Leaders of theological schools routinely navigate the nuances of Torah law; Trinitarian controversies; the oeuvre of Rahner, Barth, and Marion; not to mention the subtleties of shared governance. Yet we can still be intimidated by the occult mysteries of strategic planning — not just planning, mind you, but strategic planning. It’s an alien language, methodology, and genre with categories at once technical, ill-defined, and momentous. Of course, this is the experience many of our students have with theology, but that’s a topic for another day.

Fortunately, most of us have the aid of a board, which has a particular responsibility for the mission and direction of our schools. Because the board includes people with experience in things we lack, like strategic planning, it’s important that we learn from them.

However, it is also important that we find our voice as theological educators in the shared work of strategic planning. The genre may sometimes feel imposed from the outside by accreditors or “corporate” expectations, but the central work of strategic planning has significant parallels to an ancient spiritual practice: Discernment. Specifically, discernment of vocation.

Institutions, like individuals, have vocations. What is God calling us to do in the time and place we find ourselves? This builds on honest assessment of what we have been, what we have shown we are good at, and even what gives us joy. It also identifies current needs in the church and the world that we can address, recognizing that changing circumstances may call for different ways of living out our identity. The discernment of this vocation is the soul of strategic planning.

Of course, it is important that we articulate the fruits of this discernment in a format that is publicly accessible and can guide actual decisions. This typically means stating who we are (mission), our particular abilities and weaknesses, and the forces and resources outside the school that will affect how we live out our mission. Out of this we can generate a vision we hope to achieve and concrete goals and actions to make that vision a reality. That is the strategic plan.

And it is here, in strategic planning, that we need to bring our own experience to the table, along with the experiences of others. This pooling of expertise enriches the thinking of all and creates a plan that is both appropriate to a theological school and corporately responsible. 

The real challenge in strategic planning is not the alien genre. Rather, it is applying to our schools the kind of honest assessment that we also need to apply to ourselves, the world around us, and the call to discipleship that we counsel others to do.

To read more from Bill Cahoy on stategic planning: "Planning and imagination — or how to connect dreams and means."