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Planning and goal setting in mission

5 March 2007

Twenty years ago I went on a course in mission and evangelism at the Haggai Institute in Singapore. It was a month-long course for people from many different countries in what was then called the Third World. One of the things they taught us was planning and goal setting.

I was also taking courses in missiology at the University of South Africa, and one of the things I had to do was write an essay on the value of the goal-setting approach to mission. I think I still have the essay somewhere, and I was in two minds about it. I recognised some merits to the goal-setting approach — it is so easy to drift into things, say one is being led by the Holy Spirit, and draw the bulls-eye around whatever you’ve achieved, and say that was our goal. It is so easy to jump into something this week, without thinking, and in three years time realise you’ve saddled yourself, or the local church, with a burden that consumes resources without much return, and then to say that after all God knows what he’s doing, and something good may have come out of it, so we don’t need to plan to make wise use of limited resources.

And I have sometimes felt frustrated by this in the Orthodox Church — the wild mood swings from “don’t rock the boat” frozen immobility to taking spontaneous leaps of faith, like deciding to open a seminary in three weeks time, when there are no qualified teachers (and no resources to pay them), no suitable students, and solving that problem by going out into the highways and byways and compelling them to come in.

On the other hand, in my essay on the topic, I thought that being rigidly bound by a plan, and treating planning and goal-setting as not merely a tool but an over-arching framework, one could stifle the Spirit, and miss many opportunities.

I remained in two minds about it, or swinging myself from one to the other. And Orthodox missionaries seemed to fall into both camps. St Nicholas of Japan had a plan, and followed it. He was a near contemporary of two Western missionaries in the Far East, who interestingly enough seemed to come up with rather similar plans — Roland Allen, an Anglican, and John Nevius, a Presbyterian. St Nikolai’s plan was to train a few local people, and equip them to train others, who would train others in turn, on the model of II Timothy 2:2. His model worked, but not just because of the plan. It worked because God sent him the right people to start with.

While doing research for my doctoral thesis I spoke to the abbess of the Monastery of St John the Baptist at Karea, near Athens. They were (and are) a missionary monastery with a missionary vision. And one of their principles is that they don’t plan. They wait for God to send them an opportunity, and then they pray about it to see if it is really what God wants them to do. They don’t go out looking for things to do. They don’t have mission goals. They are simply available.

And now Father Stephen has written about the unplanned life, and got me thinking about it again. I believe that on one level, he’s dead right. But I still have misgivings, and I still think it can let us make excuses. There is still the tenstion between making an idol of planning and goal-setting on the one hand, and drifting into things (or leaping into them) without thinking, and blaming God for the resulting mess.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 March 2007 8:24 am

    Hi Steve, I found your blog after you made a comment on my Jeremy Clarkson rant. Thanks for agreeing by btw.

    About the above, my own feelings on this are definately leaning toward goal setting and planning. I do this often, and for the most part it has proved to be useful in that I’ve been able to stay motivated since I know what I’m working toward. The valuable thing that I’ve found is that even if you have your own plan, if it is not within His will, God will make it known and a new plan will need to be formulated, listening ever more closely to His voice.

    While I may need structure to my life, it is not necessarily true of others, and I guess we have to find the balance that suits us best.

  2. 20 March 2007 10:25 am

    The tension between freedom and structure will always be with us. Once we wrestle with this a bit, live a little and see the benefits and pitfalls of each extreme, we can come to a good design for life.

    My view is we give all (perhaps only for a time) to gaining mastery, knowledge and discipline, and then we give this disciplinary approach away completely, and be open.

    True freedom cannot exist without real application, be it education, changes of heart, or skill aquisition. And discipline has no meaning if it does not result in freedom, a freedom for oneself and the world in which one finds oneself.

    There are inspiration-centric people who see lack of discipline as a virtue, but the resultant “mess” here is mediocrity, stupidity, and chaos.

    Just because G-d might use have (seeminly only once) used a donkey to deliver a message, does not mean one should aspire to be a donkey, or that donkeys are some sort of standard.


  1. Planning and goal setting in mission « Notes from underground

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