Don’t Stretch Credulity with BHAGS and Stretch Goals

The actual achievement of audacious goals is very uncommon.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


Most chief executives are constitutionally optimistic,
and since by definition their role is to surmount challenges,
the tenor they bring into the boardroom
is likely to be relentlessly upbeat.[1]

Ram Charan, Dennis Carey, and Michael Useem


Remember Stretch Armstrong? “Stretch” was a favorite toy of one of Dan’s children. The well-muscled blonde man’s most notable feature: he could be stretched from his original size of about 15 inches to four or five feet!

Has Stretch Armstrong appeared in your boardroom? Maybe not, but you’ve likely discussed stretch goals and audacious targets. Perhaps stretch goals are already a proud feature of your current strategic plan.

Daring goals are often used to motivate staff. Google has long promoted the stretch goals philosophy, noting “More often than not, [daring] goals can tend to attract the best people and create the most exciting work environments.…Stretch goals are the building blocks for remarkable achievements in the long term.”[2]

So it’s no wonder that some churches employ stretch goals as a magical formula to “resuscitate or transform an ailing” strategy.[3]

Stretch goals are often misunderstood. Stretch goals are not merely challenging goals, which are sometimes referred to by churches as Big Holy Audacious Goals (BHAGs).[4] Stretch goals are nearly impossible goals that are occasionally proposed by the senior pastor—like a moon shot. But beware! Even with solid faith in God’s power, stretch goals fall into the miracle category.

For example, at your next board meeting, your senior pastor proposes a strategic plan that would increase the church’s annual revenue by 15 to 20 percent. That might qualify as a BHAG if God is in it.

But suppose the senior pastor of a long-established church proposes a strategic plan to increase the church’s annual revenue by 50 percent or more. That is a stretch goal, and the board and senior pastor should admit it is a radical expectation!

As we’ve observed in hundreds of churches over the years, the numbers reveal the reality. Successfully achieving stretch goals is very uncommon, and thus reaching for the moon (and beyond!) should generally be avoided.

When are stretch goals most commonly proposed? Here are three cautionary situations:

  1. The new senior pastor. When a new senior pastor accepts the leadership baton of a church, there is often a desire to quickly make a strong impression. Therefore, it is not unusual for the senior pastor to recommend a stretch goal that verges on the unreasonable. And since the new leader is usually in a honeymoon period, the board may be prone to approve an unrealistic stretch goal. Danger ahead!
  2. The failing church. When a church has experienced a multi-year negative track record with severe resource constraints and a loss of momentum, a stretch goal should rarely be used. Stabilization should generally be the initial goal for a church on a downward slide. A church that goes for broke with no capacity to actually execute a plan might get what they ask for—broke!
  3. The legacy-prone senior pastor. When a senior pastor is in the last few years before retirement, there can be a temptation to adopt a fly-to-the-moon approach in an effort to cement the senior pastor’s legacy. (Yes, even pastors have egos.) Instead, the board should focus on a smooth transition between pastors as the primary goal. Stretch goals are rarely appropriate in the last few years of a pastor’s tenure. Legacy endangered!

Stretch goals may be the ticket in rare situations. But before your board approves a fly-to-the-moon strategic plan, be sure your church is in step with God’s leading.

As Ruth Haley Barton notes, “Just because something is strategic does not necessarily mean it is God’s will for us right now.”[5]



If your senior pastor is tempted
to shoot for the moon, beware!
This may not be the right time to attempt
a Big Holy Audacious Goal or an unrealistic stretch goal.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Reflect: Encourage your board to read “The Stretch Goal Paradox” (Harvard Business Review, January-February, 2017).

  2. Review: Assess the goal-setting process in place for your church. Were last year’s goals achieved? Are your proposed goals too audacious or too timid? Are they holy?

  3. Discern: Pray and discern how goals should be set, especially when there is a new senior pastor, a declining church track record, or a transitional season of ministry.



Lord, help us to understand the difference
between setting challenging goals
versus setting nearly impossible goals. Amen.


[1] Ram Charan, Dennis Carey, and Michael Useem, Boards That Lead: When to Take Charge, When to Partner, and When to Stay Out of the Way (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014),139.

[2] Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller, and Kelly E. See, “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017, 95.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The term is adapted from James E. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperBusiness, 1994), 91. (The authors label BHAGs as “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” in Chapter 5.)

[5] Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 206–207. Barton adapted these 10 listening guidelines from the book, Grounded in God, by Suzanne G. Farnham, Stephanie A. Hull, and R. Taylor McLean.


From Lessons From the Church Boardroom: 40 Insights for Exceptional Governance, ECFAPress, 2018, www.ECFA.Church/KnowledgeCenter.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.