Your pastoral visioning process

How to discover a worthy pastoral vision and follow it through to implementation

Kim Johnson is the associate ministerial secretary for the Northern New England Conference in Portland, Maine.

The farther we motored west, the more intense the pain in my stomach grew. Such fire in the belly was not supposed to be part of our family's "vacation of a lifetime." The idea of traveling 6,000 miles on a grand tour of five national parks had come to me months earlier in a flash of inspiration, something akin to a vision. Our family had never attempted any getaway like it before.

Now I was suffering from this mid-journey gastrointestinal earthquake. As we entered Nebraska I finally caved in and sought a physician. After poking and listening, the wise old physician admonished me, "It's nothing but stress. This vacation is going to set you back months if you don't ease up and relax." As I walked out of his office with 10 pounds of free Maalox and Mylanta samples, I wondered if this vacation vision was really worth it after all. Making it a reality had become one hassle after another.

Three days later I stood atop the Rocky Mountains, peering out upon herds of elk, natural carpets of multicolored tundra, and an endless chain of snowcapped peaks. The vision had come true. Back home after three weeks, I opened the car glove compartment, and out tumbled a half-used bottle of stomach medicine. I didn't throw it away, but I knew I would gladly revisit this vision all over again.

Visioning is a hot topic today, and rightly so. Over the past several years I have seen too many Adventist pastors try to develop a church vision only to wind up discouraged with the results. They enter the visioning process with great expectations, then eventually see it get bogged down, derailed, or tossed on the trash heap with other aborted efforts to bring change. The visioning process is often hindered by overlooked factors that can be as distracting as a 70- mile-per-hour crosswind. Identifying those hindrances and dealing with them effectively is a vital role at all levels of church leadership. Here is a partial list of visioning hurdles that I have found significant in my pastoral work.

Lack of leadership

Visioning requires leadership. However, many good pastors are far better "doers" than they are visionaries. They are effective at preaching, teaching, and visitation, but do not possess the organizational skills needed to lead a church through change.

Never mind. Leadership is effective when it is team leadership. It is the Jesus strategy revisited. Christ built a nucleus of people who gave their hearts to the vision. They then became the foundation and catalyst for change. Whatever the local pastor's own organizational capabilities, the one leadership role he or she cannot delegate is to identify and build a team that can both launch the visioning process and shepherd its implementation over the long haul. That team can supplement and complement the pastor's strengths and weaknesses. Pastors and their team can outline the new vision to their congregations for effective collaboration at various levels.

Team effort requires a high degree of trust from pastors and a candid willingness to admit their own limitations. Teamwork also involves ministering through others, which is often much more difficult than doing it yourself. Team building takes time and does not show up on statistical reports, but without it the visioning process is usu ally a house of cards.

Lack of follow-through

Imagine the American president, let us say, in the early 1800s giving his stirring challenge to put a man on the moon. Sup pose he announced that gripping vision long before the invention of airplanes, radios, rocket engines, a national space organization, and the hundreds of other things that were necessary for the Apollo spacecraft to blast off into space. That vision may have created interest and enthusiasm among a few for a while, and then it would have faded quickly as people saw little progress toward implementation. The president could have talked indefinitely about the importance of going to the moon, but that wouldn't have gotten anyone there.

Similarly, great church visions require realistic, detailed plans and effective structures to carry them out, or they simply end up on the religious dump-heap of nifty slogans. Many churches put enormous effort into creating captivating vision statements that gather dust in someone's desk drawer for years. The problem is that our traditional strength of teaching and proclaiming truth can become our nemesis if we rely on that as our primary strategy for making the new vision a reality. A pastor cannot simply preach visions into existence. Implementing a vision requires ongoing, painstaking attention to the practical, step-by-step details of how actually to get from here to there.

Exhaustion

Another leadership role that is crucial to the pastor's visioning ability is modeling commitment to the vision by consistently giving it high priority on the pastoral schedule. This endeavor is too central to church life to be squeezed in between other appointments. This kind of commitment can, however, be the source of some pain for the pastor. If through the visioning process and its implementation a pastor simply adds other weighty responsibilities to what he or she is already doing, it can be a recipe for ulcers and migraine headaches. Many pastors give up on change because of exhaustion.

