Faith Formation

Strategic pastoral planning

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series of ten articles by Dan Ebener on leadership in the Catholic Church. They are excerpts from his latest book, “Pastoral Leadership: How to Lead in a Catholic Parish.”

Pastoral planning is an opportunity for the parish community to discern God’s will for the parish and to plan accordingly. The paradox of God’s will is that we are granted free will – only to discover the beauty of surrendering to God’s will. It is by living the will of God that we can find true purpose and meaning in our lives.


Pastoral planning engages our God-given free will to discern the will of God. We become servants to the plan that God has for us.  We remain open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We start with prayer and reflection.  We listen and speak from our hearts. We get out of our comfort zone. We become forward thinking. We take risks.

As we think outside the box, we also think inside the circle. The circle represents the limits to which we can think outside the box. The limits in a Catholic parish can include canon law, scriptural values or diocesan policies. For example, canon law does not allow a Catholic parish to change the rules governing ordination.

However, when we define leadership as an activity that can be practiced outside of authority, we realize we do not need to be ordained to lead. We can see the need for leadership and make room for leadership from many directions. We can lead without ordination. That is space outside the box but inside the circle.

To plan strategically, we need to set aside our mistakes of the past and open our minds and hearts to future ways of thinking and acting. In the fast-paced world we live in today, it is impossible for those in authority to have all the answers.  We need to tap into the diverse experience of the people to discover the collective wisdom of the group.

My eight steps for strategic pastoral planning are covered in the book, “Strategic Planning: An Interactive Process for Leaders,” published by Paulist Press, which I co-wrote with Fred Smith.

Dr. Dan R. Ebener teaches courses in leadership, strategic planning, dialogical skills, conflict resolution, team-building and people skills at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.