controlled by the wiles of circumstances. Those who do not plan seldom reach their potential unless they achieve under the auspices of someone else’s planning efforts.

I suppose a certain amount of anti-planning bias will always exist. Many Christians even refer to James 4:13 as support for their lack of conscientious planning: “Come now, you who say: ‘Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet, you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.”

In the margin of my Bible, I have written, “Planning without God-v.13.” In this passage James is simply denouncing the sin of presumption; it is an attitude he is warning against. In verse 15, James says, “Instead, you ought to say, if the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” He concludes the chapter with the words, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does it not, to him it is sin.” In essence, it is possible to know the will of God (with obvious reference to the future), and once you discover His will, it is sin not to perform it!

I have met very few ministers who would outright reject the concept or practice of planning. Very few would take the position that planning is of no value, and a micro-minority would be bold enough to say that planning is ungodly and contrary to Scripture. However, not enough ministers plan on a consistent basis, particularly personal planning. Few ministers speak against planning but too few engage in it.

Several years ago my wife and I contracted with a builder to have a house built. Several months were spent reviewing and revising architectural plans and drawings. Before the first footing was poured, we knew exactly where each outlet was going to be, the shape of the kitchen cabinets, and the color of the interior stain.

We should consider foolish a man who would build a house without a specific set of plans. “Where do we want the concrete poured?”

“Oh, just over there will do.”

“Where should the walls be framed in?”

“I guess wherever they will fit on the slab that has been set.”

Sound ridiculous? What is truly ridiculous is that many people will be more conscientious about building their house than they will about planning their lives.

What is even more tragic is that most of our churches and Christian organizations suffer from similar results of non-planning. Einstein once characterized our generation as one in which there is an efficiency of means but a confusion of ends. We have never been more busy or more efficient, but we have lost track of where we are going.

Planning is not an attempt to foretell the future. Planning is an attempt to regulate and shape the future and to prepare to negotiate unforeseen circumstances to one’s advantage. Planning always involves decision-making. Planning does not attempt to make future decisions but rather considers the futility of present decisions. Good planning contemplates how a current decision is going to affect the future environment.

Have we seriously considered the implications of Isaiah 37:26? “Have ye not heard? Long ago I did it, from ancient times I planned it. Now I have brought it to pass.” This is God speaking. We are getting an inside view of how He runs the universe-God plans! There is something divine about planning; it is something God considers important; it is the key factor in negotiating His will with the factor of time. Planning is not an option, it is an imperative!

Planning to Plan

Once planning is accepted as a necessary function, adequate resources must be allotted, particularly time and energy. It is important to understand that one must “plan to plan.” A certain amount of time in the daily schedule must be reserved to engage in the planning process. That seems like an obvious requirement which does not need to be suggested but it is probably the major factor leading to insufficient and ineffective planning. It is not that we question the importance of planning or that we are unschooled in planning techniques; the problem is simply that we do not plan to plan.

Planning is a form of work. It is not a matter of “Let’s get our planning over with and then we’ll start working.” When you are planning, you are working.

Having been raised in a family of manual laborers, it took a while for me to associate “work” with functions other than “hands on” labor. Planning is not only a type of work; it is probably the most efficient type of work. The following chart shows a work ratio that demonstrates the importance and efficiency of planning.

Relative to my personal ministry, I devote the entire last week in December for strategic planning. During this week, I attempt to get a perspective on the broad concerns. Once every two months, an entire day is given to accessing and updating plans. Plans for a new week are developed every Sunday evening. Each day’s activities are defined during morning devotions. These designated times are essential. They must be protected and cultivated!

It might be good to clarify at this point the difference between personal planning and planning for your ministry or organization. I have often seen men establish elaborate plans at the office but never carry over the discipline to their private lives. Both are important. I usually organize my personal planning charts under the following headings. (Included are a few specific examples from my 1984-85 charts.)


*Abide by ’84 budget.

*Secure lot to build new house in ’85.

*Start a college fund for children.

*Remain debt-free.


*Write two articles.

*Take a course at the university.

*Attend two conferences.

*Study six major choral works.

*Begin book on choral articulation.


*Read one book per month.

*Develop three new close friendships.

*Secure and learn to use personal computer.

*Begin physical conditioning program.


