Strategic Planning During Crisis – Where to Start

The past several weeks have been unlike anything our churches have ever experienced. As the world has gone under lockdown, nearly every organization has been dramatically impacted. Most of us have had to learn new technologies and new ways of loving one another from afar. This is our reality today, but all organizations need to…

planning during crisis

The past several weeks have been unlike anything our churches have ever experienced. As the world has gone under lockdown, nearly every organization has been dramatically impacted. Most of us have had to learn new technologies and new ways of loving one another from afar. This is our reality today, but all organizations need to be planning during crisis for a future that won’t look like today — and probably won’t look like 2019 either. Only the Lord knows.

In this article we will look at four steps that churches should consider in planning for the future, and those steps likely should be taken for three planning horizons. While churches generally aren’t managed like businesses, there are lessons and tools from the business world that, by God’s providence, are available to help churches as well.

The four planning during crisis steps are:

  • financial modeling,
  • scenario planning,
  • situation analysis, and
  • strategy development.

The three planning during crisis horizons are:

  • “the right now”: how your church can survive the pandemic
  • “the restart”: how to relaunch after the lockdown, and
  • “the new reality”: how do we operate next year and beyond

This article is structured to look at each planning step, considering how to perform that step for each planning horizon. If you need help with any of this, please let me know.

As Proverbs 16:3 tells us “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.”

The Three Planning Horizons

Before we dive into the planning steps, we need to understand what is true about each of the three planning horizons.

The first timeframe is the “right now” — between today and when lockdowns start to ease and operations can start returning to “normal.” Planning for the “right now” is all about prayerfully finding a way to continue to be the church to our community. Initial efforts were simply about redefining what it meant to be a church when we could no longer meet in person. But most churches have limited cash on hand and traditional sources of funding have likely slowed. So, while we pray for God’s provision, and trust Him to do His will, we still will be doing our part by planning during crisis and making decisions to sustain the church’s operations through the pandemic. 

The second timeframe is the “restart” — the transition period that starts when the lockdown ends. We will be able to legally regather in our places of worship, but we won’t yet call this period “normal.” People will still be (rightly) wrestling with fears, and we should (rightly) proceed with caution. Many of our families will also be grieving. For some that will be for the loss of a loved one, but many more will have lost their jobs or made deep sacrifices that have impacted them in profound ways.

The third timeframe is the “new reality” — for planning purposes it probably makes sense to think of this starting at the beginning of 2021. This is “business as usual” but it probably won’t be the “normal” we knew in 2019.

As Proverbs 16:9 tells us “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” We are to plan, but only God perfectly knows the future. We can’t accurately predict any of these three planning horizons. There are always things we can’t know, but right now, those things are big and have a huge impact on our future planning. How long will we be in lockdown? When will parishioners return? What will be the greatest needs in our community? What will be the impact on our budgets?

Financial Modeling

By now the financial leaders within your church have undoubtedly developed cash flow projections which your leadership team have used to make hard decisions. So, to some extent, this step is a “given” and my advice to perform financial modeling may seem like it has come a bit late.

However, there is still a lot of planning during crisis and strategy development left to do. And all of that planning will need to be done against multiple scenarios. As one recent article described it “every organization is now a startup” and so having the kinds of financial models that business startups use may prove very helpful.

Strategic planning for startups is very different from doing the same for existing organizations. Startups have to be focused on very rapidly executing the detailed launch of a new venture while still positioning for a long term successful organization. That may not sound different from church leaders who are managing the day-to-day while maintaining a strategic vision, but startups are doing so in the midst of intense uncertainty and change.

Startups don’t take anything for granted, rightly identifying unproven assumptions as the hypotheses they really are, constantly iterating and pivoting until they find the successful path forward, and making sure they have the resources to pull it all off. 

Your existing financial management and reporting tools will continue to be critically important, but they may not provide the flexible modeling that you likely will need over the next several months. What you need is a bottoms-up, assumption driven model that makes it easy to run many different scenarios. The impact from changing one assumption will immediately be reflected throughout the rest of the model. In business, this is sometimes called a “back of the envelope” model because it greatly simplifies the overall financials to help make quick decisions, but lacks the precision to be useful for ongoing financial reporting.

I would recommend building this model in an online spreadsheet tool like Google Sheets so that the entire leadership team can be viewing the model remotely as different scenarios are modeled. When building models like this I typically have a summary worksheet as the first page in the workbook which shows cash in, cash out, and resulting cash flow. This summary sheet likely shows these results on a weekly basis through the “right now” period, a monthly basis through the “relaunch” period, and then a quarterly basis for the “new reality” of the next few years.

I then typically have three additional worksheets behind the summary sheet. The first backup page contains overall assumptions, such as when the church can start meeting in person again, projected giving as a percent of normal giving during each of the three time periods, and perhaps a similar estimate for projected expenses as a percent of budgeted expenses. The second backup sheet models incoming cash. I would probably approach this by copying the giving line from your 2020 budget into this sheet, and then applying the percentages from the first assumptions worksheet to get to projected giving by week. The third backup sheet takes a similar approach for expenses. Depending on how your church operates, it may make sense to break out fixed expenses (e.g. rent, insurance) from expenses that are more tied more closely to actual in-person activities (e.g. utilities, Sunday School supplies). If you are considering making changes to headcount or salaries, you probably want to model these expenses separately as well.

Proverbs 19:2 warns us “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” A flexible financial model can help you understand the financial implications of the changes you want to make before you make haste and lose your way.

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Russ McGuire
Russ McGuire is the founder and chief strategist for SDG Strategy. He has been blessed to serve as an executive in Fortune 500 companies, found technology startups, be awarded technology patents, author a book and contribute to others, write dozens of articles for various publications, and speak at many conferences. More importantly, he's a husband and father who cares about people, and he's a committed Christian who operates with integrity and believes in doing what is right. You can reach him at [email protected]