Q: We are developing a new vision of ministry for our congregation. In the past, new initiatives sometimes faltered because we didn’t stop doing some things that misspent time, talent, and money. How can we make choices this time that really support our vision?
A: Development of a new congregational vision promises exciting possibilities …and rough waters. A new congregational vision entails change, which is frequently met with ambivalence, trepidation, and disagreement. When the new vision is accompanied by saying “no” to some ongoing programs or ministries, the possibilities for conflict are multiplied.
Though there is no single tried-and-true formula, the following suggestions may guide congregational leaders through the many, varied dilemmas that can emerge as a new vision is implemented:
Prepare to stay the course. Congregational leaders need sustained resolve to implement the new vision and the necessary accompanying decisions. Initial and ongoing training, periodic review of the vision and long-term commitments, and both personal and collective support are necessary to pursue any new strategy that may take several years to implement fully. Consider occasionally using an outside consultant to help leaders see the big picture.
Involve many congregants during the planning phase. Participation in decision making expands ownership of the plans to the entire group, and increases their commitment to the outcome. Communicate proposals enthusiastically and redundantly.
Expect tough decisions. Alert congregational leaders that change and new directions may also create tension and conflict. Include training about conflict and decision making as a part of ongoing leadership development.
Establish criteria for decisions in advance. Prior to making decisions, discuss guidelines for selecting, discontinuing, or saying “no”—then stay the course without heavy-handed imposition of rules that stifle enthusiasm. A compelling, positive image of the congregation’s future and ministries can help leaders cope with vested individual and group interest. Strive to avoid creating the impression that previous choices were wrong or bad.
Anticipate difficult situations. Saying “no” to persons or groups who value particular activities is distressing. Yet the whole church body may suffer if we allow ineffective programs to continue. Some challenging ideas may fit the vision but be impractical to implement, at least in current circumstances. The burden of saying “no” needs to be thoughtfully shared among leaders, not relegated to a single individual.
Let a project decline and quietly fade away if it doesn’t interfere or drain resources. Alternatively, it may be reconfigured in light of a new vision.
Reframe old plans to align with the new vision. For example, is a time-intensive fundraiser really a community social activity? If so, is this the best way to foster social interactions? Invite participants of the former effort to design the new initiative.
Relieve an overburdened individual or group. Sometimes people are grateful when a demanding or demoralizing effort is discontinued, freeing them to get involved in a ministry that better uses their talents.
Collaborate with another group. A program that does not fit a congregation’s new vision may fit that of another agency, community group, or congregation. Support their effort. Some members may choose to work with them.
Talk individually with affected or vocal members who may see the new vision as a threat to their leadership, power, or favorite program. Seek ways to redirect them to the new vision. While some may benefit from individual conversation, others may need to experience the compassionate but firm resolve of their peers.
Postpone good ideas and incorporate them into the long-term plan.
Celebrate endings. Publicly recognize and honor people and groups who are completing their tenure. Build a periodic program review into the planning process by using previously established criteria, but don’t micro-manage it. Reviews may need to occur yearly or less frequently, depending on the circumstances; however, do it for all, not only for a few when something goes wrong. Whenever possible, establish an ending date—it can always be extended.
Effective leaders focus members’ energies toward the future that God has provided. But no congregation can do it all, and some possibilities will need to be set aside. Saying “no” effectively is both an art and a critical task for congregational leaders.
Rev. Dr. V. Sue Zabel is a field consultant with the Alban Institute and is especially interested in whole systems planning, such as Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, and Open Space. She leads retreats, coaches leaders, and works with conflict situations. Dr. Zabel is also professor of the practice in ministry and mission at Wesley Theological Seminary, where she teaches in the areas of contextual education, congregational studies, systems, change processes, and leadership. Her current research is in the area of spiritual gifts of the individual, congregation, and community.