Faith Communities

Down with Generic Mission Statements - Up with "Essential Intent"

I’m over generic broadly-stated mission statements.  Aren’t you?  

I  mean, come on.  How many of us have come across (or perhaps even written) mission statements that say:  “We want to be the premier service provider in our industry as we serve our customers with integrity, innovation, and  quality.”  Ugh.  That doesn’t articulate mission - it generically embraces mediocrity!

On the other hand specific quarterly goals don’t always float my boat either.  While they may be clear, they don’t always help see the big picture about why you exist.  Wells Fargo gave their banking employees very concrete goals - we saw how that worked out for them!

What if instead of generic mission statements and disconnected goals, we created an "Essential Intent" for our organizations that clearly spells out what it looks like for our organization to “win."

Some examples of Essential Intent might be:

  • Every opioid addict in the City of Richmond to have access to treatment by 2020
  • Every veteran to have access to quality housing by 2022
  • Every Richmonder will be within 2 miles of healthy food options in the next 10 years
  • Every start-up in Virginia will have a stage appropriate place to go for help in 5 years
  • High-speed internet is available to every Virginian by 2025

In his book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says “essential intent” is a clear statement that is more specific and measurable than a mission statement and at the same time more inspiring than quarterly goals.  When we boil our work down to essential intent, we make the “one decision that makes 1,000 decisions.”

Essential intent offers clarity to our work and teams that both inspires and focuses us on that which is essential.  Essential intent clarifies what it looks like for our organizations to “win.”

Imagine how that kind of clarity would transform your daily work! Not only does it give clarity to what is essential, it also gives permission to STOP DOING that which is NOT essential.  Yeah, those TPS reports that don’t contribute to the “win,” stop doing them and stop making your employees do them.  Why pay people to do work that isn’t essential to your organization’s “win?"

Just imagine how your work, your team, your organization would be different if we made "the one decision that makes 1,000 decisions”.  When we articulate and then act on our Essential Intent, not only does the organization “win”, but our clients our customers, our guests, our community wins.

You Don't Have to Be Big to Think Big: Strategic Planning for Small Churches

Church Strategic Planning Richmond Va

We've said this before and believe it is worth repeating: You don’t have to BE big to think big.  Just ask Belmont United Methodist Church. Belmont is not a “big" church, they don't have a big budget, and yet...Belmont is making a big impact transforming lives in south Richmond. One example - each Friday Belmont UMC opens its doors to host up to 400 people for a food pantry.  Of course, it's about more than giving food.  They are sharing hope with people who may not have a lot of it otherwise.  They are building community.  That’s big.

In January, I had the privilege of spending a day with Belmont's leadership council for a strategic planning retreat.  Their passion for their community was truly inspiring.  As they confronted the challenging economic, political, and geographic realities of their community, Belmont's commitment and passion to faithful action with their community never wavered.   That’s big.

During the day, I asked their team a question:  "If Belmont achieved its vision and you were in a hot air balloon looking down at your community, what would you see?"  The leadership of Belmont dreamed together, and  envisioned, "sidewalks filled with people in conversation", "children outside playing", and "everyone having enough of what they need.”  They were describing a picture of a community made whole.  That’s big.

The people of Belmont church were envisioning how they can be a part of bringing hope, healing, and stability to a community that struggles with poverty, crime, and fear.  Each Friday morning as people gather for the food pantry there is no "us" and "them," it’s a community gathering to experience the fruit of big ideas lived out in focused mission. That’s big.

Belmont UMC's determination to think and act big is helping change lives in the community. It was my pleasure to walk them through this collaborative process and I can't wait to watch them nail their plan. 

Innovation Isn’t Just for Entrepreneurs…

Bringing innovation to churches and nonprofits

This week I got to spend several days with my grad-school friend, Bill Habicht, brainstorming a workshop we're presenting at the NEXT Church National Gathering in March.  The title is Ideation for Innovation - it sounds bigger than it really is.  Basically, we want to help folks think differently.

It's SO easy in church-world, and in any organizational context for that matter, to fall into familiar patterns when approaching challenges and developing solutions.  You know, because, "we've always done it that way."  In the end we usually wind up feeling stuck. But, if we think back to those breakthrough moments where we were able to effectively problem solve, they typically came when we envisioned and approached the problem in a different way.

