Bill Easum

Those who follow my antics know that I make a distinction between strategic planning and strategic mapping. To put it bluntly, I don’t think we have time in a warp-speed world to do extensive planning. Moreover, there’s not enough reliable information on hand about the future to do strategic planning. However, I do believe that we must take time to map or chart a course for our journey.

What’s the difference? Strategic plans are drawn before one begins the journey based on the information at hand. Usually one of two things happens: Either people follow the plan even if it isn’t working (because so much time was invested in drawing up the plan that no one wants to discard it), or the plan is placed on a shelf to gather dust.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever charted a course knows that course corrections take up about 90 percent or more of the navigator’s time. Likewise, a strategic map gets drawn as the journey is underway. It is never in concrete like most strategic plans. Consider Moses . . . In taking the people from Egypt to Canaan, he had some idea of the heading on which to begin because he had some idea of the landscape, but he had no concrete plans for getting across the Red Sea. He just knew anything was better than making mud bricks in slavery (continuing the slow death of the congregation), so he started out on the journey. Strategic mapping is starting out on the journey with a general idea of where you want to go, yet being flexible enough to be inspired, take detours, reroute, or even start over again if that is where God leads you. Because the destination is more important than the plan itself!

The reason so many church leaders have problems understanding and accepting this difference is that most of our churches are still firmly in the grasp of people possessed by 20th century Modernity, which includes management by objective, strategic planning, rationality, linear direction, cost-benefit analysis, quality control, and continual improvement. However, in the real world organizations often find themselves gradually moving in directions they never intended or planned. And if something works, in retrospect they label it a deliberate strategy or a strategic plan. In other words a lot of strategic planning is not very strategic after all.

In his book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (Harvard Business Press e-book), Henry Mintzberg uses the metaphor of a potter at the wheel, where strategy is the clay. The key to the potter’s craft is the intimate connection between thought and action: guiding the clay, responding to its shape, bringing experience and knowledge to the task while looking to the future, sensing rather than analyzing, and learning while sculpting the clay. Now we are face to face with strategic mapping, drawing the map, molding the clay as we make our way through the wilderness called life. Strategic mapping, unlike strategic planning, is not based mostly on information as much as on hands-on experience.

Think of strategic mapping as different from a highway map that says “this way” or “turn here.”  Think of strategic mapping as topographical mapping, filling in the hazards, terrain, contour lines of the culture, canyons, streams, etc. Strategic mapping is not so much a “do this when this occurs” or “avoid this” or “at the next intersection take a right” as it is “Here is the lay of the land. Where you want to go and what you want to accomplish will determine which paths might best get you there the safest or the fastest.” Tom Bandy has a lot more to say about this in his book Moving Off the Map (Abingdon Press).

Another way to look at strategic mapping is to compare it to jazz. A jazz piece has a basic theme that musicians play all around, improvising as it feels natural to them. The more that strategic mappers chart new courses through unfamiliar territory (starting new ministries), the more natural it feels to play around with the map, trying new paths and scouting out new ministries. Some paths will begin to feel more right than others. Over time, strategic mappers begin to smell dead ends (ministries that won’t reach people) before taking the wrong route. Sure, an enormous amount of thought and planning goes into playing jazz, as well as endless practice. But in the end the great jazz musicians have the ability to instantly and unthinkingly sacrifice the best musical score simply because some flash of intuition has suggested a better sound. They have learned how to improvise as they go.

In the beginning strategic mappers may not have any more than a starting point and a desired destination in mind before setting out on the journey. If the journey is one that has been taken before, then some parts of the map may be drawn in already, but not in detail. If the journey is one that has never before been taken, as is the case with so many effective ministries today, the map is mostly blank between the point of departure and the destination. As the explorers become acquainted with the landscape and the wildlife, they make notes about which paths to take so others can follow. The more people who take the journey, the better the map is drawn. As better equipment is invented, the more detailed the map becomes. Over time a full-blown map to the future emerges for less adventurous leaders to follow.


So the most effective strategic mappers are often forged out of years of exploration. Study after study has been done in the corporate world to discover the ingredients in the making of a leader. These studies have resulted in very little usable data. But one piece of data has emerged: Very few, if any, senior executive types emerge fully formed. Most studies show that it takes ten to twenty years to grow an excellent manager (John Kotter, General Managers). Do you see any comparison here with how Jesus prepared for his ministry? Ever wonder why he was already an old man of thirty (old for that era) before he started to mentor others? We know from Scripture that he began preparing for his role very early in his life, but even he wasn’t ready for many years.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to take a journey where very few people have been, I want a seasoned guide who has at least made the journey before. I want that person to at least have some semblance of a map in hand. I don’t mind if the person adds details to the map as we go, but I sure don’t want that person to start with only a blank page to draw the map on.

Like explorers, most strategic mappers learn best on the job. The challenges that confront them and the ways they handle those situations become their primary learning lab. They may be well educated and terribly smart, but if they are not capable of “adaptive-on-the-journey learning,” they will wind up spinning their wheels in some dead-end ministry or worse yet, being eaten alive by some well-meaning church member who knows how to work the system so that nothing new ever transpires.

Strategic mappers are constantly on the lookout for newer, faster, and better ways to do indigenous ministry in a rapidly changing world. They can change course on a dime when they see the path they are on isn’t going anywhere. When mapping a trail through the wilderness, you don’t stop to consider if this is the way it’s always been done or if you are following procedure. You just make a decision: This trail or that path . . . anywhere beats being lost.

That’s where adaptive-on-the-journey learning comes in. If I want to be one of the people to help my congregation navigate through what I call a “wormhole in history,”* then I better be a lifetime learner. Better yet, I must see my number-one role in life to be that of developing my spiritual leadership. Here, then, is the number-one reason most church leaders can’t lead: They don’t see life as one big learning experience and they don’t develop their skills as a spiritual guide.

So chew on these tidbits:

· Just about everything I learned in seminary or college is out-of-date already.

· The book I read last year is already debunked by someone.

· Just about the time I think I’m getting it, “it” is no longer relevant.

· If it worked today, the odds are it won’t work tomorrow.

· If I take a look at your library, how many books will I find that were written this year or

in the second or third century?

· If you haven’t read at least a dozen books this year, there is no way you can keep.

ahead of the wild beasts.

· The last thing I learned made so much sense that I instinctively knew it wouldn’t work, so I threw it out.

I’m getting a headache so I’ll stop there, but you get the picture.

What’s a leader to do? Learn from every experience that comes your way and ask, “What’s God trying to tell me, and how do I journal it for the next people to come along behind me?” That’s the ministry of strategic mappers. Nike would love them.

*See my book Leadership on the OtherSide (Abingdon Press).


A strategic map gets drawn as the journey is underway.

The destination is more important than the plan!

Strategic mapping, unlike strategic planning, is based more on hands-on experience than on information.

Copyright 2002 by Net Results: Reprint permission (including digital transmission) granted within the purchaser’s local congregation.