7 Lessons On How To Plan From A 2,500 Year Old Ted-Talk

Back in 536 B.C. a group of Jewish exiles came back home after a long time away. Their beautiful city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. The exiles began at once to repair their city. They rebuilt the temple, they erected new homes, they planted their fields, but then life settled in on itself, and they stopped their work, with the city still largely in rubble. They became used to living in a ruined city. Nearly a century passed. Until God sent them a man named Nehemiah, who urged them to finish what they had started.

Nehemiah was a Jew who lived a thousand miles away, serving as a cupbearer to the Persian emperor. Most of us spend our lives trying to get exactly where Nehemiah was at – wealthy, comfortable, secure. Yet hearing of the decrepit state of his homeland, Nehemiah was soon gripped by a vision of using his power and prosperity to help his people.

But a vision without a plan is a mirage, as someone once said. Nehemiah understood this. He took nearly four months when the idea of going to Jerusalem first stirred in him before he approached the emperor and asked for his permission to go. He wasn’t just summoning up the courage to ask – though it certainly took that. More importantly, he was allowing his vision to gestate into a meaningful plan.

As we read the story of Nehemiah in the Old Testament, seven elements of thorough planning become apparent. If you’re mapping out a great dream for your life or family or church, make sure each of these seven P’s of planning are in place.

The first P of Planning is: Program – where we ask the question: What is it we are going to do?

Planning begins by identifying what it is that God has put on your heart.

In Nehemiah 2:11, Nehemiah writes, “I went to Jerusalem and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”

For the church it’s saying: We’re going to do a Vacation Bible School. We’re going to launch a small group program. We’re going to remodel our building. For you personally the program might be: I’m going to lose ten pounds. I’m going to learn to play guitar. I’m going to get my business degree.

It’s one of the seven habits of highly successful people (if you’ve ever read that book): Begin with the end in mind. When you go to cook supper, do you just start pulling things out of the refrigerator at random? (Like Aaron when he made the Golden Calf – “we threw this gold dust into the water, and out came this calf!” We just tossed in these onions and frozen vegetables and out came this shepherd’s pie! It’s a miracle!) Most begin their cooking with the end result in mind – shepherd’s pie – and that gives direction to the choices you make next. And that’s how we should live our lives.

The second P is Preparation – where we ask the question: What will be needed to carry out the program?

When at last Nehemiah approaches the king to share his idea, the king peppers him with questions. Nehemiah doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and say, “Dunno, your Majesty. I’m just wingin’ it.” He has answers for each of his questions. The king is so impressed, he not only gives his blessing to the project, but additional funding and manpower as well.

When Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem, chapter 2:13-15 tell us,“By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down…Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool…examining the wall.”

He’s seeing with his own eyes the extent of the damage, calculating what work is going to be required. He’s making preparations in his mind.

I read a story recently about “Disaster Do-Gooders”. These are people who want to help out whenever there’s a natural disaster. So they jump on a plane, and head for the trouble-spot, because they’re filled with compassion, and they want to help. But when they get off the plane, they have no transportation. They’ve brought no food or water for themselves. They don’t have a place to sleep. They can’t speak the language. And they end up being just as bad off as any of the refugees, which only adds to the work of those who came to help and were prepared.

I think that’s why Nehemiah didn’t come riding into Jerusalem on his white horse with trumpets blaring. He had to make sure the vision he crafted together a thousand miles away, meshed with the situation on the ground.

The third P of planning is Personnel where we ask the question, Who is going to be involved or impacted by what I’m going to do?

Another reason why Nehemiah took a few days once he had arrived in Jerusalem before he publicly declared his intentions was to get a feel for who these people were that he’d be working with. Who were the volunteers he’d need? Who were the power players? The stake-holders? Who were the ones he’d have to watch out for?

Scan a few paragraphs anywhere in Nehemiah chapter 3 and you’ll see that it’s a written record Nehemiah kept of the individuals and families who participated in the rebuilding of the city walls. He lists names, families, tribes, professions and then he describes which portion of the walls they worked on.

