Strategic pastoral planning


By Dan Ebener
For The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series of articles by Dan Ebener on leadership in the Catholic Church. They are excerpts from his latest book on leadership, to be published this fall.)

Pastoral planning is a time for the parish community to come together to plan strategically while discerning God’s will for the parish. The paradox of God’s will is that we are granted free will — only to discover the beauty of surrendering to God’s will. It is by living the will of God that we can find true purpose and meaning in our lives.

Parish Council members at St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant participated in a leadership retreat July 14 conducted by Dan Ebener.

Pastoral planning is a process of using our God-given free will to discern the will of God. We become servants to the plan that God has for us. We remain open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We start with prayer and reflection. We listen and speak from our hearts. We get out of our comfort zone. We become forward thinking. We take risks.


As we think outside the box, we also need to think inside the circle. The circle represents the limits to which we can think outside the box. The limits in a Catholic parish include canon law, Scriptural values or outside mandates, such as diocesan policies. Every organization has a limit to how far outside the box they can think. There is usually plenty of space outside the box but inside the circle that has not yet been explored.

For example, canon law does not allow a Catholic parish to change the rules governing ordination. This may be very discouraging for some parishioners. They might think that canon law is shutting down opportunities for leadership. But if we define leadership as an activity that can be practiced outside of authority, then we don’t need to be ordained to lead. We can lead without ordination. That is the space outside the box but inside the circle.

Many parish challenges require “outside the box but inside the circle” thinking. There is a need and room for leadership from many directions. We need to set aside our mistakes of the past and open our minds and hearts to future ways of thinking and acting. In the fast-paced world we live in today, it is impossible for those in authority to have all the answers. We need to tap into the collective experience of the parish.

On the following page are the eight steps to my eight-step strategic pastoral planning process, designed on the book, “Strategic Planning: An Interactive Process for Leaders,” which I wrote with Fred Smith.

Step 1: Set the stage. Initiate the interactive process.
Step 2: Do your homework. Conduct an environmental assessment.
Step 3: Describe the culture. Articulate the mission and core values.
Step 4: Frame the questions. Identify the strategic areas.
Step 5: Answer the questions. Develop the strategies.
Step 6: Get specific. Write the action steps.
Step 7: Discover the vision. Craft the vision statement.
Step 8: Hold yourself accountable. Implement and evaluate.

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