Q: Why does our congregation need to have a vision? How can we ensure that it is not only worth the effort and time it takes to develop one—but that it also makes a difference for our congregation?

A: Visioning is often seen as a panacea in congregations. However, having a vision in and of itself does not satisfy the need for congregations to involve their members in a discerning process that brings the wisdom and imagination of the whole system to bear on the questions, “Who do we want to be?” and “What do we have to do to get there?”

One day, at a religious organization where I once worked, each staff member received a copy of “the vision” of the organization. We learned that we should appreciate this “hard work of the executive staff” and that we, of course, would be the people implementing the plan they had outlined. Sadly, although we “had a vision,” it lacked momentum. Because little effort had been made to gather the wisdom and stir the imaginations of those who would implement it, the vision we had been given had little impact on our day-to-day work. This anecdote typifies what often occurs in congregations. There is a better way!

The visioning process I have found most effective is one that brings together representatives of the whole system to review the past, assess present challenges, and develop a common vision and an action plan for achieving it. Congregations often balk at the idea of asking their members to give up a weekend to participate in this process, but I have not yet found a congregation that issued such an invitation that did not ultimately have to scramble to accommodate all those who wanted to attend.

Consider the following questions as you begin to consider your own congregation’s visioning and strategic planning process:

  • Why now? Some congregational leaders propose engaging in a visioning process as a way to avoid dealing directly with a conflict. Other times, congregational leaders expect that visioning will solve some spiritual malaise. All too often, congregations have the energy for articulating a vision, but no commitment to doing what needs to be done to implement it.
  • What outcomes are you seeking? Usually these outcomes are broader than “having a vision” and relate to achieving some clarity of direction, setting priorities, aligning human and financial resources, discerning God’s call, and determining new ways to be in relationship to the surrounding community and the changing world. Spelling out these goals helps to clarify that the vision is the start of a process of redevelopment and realignment in the congregation—not an ending.
  • What are the critical questions that need to be addressed? Identifying a few overarching, critical questions is an important part of designing a visioning and strategic planning process. I use the image of interlocking Russian dolls to help congregations discover the big question into which their various questions fit.
  • How will you connect the best of the past to the challenges of the present? A vision is often empowered if it builds upon the congregation’s past strengths and considers responding to present challenges in ways that remain true to the congregation’s own “story” and identity.
  • Who needs to be in the room? In order to achieve the commitment to the vision that will be required to make it a reality, it is critical to draw from the various experiences, insights, and commitments of the various stakeholder groups within the congregation and the surrounding the community.

Rev. Lawrence Peers is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. He works with congregations during times of change, transition, and conflict, using an integrative approach of whole systems planning, appreciative inquiry, congregational studies, and spiritual discernment processes. Rev. Peers also works with middle judicatories and national denominational bodies.