Archive for March, 2013

Dealing with Uncertainty

14 Mar

(Portions of the following are taken from the book For the Sake of the House . . .)

The United States is heading rapidly towards the ‘fiscal cliff,’ as our deficit and un-balanced federal budget continue unchecked. As a result of this and the influence of individuals who are opposed to religious organizations, there is increased talk about eliminating the tax-free status of religious organizations and other non-profit charitable organizations, and removing the charitable giving deduction  for individuals who contribute to these organizations. The impact on federal revenue is estimated to be over $74 billion. The impact on these non-profit organizations and those they serve is uncalculable.

The questions: If this occurs, have we considered how this will affect local congregations? How we gather? How we support facilities? How we support vocational ministers? Will people still give if the charitable deduction is removed?

How do we prepare if this happens? Are there disciplines, resources, and/or tools available to help us strategize for a preferred future?

In 2008, a colleague and I presented a futures scenario (strategic foresight) workshop for a local church congregation. In futures studies and scenario planning, an event is used as a change agent to consider how the organization’s future could be impacted and what strategies must be put into place now to prepare for a preferred future. The change event we presented: the government eliminates the tax-free status of religious organization (including the charitable donation deduction). Remember, this is in 2008, before all the rhetoric about eliminating the charitable giving deduction.

This discipline is not looking into a crystal ball or coming up with generalized views of feared or desired futures, or predictions. Scenarios are clear descriptions, or stories, of significant plausible alternative futures. They are specific ‘decision-focused’ views of the future resulting from insightful analysis and predictions. As Ralston and Wilson state, they are “frameworks for structuring leaders’ predictions about alternative future environments in which decisions might be played out.”[1]

Scenario planning has a number of benefits for organizations. It helps develop an integrated approach to thinking about our environment (internal and external), moves us towards a clearer understanding of the dynamics of change we must deal with, and helps us rehearse the future. One additional benefit scenario planning has that is vitally important is that it helps reduce our vulnerability to surprises by helping us to envision a variety of possible futures and think through their implications. This is the element of strategy essential to anticipatory leadership.

Although we cannot know what this century will mean for the Church, we certainly want to intentionally engage in planning and strategizing for a preferred future. This activity will not guarantee events will unfold as planned, God remains sovereign, however, as he directed the leaders of the tribe of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, we are to “understand the temper of the times and know (knew) the best course . . . to take.”

Let me break this down with an example from a futures workshop Dr. Stephen Brimmer and I did for a local church. Consider the following:

We know the church has a glorious past. Since its inception, it has been a bastion of faith and hope. It survived immediate intense persecution, the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, the Holy Wars, but still experienced great revival and growth.

However, what about its future . . . what about the 21st century? Will its current institutions and structures still exist in twenty, thirty, or fifty years? Will its large congregations dissolve into smaller groups reminiscent of the apostolic age and meet in homes? Will these congregations go virtual?

Dr. James Canton, a renowned futurist and author, makes an unsettling statement when listing his top ten threats that could kill America’s future. Number one on his list is “religious fundamentalism that is intolerant and restricts personal freedoms.”[2]Does this ‘threat’ include Christians who disagree with certain lifestyles, the taking of innocent human life, or caution against genetic and biometric engineering that alters the human species? If this moves forward and there is a backlash against Christian principles, would we be prepared to alter the way we are structured, the way we worship, associate, and evangelize?

Just imagine for a moment; what if the federal government passed legislation eliminating the tax-free benefit to religious organizations? Would church buildings close because of the tax burden? Would contributions decrease since there is no longer a charitable giving deduction provided? What if youth visually receive the internet feed via their corneas? What would happen to those engaged in the emerging cyber-church? Would the millions Christian pollster and sociologist George Barna predicted would never travel physically to church but instead roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences,[3] suddenly dissolve into cyberspace?

There are a number of benefits that come from this exercise. They:

    • develop in us an integrated approach to thinking about our environment;
    • move us toward a clearer understanding of the dynamics of change we must deal with; and
    • help us rehearse the future – evaluate the “what ifs.”

An unexpected benefit is that, in the course of making the scenarios (stories), conversations can occur that otherwise would never come up in the everyday life of a congregation. The emergence of these unmentionables allows difficult issues to surface in non-threatening contexts. In essence, the participants understand that the scenarios are fiction, not action plans or visions for the future that any particular group is promoting. What is interesting is that they can have non-fictional outcomes because new possibilities emerge. However, the primary benefit of scenario planning it to reduce our vulnerability to surprises by forcing us to envision a variety of possible futures and thing through their implications.

As illustrated in Figure 6.3, the interrelationships between linear and non-linear systems, which compose

Figure 6.3: Alternative Possible Futures[4]








reality, generate uncertainty. Trends and their impacts are crashing into each other at all times and this creates turbulence and change. These are the things we typically are uncomfortable with and try to avoid at all cost. But it also generates never before seen combinations of social impacts, of technologies, of ideas. This collision generates an intersection; a perfect environment for creativity.[5]

[1] Ralston, Bill and Wilson, Ian; The Scenario Planning Handbook: Developing Strategies in Uncertain Times. Crawfordsville, IN; Thompson, 2006, p.16.
[2] Canton, James; The Extreme Future. New York; Dutton, 2006, p.337.

[3] Careaga, Andrew 1999; Embracing the Cyperchurch. Accessed at: Dec99/embracing­_ the_cyperchurch.htm.

[4] Schultz, Wendy L. 2002; Infinite Futures. Accessed at:

[5] Brimmer, Stephen E. and Raimo, Steve W. 2008; Futures Planning Workshop: LifePoint Church Vancouver WA, Virginia Beach, VA. Regent University, School of Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

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