*Plan one family vacation.

*Develop goals for girls (ages 4 and 6) and help them reach goals.

*Spend one night a week alone with wife.

*Develop family hobby for pastime.

Personal Ministry*

*Lead 12 people to Christ.

*Teach continuous witnessing training course.

*Lead five families into our church.

*Disciple four men.

*Note: These are plans exclusive of my work at the church.

That is, if I were a layperson instead of a minister, I would still have these personal ministry plans.

As minister of praise and worship at my church, my ministry planning charts for last year included:

*Complete music ministry personnel chart by October.

*Begin music conservatory in September.

*Produce “Living Christmas Tree” in December.

*Work sub-planning charts for music ministry. (This would include plans for all choirs, orchestra, ensembles, etc.)

Obviously, each of the above plans was broken down into numerous and often detailed and lengthy goals and strategies.

When I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation I discovered an intriguing term which gave me a whole new outlook on planning. The term is a priori and it is a type of logic which moves from general to specific. It begins with a large entity and breaks it down into smaller segments. The opposite is a posteriori which begins with specifics and attempts to combine them into a whole unit.

It is the difference between opening the hood of an automobile and disassembling the parts of the motor (general to specific) as opposed to going to a junk yard and attempting to assimilate a motor out of various spare parts (specific to general).

Applied to planning, a priori logic means that we first establish broad, far-reaching goals and then we break down those large goals into smaller and smaller units. Unfortunately, we often have to grab onto what is around us (smaller units of achievement) and hope they will somehow fit together into a larger purpose (though they usually do not).

To give another example, it is the difference between a college student selecting a degree program and then systematically passing all the courses required for that degree and a college student who takes courses “at random” and then at the end of four years, tries to make them fit into a degree program.

To oversimplify the issue, there are two types of planning: strategic and operational. General Robert E. Wood, ex-chief executive officer of Sears Roebuck and Company distinguished between the two types of planning and emphasized their relative importance when he said, “Business is like a war in one respect; if its grand strategy is correct, any number of tactical errors can be made and yet the enterprise proves successful.”

Strategic Planning deals with the broad purposes and objectives of an organization, its character and personality. It usually covers a long time spectrum and the entire scope of an organization, and is a concern of top management.

Operational Planning deals with short-range goals and decisions, usually covers a short time span, and is a function of lower management. An organization (or person) can overcome mistakes made on an operational level as long as its main strategy is sound. However, if the primary strategy of an organization is faulty, it is destined for failure, even though its day-to-day operations may be adequate.

In every organization there must be adequate thought put into both types of planning. Too often we get so involved in daily activities that we lose sight of where we are going; or perhaps we have never even considered where we are going, in which case, we are only concerned with day-to-day existence. We never visualize a larger perspective. On the other hand, some may dream dreams of grandeur but never break the vision down into more manageable working units. As a result, they are never able to accomplish the “big things in life” because they cannot visualize how these broad goals must be broken down into smaller, more achievable activities.

Successful Planning

Planning is the key to success, but not all planning is successful. To go through the motions of planning does not mean that we will automatically reap the benefits normally derived from the process. There are several key factors in successful planning:

1. Planning must be flexible. The life of an organization moving through time is like a canoe trip down a large river. Regardless of how conscientiously plans are made, there is a constant need for monitoring and correction if the final destination is to be reached.

Plans should never be “set in cement.” This flexibility factor has become more important in recent years because of the speed at which our society and environment is changing. Plans made a year ago could very well be antiquated and inappropriate. Therefore, planning must not be seen as a one-time event but rather as a continuous process.

Proverbs speaks to this planning characteristic: “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:10); “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand” (Prov. 19:21).

If the future appears to be unusually uncertain, contingency plans may need to be developed simultaneous with primary plans. Specific “trigger factors” would then be identified and monitored.

2. The execution of plans must be monitored and controlled. Some type of system should be developed to ensure that performance conforms to plans. Unfortunately, it is not sufficient to develop plans, delegate their execution, and then forget them. Successful planning necessitates monitoring these plans until they are completed, or in the case of perpetual plans, the task of monitoring must be a constant process which is built into the system.

