If you are looking for the flavour of the month around many churches, go no further than the dreaming up of vision statements, the setting of goals and the identifying of measurable objectives. If you are really taking the Gospel seriously, you will surely be drafting up a directions manual for the next five years or so. Otherwise you are obviously on the plateau with a happy commitment to going nowhere.
Now, let’s get a few things straight.
* Is the exercise of pondering the congregational future a pointless one?
Of course not!
* Is it wasted time to shape up those dreams?
* Is there any purpose in trying to sort out the difference between goals and objectives?
No, that can be time well spent too!
So what is the issue here? Simply this: there is always a subtle danger in imagining that the adoption of the vision statement is the ticket to the future growth and health of the church. It is simply not true. So what is the issue here? Simply this:
Change is Tough
Too many churches have embarked full steam ahead on their visioning but have actually stayed in port. The gang plank has not moved. The vision and its attendant goals and objectives have been duly signed off by a hopeful church meeting after numerous conferences but the ropes still tie the ecclesiastical ship to the wharf. Instead of becoming a chart to new and previously un-navigated waters, the vision statement may have been just a rush of blood to the collective head and little more.
It becomes a constant reminder of how little has been accomplished, of how tough change really is, of how cautious your average church member is when you scratch them a little.
It is not too surprising when thoughtful leaders begin to feel that all the effort was a great investment at the time but the likelihood of a return now seems remote.
What are the underlying problems then? Try these:
* Putting the vision statement on paper is only the first step.
The tough part is implementation. It is surprising how much enthusiasm can be generated by all those planning conferences only to discover that your ordinary church member often likes things the way they are when it comes time to start bringing in the changes. Many churches have done well with the planning but that’s the end of the action.
* There is a danger that the vision statement may become a burden rather than a delight.
Any pastor who has struggled to find new ways forward is conscious of how much anxiety is generated in some members of the congregation (if not many) by the very thought of change. It is a bit like a soured romance. The first flush of young love was marvellous until it was ruined by the marriage proposal. (Oops, he’s really serious!)
* But for those who are the nervous nellies, there are a similar number who are the addictive adventurers who consider that the Kingdom should have been brought in yesterday.
They simply cannot understand why the pastor is dragging the feet. They have not been on the receiving end of searching questions asked in quiet corners after the service, nor have they received the anxious phone calls, or had the letters with a “word from the Lord” in them. The idea of change being a delicate balancing act with profound pastoral implications never crosses the adventurer’s mind. Indeed, they too have their quiet conversations, make their phone calls and slip their notes to the pastor.
* The truth is that a serious commitment to new ways forward always, repeat always, leads to unsettlement and an increase in tension and stress of one sort or another.
Don’t embark on the shaping up of your vision statement if you are unwilling to take on board all the strain which is so central to change. If you have never had a wilderness experience, try implementing a new vision. It always delivers plenty of stifling heat and sand in abundance. Egypt will seem like a holiday resort.
* There is another rather more subtle risk: it is entirely possible for a vision statement to become an object of worship (believe it or not).
It is not too long before it attracts more attention than the Scripture itself. Exegetical exercises on the meaning and implications of the vision are pursued with passion a nd intensity. It can become so preoccupying that our attention can be drawn away from the rather more essential spiritual disciplines which actually keep our feet on the ground and give us the Kingdom perspective.
* Strangely, a vision statement can become a liability.
The real value of a vision statement is its embrace of what could be, of what God might be calling us on to do, of all the possibilities if only we had the courage and daring. These dimensions are fine and to be applauded.
Yet a vision statement can sometimes become tyrannical, an instrument of constraint and criticism rather than liberation. “If it’s not in the vision statement, we are losing our focus” or “We cannot be serious around here; we are not getting on with it.”
The non- pastoral types in the congregation may continually push for progress in ways which so often can be less than helpful , even detrimental to the gentle art of carrying most people along with you.
* And not too far away is another choice issue: an increasing number of strategies in our life together are finding their inspiration in the world of business and management.
