Leading the church with vision clarity is my life’s work. At any given time across the church landscape a certain set of pastors, probably around 10%, are actively thinking about the future in a heightened way. Maybe it’s a new ministry assignment or the accomplishment of a big project. Maybe it’s a doctrinal dispute or significant staff departure. Whether good times or bad, most pastors, at some point, find seasons of deep interest in clearer vision, sharper focus, and better execution.

Given our shared experience with the COVID upheaval, almost everyone is simultaneously asking future questions with extra vigor. The questions are more difficult because the dynamics present a mental strain on top the emotional exhaustion and decision-making fatigue. Nevertheless, these may be the most important days of our lives to imaginatively look ahead and fervently steward hope.

These may be the most important days of our lives to imaginatively look ahead and fervently steward hope.

Tweet this

In this post on how to set church goals during COVID, I want to start by visiting what hasn’t changed. This is the most important place to stay grounded. Every church leader needs to recall the places where past or present footing can be sturdy and handholds will be assured. In fact. here is a top ten list of what hasn’t changed after COVID.

  1. The mission of Jesus didn’t change.
  2. The values that motivate your church before COVID didn’t change.
  3. The local cultural context hasn’t changed.
  4. The gifting and special calling of people in your congregation didn’t change.
  5. Your ability to imagine a preferred future hasn’t changed.
  6. Your capacity to focus your resources didn’t change.
  7. The basic human desire for hope and need for inspiration didn’t change.
  8. The reality that God leads his people through leaders hasn’t changed.
  9. Your ability and capacity to build personal relationships didn’t change.
  10. The depravity of people and ample lostness of individuals around you hasn’t changed.

While this list could keep going, it is sufficient to be reminded that our most important spiritual realities have not changed.

Our most important spiritual realities have not changed.

Tweet this

There are two very important conclusions I will draw from this list. The first is that it is a good day to be a leader. Yes, our leadership is challenged and, of course, we are all very tired. But don’t let a more demanding environment minimize the opportunity to become a more godly leader and to provide more godly leadership. Hurricanes grow stronger oaks. Your opportunity has never been more fertile.

Another way to think about this opportunity is to consider: The degree to which you feel permanently dislocated by COVID is related to the degree that you had stopped growing as a leader before COVID. Why was an immediate change of programmatic patterning so awful? Because we simply weren’t pattern-learners or pattern-makers in recent history—we were pattern slaves to the patterns we were handed or developed a long time ago. If you were already growing and reinventing yourself before COVID, then you think about COVID and approach the future differently. (Hint: You might even feel more energized post-COVID.)

Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.

Tweet this

The second very important conclusion from the top ten list is that the vast majority of churches weren’t excelling at vision clarity or goal-setting before COVID. That is, most churches don’t connect members to the mission of Jesus in a meaningful way as the “why” of attendance. Most churches don’t take time to practice value-based leadership. Most churches, prior to COVID, weren’t focusing their resources extremely well. Most churches before COVID didn’t have a well-shared goal among leadership. I don’t say this to be critical or mean, but to provide perspective. It will be a useful vantage point for the rest of our post. Keep in mind that I do think that most church leaders are visionary; they just lead with a general sense of the future that doesn’t accomplish much that is noteworthy or exciting.

Now back to our headline. With the top ten list as background, how should we go about setting goals for the church during COVID? Follow four steps. The fourth step provides an important brand new tool created during COVID.

Step One: Know Your Church Before Your Rally Your Church.

For the best results in goal setting, a church should have a decent sense of identity. Knowing who you are is your greatest asset in knowing what you want to do next. I take churches through the Kingdom Concept tool (Chapters 1, 8, & 9 of the book Church Unique) before I set goals.

Step Two: Don’t Put the Program Goals before Discipleship Goals.

It’s easy for goals to inadvertently work against the mission of Jesus, because we can get stuck in a “program church” paradigm. I just released Future Church for ministry teams to wrestle with this challenge. I highly encourage you to dialogue about the seven laws of real church growth. In other words, don’t set disciple-faking goals; set disciple-making ones!

For example, let’s say a church wants to increase worship attendance or it’s percent of people who watch church online for at least 10 minutes. There is nothing wrong with a goal like that. But over time many churches will only set goals regarding the “inputs” of attendance and giving without setting goals for “outputs” of spiritual growth or reproducing disciple-making. What about setting a goal for reading scripture or time invested in cross-cultural service?

Many churches will only set goals regarding the “inputs” of attendance and giving without setting goals for “outputs” of spiritual growth or reproducing disciple-making.

Tweet this

Step Three: Dream of a Marathon Before You Blitz at a Goal.

After my first ten years of helping churches set goals, I realized that short-term goals year after year benefit from a longer-term dream. A bigger aspiration that takes years to accomplish provides a sense of trajectory or what I call a beyond-the-horizon vision. It’s like telling the future story of your church with chapter titles that name big chunks of the future story.

For example, I have helped hundreds of churches do a life map where they name the chapter titles of their past story. This naturally leads to chapter breaks of 5-10 years. Why don’t we do that looking forward? Well, the fact is you easily can, you just need to slow down enough to do it. I wrote God Dreams as the step-by-step guide to do the long-range dreaming as a team.

Step Four: During COVID, Set One Goal at a Time Every 3-6 Months.

Up until now, I have been emphasizing the things that don’t change in this post. Now we hit the one thing that does change: our time horizons must get shorter. I usually recommend a 1-year goal for churches leaving room for 4 action initiatives that update every 90 days. Now I recommend that you fiercely focus on one big discipleship goal every 3 months. It might work to go four, five, or six months depending on your context. The priority: Keep it super simple and super focused. Cut through the crazy with an ultra-sharp blade of singularity. Don’t you dare set a bunch of goals. When church leaders do start to plan they usually over-plan. Over-planning leads you to try to do too much which leads to frustration and failure with everything you aimed at.

Here comes the good stuff.

Within the first 7 weeks of COVID, Dave Rhodes and I developed an ideation tool called COVID Era Goal Ideas that gives you 12 COVID-friendly categories to think about. This is a seriously cool tool. The matrix has 3 motivations that might be bubbling up right now in your heart to consider. Then it gives you four beachheads for dynamic ministry that aren’t inhibited by the ability to meet in large gathering spaces.

Pick ONE of the areas to advance. The right area to advance is the one that you and the leaders feel the most energized to engage right now. Where can you inspire hope? Where can you build an easy win?

In a follow-up post I will take a little more time to illustrate and walk through these goal setting ideas.