A specific project may be followed until it is completed, but a plan as broad as the mission or main objective of an organization will need to be observed for the life of the organization or until the plan changes. How often a church will set as one of its major objectives, “To Evangelize the Lost,” but through the years that church will lose its impact on the lost community. Plans must be monitored and controlled.

3. The planning process should involve those who will be responsible for the execution of plans. People support what they help to create. When we are “handed down” a directive, we are generally much less enthused about the idea than if we had been included in its inception and refinement. If at all possible, we should include in the planning process those who will be responsible for the plans.

This is the inherent strength of M.B.O. (Management by Objectives) developed by Peter Drucker in the mid-50s. M.B.O. not only insists that every manager has clearly defined objectives, but that the managers must set their own objectives or be intricately involved in the objective-setting process.

By imposing “our” plans on someone else, we run the risk of miscommunication and perhaps a halfhearted attempt to implement these plans.

4. Plans must be adequately clarified and communicated. How often have you sat through a productive planning session, left the meeting enthused about results and yet nothing ever materialized? There is an essential link between planning and implementation; the link is clarification and communication.

In the course of a planning meeting, thousands of words, thousand suggestions make their way to the surface. When these are narrowed down, modified and finalized, the result should be a concise, written statement of plans.

A planning meeting that does not result in a set of plans is a waste of time. Not only should the plans be written down but it should be determined and recorded who is responsible for executing the plan, when the plan should begin and end, what resources will be allocated to the projects and what restraints will affect the plan (these would include personnel, finances, use of facilities and equipment, etc.).

Likewise, plans must be communicated in a positive, clear fashion. Often this can be done by merely distributing a planning sheet to the appropriate persons. Other situations necessitate a personal meeting between the planners and those whom the plans will affect.

More elaborate means of communication would involve brochures, a slide presentation, or even short trips. Generally, plans that are broad in scope and ones that affect many people necessitate more involved communication. More time should be allotted for communication.

5. An “open system” approach should be the mindset for good planning. If an organization is going to succeed, it must have an open system approach to planning. An open system is sympathetic to its environment; it allows external entities to influence the decision-making and planning processes.

A closed system attempts to exist with no regard to concerns outside itself. Obviously, a closed system will soon become outdated and inefficient.

In a ministry situation, there are certain absolutes such as doctrine, Christian principles and ethics which remain constant regardless of changes in the environment. However, our approach to ministry is in constant need of revision and these revisions should be made looking outward and not inward.

God-The Master Planner

For Christians, the bottom line of this function called planning is seeking the will of the Lord. A planning session is nothing more than a seeking-the-mind-of-the-Father session.

For one full day our church staff participated in a most rewarding planning meeting. We left the meeting having solidified our church’s major thrust for 1985. The strategic direction of our church came first; the operational plans came later.

One staff member shared that through prayer the Lord had laid on his heart Mark 8:22-26. It is the story of the blind man who, having been touched once by Jesus, saw men “like trees, walking about.” Upon receiving a second touch, he saw clearly; he saw men as men. The point is, we too often see people as “trees walking,” temporal, expendable items, and we find ourselves in need of a second touch to see “people as people.”

Another staff member shared the burden of “relationship evangelism” as the key to “fruit that remains.” Along with this is the development of a mindset among our people that they are to share Christ in the sphere of influence in which God has placed them.

Still another staff member contributed the fact that our denomination would be using the slogan “Five in ’85” quite extensively during the year.

After consideration of all input and several hours of brainstorming, the following was solidified:

People as People-our slogan and mission for the year. We will develop in our members a new perspective on the lost community.

Five in ’85. Our objective is to encourage and train our body to bring five people (friend, relative, associate, neighbor, acquaintance) to Sunday school during the year. The ultimate goal is to have these five people join our church.

It sounds simple but it will work! Our entire church is now focused in one direction.

God’s people, more than any other, should conscientiously devote themselves to planning. In order to maximize God’s investment in our lives, each of us should plan for our life, the life of our family and the life of our church. And the sooner we start, the better.

The story is told of a French marshall who asked his gardener to plant a new sprig in his estate. The gardener objected, “But it will take a hundred years for the sprig to grow into a mature tree!”

“In that case we have no time to lose,” replied the marshall. “Plant it now!”

Begin a systematic approach to planning and begin it now. You will be pleased at the outcome.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

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