So, we’re designing a workshop that offers tools for helping others think differently.  To do that, we were challenged to think differently:  what tools are people using in other contexts that we could use with our workshop participants? We spent three days brainstorming, dreaming, revising, and planning. We’ve borrowed concepts from Stanford’s D school; models from Ash Mayura; and conversations from local idea-makers in the RVA area.

Church and non-profit organizations face many significant challenges.  We can discover creative and innovative solutions for these challenges...if we allow ourselves to think about them differently. Stay tuned for a recap of our session in March 2017.

They Aren't Just Buzz Words - Burnout, Self Care and Infrastructure

Why Nonprofits and Their Employees Need to Take This Seriously

Admittedly I am only about 25 pages in but everyone needs to go buy the new book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman with a bonus super special forward by Vu Le of Nonprofits With Balls. (Which as a side note if you are not reading, you are missing some poignant and amusing slap-the-desk content).

This year I was fortunate enough to meet Beth when she came for the 2016 Nonprofit Social Media Conference in Richmond. I've followed Beth's work online and through two other phenomenal books - The Networked Nonprofit and Measuring the Network Nonprofit. Immediately, this book is a little different. 

After 10 years of consulting across different sectors I have found a trend that nonprofits often suffer two common problems. These problems are especially prevalent when the organization has a faith based or social justice mission - where the employees personal passion in the work and/or call clouds their ability to practice self-care. 

1. Nonprofit employees often work too hard because the problem/issue is just that big. Poverty, birth rates, trauma, health, housing - the problems are weighty and will require many people to legislate, advocate, and educate in order to move the needle.

2. Nonprofits regularly under invest in infrastructure by putting too many resources into their programs. They ignore or slight themselves in informational technology, strategic planning, process improvement, outcome development, etc. 

These two issues are obviously linked and double back upon themselves. Employees work hard because they don't have the resources to support their work. The problems are so gigantic they need all the programmatic support they can get. Beth is known for her humor and her grace in highlighting emerging issues with nonprofits. I look forward to finishing the book and continuing to talk to nonprofits about investing in themselves. Healthy Nonprofits do better work. 

Antioch United Methodist Church Plans for the Future: Probono Spotlight

 Antioch United Methodist Church

Antioch United Methodist Church

Just because you are little does not mean you aren't making an impact, and certainly does not mean you aren't deserving of some outside help. At The Spark Mill we have an ongoing commitment to providing high quality services to small organizations who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford working with a consultant. The probono program is a key feature of our goal of equitable access. Additionally, we have been working over the last few months to adapt our strategic planning process to the needs of faith organizations and the unique role they play in the health and wellness of a community. This past weekend these two areas aligned as we focused our attention on Antioch United Methodist Church in Kenbridge, VA. 

Antioch has flourished in the past two years with attendance, giving, and mission work all growing substantially. Their key question was: Where do we focus next and how do we accomplish our goals? 



We relied on two pieces of information for the gather phase - a Congregational Electronic Survey and a Congregational Measures of Health data set. With a great response rate to the survey we were able to dive in and see where the congregants' views about the church, its mission, and future focus all lined up. 


A small team comprised of members of the Vitality Committee, Church Council, and other church leaders sat down for the entire day on Saturday to make sense of the data. We spent time looking at the environment, looking at the congregation, and looking at the community. 


We ended the day with five solid goals for the church to build on, assigned them all to committees, and discussed ways to engage the rest of the congregation over the next few months. 

 Close up of Map of Our Community exercise - What does the community need?

Close up of Map of Our Community exercise - What does the community need?

There were some major "AHA" moments, epiphanies if you will, throughout this process both by the Antioch team and The Spark Mill.  Sometimes it just takes an outside perspective to help you recognize who/where you are and where you are headed.  As we finish up their report and strategic plan we have that warm fuzzy feeling, knowing we had an opportunity to participate in a transformative experience. 

How To Know If Your Church Needs A Strategic Plan

This is a guest post from The Spark Mill Consultant, Chris Bennett. Chris is a pastor who has a deep passion for the transformative power of strategy and planning. 

