Three Ways Ministry Leaders Think Strategically

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo and former VP at Google, has told a great story about a phrase that greatly impacted her. The summer after her senior year of high school, she attended the National Youth Science Camp and was impressed by guest lecturer Zune Nguyen. As the students were discussing their awe of Zune’s brilliance, a counselor chimed in and said, “You have it all wrong. It’s not what Zune knows, it’s how Zune thinks.” Zune could be “put in an entirely new environment or presented with an entirely new problem, and within a matter of minutes, he would be asking the right questions and making the right observations.” Mayer says she was really impacted by the phrase “It is not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks.” (*)

Strategic thinking is more about how a leader thinks than what a leader knows. A strategic leader thinks about more than merely what is done. A strategic leader thinks about why and how something is done.

A strategic ministry leader doesn’t merely know a lot about ministry or only have a lot of experience in ministry; a strategic ministry leader thinks deeply about how ministry can be most effective. Ministry tasks and programs are not just mindlessly executed. More than what we are doing, a strategic ministry leader thinks about the why and the how.

How can a ministry leader learn to think more strategically? Here are three practical ways to think more intentionally about local church ministry:

1. Think onramps, not cul-de-sacs

An onramp is a tool to help someone access the journey. A cul-de-sac is an end in itself. For example, there is a major difference in a leader who treats an event as an onramp and one who treats an event as a cul-de-sac. A cul-de-sac thinker celebrates the event as an end in itself. An onramp thinker views the event as a catalyst for other opportunities, to move people into the journey of the church.

2. Think handoffs, not only programs

Oftentimes the fastest teams do not win relay races. Relay teams win because they have mastered the art of the handoff. In the same way, effective ministry strategy is much more than producing great programs. Thinking strategically includes thinking about how people can progress through a discipleship process, not merely attend isolated programs within one. Thinking strategically includes thinking about the handoffs from one program to another. For example, a church can offer great worship services that are rooted in Scripture and simultaneously offer groups that help people live in biblical community. But the space between the programs is often the hard work. How a church moves people from attending to attaching is one example of the art of the handoff.

3. Think “Now what?”

A strategic ministry leader thinks about more than the what of programs but also thinks about the how and why of everything the church does. A strategic ministry leader is disciplined to think, “Now what?” Instead of an event just ending, a program closing, or an initiative concluding, a strategic leader, for the sake of the people being served, thinks about what is to come.

This is a true statement about strategic and intentional thinking: It is not just what you know but how you think.

* Here is a transcript of Mayer recounting the story during a commencement speech: