Avoid These When Visioning

“Vision creation is almost always a messy, difficult, and sometimes emotionally charged exercise.” John Kotter, Leading Change

Given this life-giving, hope-filled Movement of which we are part, what’s going on with visioning in congregations? As we listen to disciples in congregations, we frequently hear them make statements like, “O no, not another visioning project. We are still trying to recover from the last one. All our energy went into designing it, not to mention the high cost of the outside consultant. No way do we want to repeat that process.” Typically these kinds of statements are accompanied by eye rolling and deep sighing. What’s that about? I’m a very visionary person who grows excited when we engage in future-talk, dreaming about God’s movement in our community and among us as congregations. Plenty of disciples in congregations are visionary people, along with their pastors. So what’s the hesitation and reluctance about? With some reflection, we recognize the deficits in traditional visioning processes leave congregations flat and exhausted. Simultaneously, we need compelling visions to channel our passion, moving ahead with direction. So let’s pause, identifying particular traditional visioning activities and foci to avoid before we ever engage visioning in congregations.  By identifying them first, clearing them away, we clear the ground for growing fruitful visions.

Let’s avoid boring, wordy, churchy mission statements.
Up until around the turn of this century, too many churches still had mission statements which were significant theological treatises. They were lengthy paragraphs, if not pages, dragging on and on. The wording was church-based, requiring a fairly sophisticated level of theological understanding to make sense of this church’s mission. Typically these mission statements were found attached to the constitution and by-laws or in a dusty folder on the bottom shelf of the deserted church library. No one used this kind of mission statement. No one cared about them. We created and preserved them, believing we must have a mission statement. Practically though, no one cared much about them. Can you imagine convincing your congregation to invest the time and energy required to repeat that experience?

Let’s avoid creating visions which are largely self-focused.
Unfortunately, too many visioning processes have resulted in strategic ministry plans describing how we will be a wonderful church when we accomplish the vision. Examples of initiatives when this is the case are:
-To fill our sanctuary with worshippers
-To reach and exceed our budget needs
-To build more buildings
There is a place of organizational development, upgrading and improving ourselves organizationally. Yet, when this is the focus of our vision, we indulge in the belief that it’s all about us. Sure there is room in the vision for upgrading our facilities and developing our stewardship, yet these are ministry tools rather than ministry goals. The vision is how we and our communities will be different/better as a result of our partnership with God.

Let’s avoid visions we could accomplish while sleeping.
Uninspiring, unchallenging, unimaginative…these are vision descriptors to avoid. Since visioning can be messy or even contentious, some congregations default to the least common denominator. The result is a tepid and uninspiring vision. In an effort to resolve the tension between competing perspectives, compromises lead to a vision without much challenge.  The result is low level inspiration, or even boredom and apathy. We could accomplish that vision while sleep-walking, like some churches do. God’s not even needed to accomplish sleep-walking visions.  
Let’s avoid visions which codify our outdated church paradigm.                                            During the Modern Era (up until about 2000AD), the typical outcome of congregational visioning processes was to take what we previously did as a church, import it into the present, then apply more vigor and energy to doing the same thing. In essence, we were codifying our church paradigm by capturing it in our strategic visioning plan, committing to practicing it more vigorously. Unfortunately, this approach discourages creativity and innovation, increasing the odds that adaptive failure will result.
As your congregation is engaging visioning, pay attention. When you sense you are drifting toward any of the practices identified above, take note and change direction. By clearly identifying the boundaries for the field row in which we are plowing, we are more likely to notice when we drift toward unhelpful practices. These practices to avoid help us stay in the flow of productive visioning. May we join God’s mission rising up in our world around us even as we speak. Instead of playing it safe, may we risk something really big (our very lives), for something really good (gospel of Jesus Christ).

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA


Mark Tidsworth