You may have heard the saying “let go, let God”.  While it’s not a direct biblical quote, it was inspired by scripture such as "be anxious for nothing" (Phil 4:6) and "seek first the kingdom of God" (Mt 6:33). The scriptures encourage us to keep our hearts open and walk by faith, not sit idle, relinquishing all planning and action. St. Paul writes in Eph 4 and 1 Cor 12 about the practical gifts each person is given for building up the kingdom. Building up is not passive – it’s work!  As any good builder knows, it requires a blueprint- a vision of the end product and a plan to get there. Here I am reminded of the “Parable of the Talents”.  As a church are you burying your resources or investing them?  Here are five questions that will help your congregation decide.

5 Key Questions to Ask 

 1.   Do you feel stuck?

Does ministry feel like riding an exercise bike?  Are you working really hard, breaking a good sweat, but never seeming to make much progress?   

First, know you are not alone.  So many times, as leaders in the church, we feel sort of…stuck.  Stuck in the routine… Sunday to Sunday, budget to budget, just existing from one liturgical season to the next.  The process of developing a strategic plan can help move a church forward by inspiring new ideas, and mapping out ways to achieve them.   Planning a strategic way forward can focus church priorities, enabling it to be good stewards of gifts of time, talent and money.  In the end the church will have clarity on who it is and how God is calling it to engage the community and world – positioning it to make a greater impact for the gospel.  

2.   Are you struggling to figure out the next steps for the church?

Sometimes there are so many great ministry opportunities in our community we start to feel overwhelmed.  This generally plays out in one of two ways – either we do nothing while we wait for our committees to make decisions, or, more often, we try to do it all, spreading our resources too thin, making very little effective impact.  

A strategic planning process helps clarify who we are and who God is calling us to be in our communities.  This allows us to confidently focus our ministry and outreach in ways that make the most impact for the gospel in our community.  Working together as a team to discern and invest in a long term vision of the church fosters confidence and unity as the church moves forward. 

3.  Is your attendance or participation plateaued or declining?

"Facts are our friends.”  This is a phrase a friend of mine uses over and over.  Leaders in the church often avoid looking at the facts, the numbers, because we are afraid of what they might say about us.  However, evaluating the key measurements of the church (worship attendance, giving, small group participation, etc.) provides an opportunity for change, growth, and survival.  Like high cholesterol, if you just keep eating the same things, refuse to get tested, and never get medication, what is going to happen to you?  Ignoring the signs and avoiding the results will not prevent the problems. But, if we monitor our current condition and treat the symptoms, we are able to make shifts and changes as necessary - beginning a new, healthy growth phase in the life of the church.  

4.  Do you have positive momentum going?

Of course, your church doesn’t need to wait for a plateau or decline to engage in a forward thinking strategic plan. When you are experiencing healthy momentum in ministry, it’s a great time to make sure your team is prepared for what’s ahead and your church has a unified vision for the future.  Strategic preparation for future growth and long term direction instills confidence and encourages a greater impact in the community.  

5.  Are you comfortable?

Ministry is hard and in many ways it should be.  When we find ourselves in a comfortable routine as the church, it can feel like sabbath time.  Sabbath is a biblical value…for one day a week.  As long as we are doing the work of the church here on Earth, we are not to remain in a sabbath mentality.  Instead we are called to engage in both sabbath AND meaningful work.  Comfort can lead to complacency.  Brene´ Brown said it well, "You can either be comfortable or courageous, but you cannot be both.”  The gospel calls us to courageously live out our discipleship in the community of the church.  

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions it might be a good time to consider investing in a strategic plan.

The Spark Mill would love to sit down with you and chat about where you are, what concerns you may have, and see how we may be able to help.  We offer handcrafted strategic planning – which means we understand that every organization is unique, with its own personalities, dilemmas, caveats, and solutions.  What this means for you is that we will take time to get to know your church, evaluate your specific needs, and help you to take the next step.  If you think you are a good candidate for strategic planning, you really aren’t sure, or you KNOW you aren’t but have a couple of questions - we would love to sit down with you for coffee or lunch.