Effective strategic planning requires an active imagination — not because such effectiveness is hard to imagine but because we need to activate our imagination to plan effectively.

To be sure, data is indispensable to good planning. We need to know trends and metrics on enrollment, endowments, annual giving, revenues, and expenses — and, just as well, the forces operating in the wider world of theological education, the church, and culture. Necessary as this data is, it is not sufficient for developing a sound plan for a school’s future. We also need imagination if we are to see what the data means and to create from it a true, realistic, compelling vision for the future of the school and how we can get from here to there.

An evocative account of the imagination we need is provided by V. A. Howard in Learning by All Means: Lessons from the Arts. Imagination, he writes, is “the meeting place of past and present experience, of memory and anticipation … from which may emerge new directions for future efforts.” He goes on to say that this imagining “stands in marked contrast to two extremes: drudgery, on the one hand, or means without dreams; and fantasy, on the other, or dreams without means. My purpose overall is to show how means and dreams get connected.” 

This is also our purpose in strategic planning. We must avoid sinking into organizational drudgery, in which our dreams are lost in the limitations of our resources — limitations we know all too well (see data). At the same time, we cannot lose ourselves in fantasy, imagining things we have no means of achieving. Dreaming, creating a vison for our future, and connecting those dreams to reality is the goal of the strategic planning we do in our schools. 

Leaders of theological schools have a particular responsibility for orchestrating the institutional stakeholders — board, faculty, administration, and others — in this imaginative work. In addition to gathering the requisite data, we would be well served to think about how we might activate the imagination of participants in the planning process. We need everyone’s creative thinking to see beyond the present, to imagine a faithful vision for our future and how we might marshal the means to achieve it. Perhaps our planning retreats need time with art and music as well as data. Visio Divina anyone?

To read more from Bill Cahoy on stategic planning: "Strategic planning = spiritual discernment."