Central to God's vision for the church is balanced, wholistic living. Burning the candle at both ends, not having enough time to make sand castles with your children or to go jogging with your spouse, contradicts the very vision the Spirit wants us to implement. One pastor had what I call "odometer-itis." He was very proud of how many miles he put on his weary car each month, as if that somehow proved his worth. As I think of the work of ministry, I must say that I have come to the place where I am more impressed with a pastor who works 40 hours a week building and staffing a spiritual health-care system than one who works nonstop racing all over town, personally administering biblical first-aid. Five hours pursuing a great vision is worth a hundred maintaining the status quo. A few more hours spent organizing and specifically delegating the implementation of the vision process, along with other tasks and roles, are worth even more.

Ministers are kept on a treadmill of re active ministry mainly because of the epidemic of pastor dependence that infects so many of our churches. In such a rat race, pastors can never "find" time for visioning; they'll have to make it. The initial aspects of the visioning process should therefore be focused on helping pastors offload and delegate certain portions of their ministry to other members. It will require educating members, particularly leaders, on the biblical role of pastors and the priesthood of all believers.

Getting fresh ideas

Periodically I gather the members together to glean their ideas for a better future for our church. No matter how frequently we meet, everything distills down to the same old familiar list of programs: 5- day plans, stress-control meetings, cooking schools, Revelation seminars, etc. These are all excellent programs. The problem arises when local churches come to depend on higher organizations to do their dreaming, thinking, and planning. In our eagerness to provide prepackaged materials and re sources for the local church, we must be careful that we are not creating an unhealthy dependence that saps local responsibility, creativity, and initiative.

Creativity is vital to the visioning process. Coloring outside the lines is essential in the search for new solutions to nagging old problems. Simply working harder at implementing ineffective, mediocre pro grams will not produce better, more lasting results. Getting the congregation involved in the whole process of visioning and planning enables us to tune in to the unique ministries God has in mind for our own lo cal community.

Unbalanced measures of success

Another hindrance to the visioning process can be an imbalanced emphasis on quantitative measures of success. Defining effectiveness primarily in terms of "how much" and "how many" inevitably circumscribes and constricts people's thinking.

To illustrate, imagine a society that defines "successful parenting" primarily by how many babies couples produce. Parents who have 10 children are deemed far more "successful" than those who give birth to a mere two or three. In such a system, people would logically put great emphasis on baby showers and care far less about how well the children ultimately turn out. Suppose in stead that they redefine "successful parenting" to include a major qualitative emphasis on growing those babies into mature adults who function well in society and have outstanding families of their own. All of a sudden our minds are open to a host of new issues, challenges, and opportunities.

Likewise, congregations need to find the proper balance between quantity and quality, numbers and nurture. Christ structured His entire ministry on the principle that quality produces quantity rather than the other way around. Jesus built His church by growing a few followers in depth who could then multiply themselves by growing and equipping still others. Sadly, His ingenious multiplication strategy now lies in moth balls, even though it was a method that gave qualitative issues their rightful place in the scheme of things. Unless we espouse a broader, more wholistic view of success, the visioning process will operate within too narrow a playing field and yield limited, less-than-satisfying results.

Hidden fear

Many pastors choose not to give them selves fully to implementing a new vision for fear of negative fallout. They fear stir ring up a potential hornet's nest among certain members. They also fear losing the confidence of conference leadership if the new vision causes some disgruntled members to stop attending or results in a tempo rary dip in baptisms. They may also simply fear failure in such a venture.

Conference leaders can provide invaluable help by fostering training, setting up a pastoral support network, and making an open, unequivocal commitment to the principles on which a new local vision is based. They also must create an environment in which visioning is highly valued and regularly commended.

So having an interest in visioning is common; making visions come true is not. Progress depends not so much on how fast we travel, but on how well we deal with difficulties and keep journeying faithfully to ward a great purpose.


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Kim Johnson is the associate ministerial secretary for the Northern New England Conference in Portland, Maine.

April 1997

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