It’s a reflection of how much Nehemiah cared for these people and valued their individual contribution. We know the names of the Pharaohs who built the pyramids, but they never kept lists of the names of the workers who hauled the stone day after day, bleeding and dying under the desert sun. The Pharaohs didn’t care for them. Nehemiah did. And so should you.

The 4th P of Planning: Publicize & Promote – where you ask the question, How will you communicate the vision?

In chapter 2:17-18 Nehemiah gathers the people together and shares his plan with them. “Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, ‘Let us begin rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.”

When you think about it, everything that happens in life around us comes down to the power of words. Nothing gets done without them. Words are what moves the hearts of men and nations.

“This is a day that will live in infamy,” summoned a nation to war. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” summoned Eastern Europe to freedom. It’s no different when it comes to building up your life for the better.

Nehemiah’s opening salvo is a perfect illustration of good vision-casting. First you identify the problem. Nehemiah says, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Notice also how Nehemiah identifies himself with his audience. He doesn’t say, “Look at the trouble you are in, you morons!” He says, “You see the trouble we are in….”)

Then secondly, Nehemiah provides a solution. “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.” A whiner is someone who just points out the problem. A winner is someone who offers a solution.

And a good planner don’t stop there. The third part of vision-casting is you give reasons for the solution. Here’s the problem. Here’s the solution. And here’s why we can do this. Notice in verse 16, Nehemiah then provides the reasons for why they can do this. “I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.” This solution isn’t just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. We’ve got the backing of the king himself! Nehemiah says. This is publicity and promotion at its very best.

The fifth P for Planning is Price – where we ask the question: How much will the whole thing cost?

This idea is imbedded in verse 18 where Nehemiah reports to them how the king is on board with this. I’m sure someone asked the question, “How we gonna pay for this?” and Nehemiah told them: Out of the royal treasury.

It is never unspiritual to ask the money questions. It’s just unspiritual to let money be the deciding factor in your decision. Which tends to be what most churches do. There’s always a delicate balance we have to preserve when it comes to money between exercising stewardship, and exercising faith.

The 6th P of Planning is Problems – where we ask the question: What obstacles are likely to arise?

In 2:19, we meet a big problem: three men named Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. If Nehemiah is Batman, well now we meet the Penguin, the Joker and Mr. Freeze, three men who will prove to be a thorn in Nehemiah’s side the rest of the way through.

Problems are a part of life. How do we deal with them? You don’t run from problems. Or sweep them under the rug. (Three seasons of Stranger Things has surely taught us this, as each season the monster comes back bigger and badder than ever.)

What do you do with problems? You face them down. That’s what Nehemiah did. In chapter 2:20, he says, “I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” There’s what you do. You run into God’s arms, and talk those voices down.

The Seventh and final P of Planning is Progress – where we ask the question: How will we know if this is being done well?

This idea is imbedded in that last part of verse 18 where the people said, “‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.”

They started it. The work began. Implied in those words is the idea that this work will come in stages. So how are we going to make sure we’re staying on task? A good plan will always include benchmarks that will show us if we’re staying on task, and guidelines for how to get back on course should we falter or lose our way. And when it’s done, we’ll also take time to evaluate the entire project to assess whether or not it was worthwhile, and what lessons can we learn from it.

God is all about progress. He’s about progress for this whole earth. God started with the little nation of Israel, but didn’t stop there. He promised through Habakkuk, “The glory of God will cover the earth as the water covers the sea.”

Jesus started with a motley crew of twelve disciples, but he didn’t stop there. He promised that disciples would be won from all nations.

God is all about the progress of your life. Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that you could just be forgiven of your sin. No, Jesus died on that cross to save you from your sin. When you grab hold of Jesus and seek him and submit to him, then you’re going to start looking like him, more and more.

Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Planning is what gives wings to our dreams and visions and sets them soaring. Follow Nehemiah’s example, and you’ll live life more richly then you ever have before.


Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon. 


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