This does not mean that they will not be useful and effective in the ministry of the congregation. But it is all too easy to loose sight of what the church really is: a living organism, the Body of Christ, the place where the movement of the Spirit can come unexpectedly with new and unanticipated promptings.
The congregation is not there just to be managed, to be organised, or to be directed like a business but to be nurtured, to be loved, to be kept sensitive to the purposes of the Author and the Finisher of the faith.
* Now there are some pastors who relish the development of strategies for every conceivable aspect of church life.
They are the schemers par excellence. There is a process for every program.
Lord, bless them.
But Lord, help them if they lose the priority to be quiet in Your Presence, to listen to Your word which sometimes comes from left field.
Remind them that the best laid plans are always going to be too small since You love to do much more than we could ever ask or think of.
Lord, slow them down when their commendable planning leads them to a busy-ness which seduces them to barren places. Give them the grace, patience and wisdom to stand back a step or two if something is not falling into place.
Our Loaves and Fish
Somewhere around here is the need to remember the five loaves and the two fish. With the blessing of Jesus, that’s all it took to feed the five thousand. At the best of times we still have only those few loaves and fish.
We may have all sorts of schemes to multiply our congregation’s ministry but without the touch of Jesus, they remain just that: good schemes springing from faithful hearts. The vision statement arises from a sincere and prayerful desire to be effective witnesses to the Gospel. But our faith must remain in the Giver of the vision who loves to bless the daring and encourage the nervous.
So we need to hold lightly to the vision itself no matter how exciting and motivational it may be. God will want to do more.
Is the effort required for the shaping of a vision statement mis-directed energy? Not at all. Without vision we perish. The discipline of pondering what the Lord may wish to do on our turf and how we can be part of this is a sensitive response to Him. But let’s be careful that we leave room for Him to do it His way.
Let’s not be held too slavishly to words on paper (no matter how good they are) if this blocks out the serendipity of walking with the Lord of Life each day. A vision statement is there as a launch pad for great adventures, not a straight jacket to dictate every movement. It is the outcome of the desire to dream and not a ticket to frustration and disappointment.
It all Takes Time
Now there is another word worth attending to. If the Lord gives His people a vision, He will also move His people to change but in His own way and in His own time. Pastors and leaders who sink into quiet depression or systematically tear out their hair because of the reluctance of their people to move to fresh ways of being have a little more to learn about life.
You cannot be a change agent without drinking deeply at the wells of patience and wisdom. There are no easy solutions here. But remember that they are the Lord’s people no matter how intransigent they may be. It is remarkable how open many people will be to the exploring of new ways provided time is spent noting their hesitations, hearing their ideas and nurturing their fellowship.
If a pastor has taken the time to win the confidence of the congregation, there is a chemistry which creates a climate where significant advances can be made without spilling blood on the church carpet. The key ingredient is trust.
Miracles occur when a congregation trusts their pastor. And trust is not won overnight. It has to be earned over a long period. It is the natural consequence of a life devoted to Christ and the service of His people. It does not mean that the pastor always has to be right or relaxes by walking on water every evening. It has to do with the quality of the life lived; the power generated by faith in action; the inspiration of a leader who loves mercy and walks humbly with God.
This healthy trust between pastor and people has enormous implications for change: the vision is actually incarnated in the life of the pastor: the pastor becomes the living expression of the vision. The power of the vision statement is observed in a multitude of different ways: a genuine optimism about the future, a contagious anticipation, a belief that the hurdles of the present are all part of moving towards new ways of worship, witness and ministry generally.
True, not everyone will catch on. But this healthy, expectant climate will influence the congregation in subtle and profound ways.
So, you have a vision statement at your church? Great! But it is only the start. Take your time. Listen carefully to the keen and the cool alike. Live the vision not in a superficial, cosmetic way but sincerely, expectantly, hopefully. Get alongside rather than tearing ahead in reckless enthusiasm.
A marvelous vision statement is a wonderful first step but there is more to learn yet: about our own leadership, about change, about people, about life. And the outcomes may be quite different. You may end up with twelve baskets of surplus blessings!
Rev. John Simpson