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The Limits Of Long Term Planning


Our generation is desperate for certainty but in a radically uncertain world this cannot be delivered.


Complicated environments can be managed; though challenging, they can be mastered by linear, logical thinking. Complex systems, where a huge number of factors interact rapidly and randomly, produce outcomes we do not foresee until they are upon us. In our lifetime: the collapse of the Soviet Union; 9/11; the banking crash; the Arab Spring. Yet we remain ‘addicted to prediction’, according to business consultant Margaret Heffernan in her book ‘Uncharted: How Uncertainty Can Power Change’ (Simon & Schuster, 2021).


According to Heffernan:


The time horizon for accurate forecasts is dauntingly small: the Good Judgment Project found that, while many forecasters were accurate within only about 150 days, its own super-forecasters weren’t confident beyond 400 days.


That number should give anyone pause when confronted by loud pontification about life and events far into the future.  Organisations that invest time and effort into intricate five-year plans or thirty year plans can’t believe that they represent any kind of absolute truth.  They shouldn’t mistake the gritty realism of numbers for anything more than informed guesswork, rife with assumptions, ideology and bias.


If even super-forecasters – experts who have a track record of predicting social, economic and political better than others – are not sure about the future beyond the next thirteen months, it should give the rest of us cause to reflect.


Churches should set a vision for where they want to go, rooted in the Gospel and the particularities of their community. Plans are then made for how they can pursue the vision and timetables are set for when things should be accomplished by. Good strategy should be flexible, adapting to circumstances as they change. But often these plans have been made for anywhere between three and five years’ time. The Good Judgment Project that Heffernan references suggests that realistic planning can only be made for a shorter period of time and anything beyond that is too volatile a landscape.


In 2021, this is reassuring. Making long term plans as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic feels daunting. There is lockdown brain fog and no certainty about the post-Covid environment. Making plans for the next five years might appeal to that part of our mind that craves certainty, but it may represent a false dream. Short-term, iterative plans are called for. What can be done in the next month, quarter, year? Asking this question regularly will help to discern the way as we travel it.


This journey is not likely to unfold in a linear way, where we join the dots in almost a straight line. There is strong precedent from the Bible. Israel spent forty years getting from Egypt to Canaan when it could have taken weeks to arrive. Instead the Israelites zigzagged their way, forming a nation and a religion along the way, losing their sense of purpose and rediscovering it in a new generation. The early Church, knowing it should make disciples of all nations, needed persecution to drive it beyond Jerusalem and its environs. There was intentionality about the mission, but local realities and opportune encounters were important in shaping it too.


We should not be surprised. There are plenty of individual people who also took much longer than expected to get where God was calling them: Moses and Paul, chiefly, and others who spent years doing nothing publicly significant, waiting for their moment: Anna and Simeon. Not to mention Jesus himself. Most people, reflecting on their own life of faith, will see a journey whose markings look more like idle doodling on a piece of paper than the urgent line of a bullet train. If this is true for the personal walk of faith, perhaps we need to make more room for it in our corporate life.


This is not an argument against planning itself, against the crucial need to be led by a vision sought in God or, indeed, an excuse for laziness. It is a case for humility, proper reflection upon scripture and a recognition that true faith embraces uncertainty in full confidence that God is somewhat more than a super-forecaster: he is Alpha and Omega. The journey is, after all, always the next step.



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