Q: Should we take the time to hold a retreat to create a vision statement?

A: Synagogue leaders have heard that organizations need a vision, strategies, and goals, but they often are not sure what they should do next. Observers have found that most leaderships are functional, not visionary. They tend to react to the managerial issues that come to their board table. While managerial tasks are important, as we learn in Proverbs 29:18, without a vision to address current challenges and future opportunities people perish.

When a congregational leadership’s twelve-month board year is not infused with vision and strategy, leaders can become passive and disengaged from the spiritual energy that one expects from a religious community. The Hartford Seminary, in its report “Facts on Growth” (http://fact.hartsem.edu/CongGrowth.pdf), found that congregations whose leaders agreed that they had a sense of purpose and vision, were emotionally engaged, and were willing to innovate were found to be growing about three times faster than congregations whose leadership groups disagreed that this was characteristic of them.

A vision retreat should therefore allow people to connect their aspirations with traditional values. It should encourage them to welcome new ideas and the people who can make them happen. But where does vision come from, and who should participate in creating it? For most of the synagogues I work with, the lay/clergy partnership model works best. It invites a wide range of representative stakeholders (new members, longstanding members, worship-focused members, educated regulars, young families, etc.) to participate, but the clergy help shape these aspirations and ground them with historic texts and values.

The two most important leadership traits, according to Leadership: The Challenge authors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, are the ability to provide an honest assessment of the current situation and a hopeful, forward-looking view of the future. Building on that thinking—and my experience that partnerships work best—I have found that a vision-to-action partnership workshop can be helpful. When workshop participants come into the room, they are asked to come up to a timeline posted on a wall that may go back as far as thirty to forty years. On the timeline they will see pictures of past clergy and leaders and scenes from congregational life. They are then asked to note on the timeline some of the things they remember happening in the life of the congregation and in their lives as members.

Next, in small groups, participants hear three leaders share some of the issues the congregation faced during key eras. They then are updated about the most important trends and facts affecting the congregation today (an honest assessment). We want them to dream, but with a sense of reality (key facts). For example, a pastoral-size congregation of 250 members is not going to be able to afford two pastors or rabbis.

We then ask the congregation to look into the future. If this planning process really could be effective in building the synagogue of their dreams, what might life look like in ten years? What would people be doing, thinking, and feeling? The process is nonjudgmental, and all ideas are recorded for all to see. When stakeholders imagine the future they are more holistic, energized, engaged, and hopeful than when they merely manage the present. The stakeholders may not be natural visionary leaders, but the workshop can help them do visionary work.

As a next step, we invite the stakeholders to move into action planning discussions on topics of interest to them (worship, religious school, governance, etc.). They are asked to think about how to put the vision into action in their selected areas. Too often, mission and vision statements are written by a small group, then filed away. These may be elegant statements, but they are not shaped by the community, nor do they shape the congregation. I prefer to see a series of rewrites over many months. Sometimes the vision really comes into focus only as people begin to suggest their action items. Connecting our dreams with reality brings both into focus.

I remember hearing a presentation by Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, in which he confided that the song “Tradition,” which starts the musical, was not written until the end of the project. “Jerome Robbins [the show’s original director],” Harnick explained, “would constantly ask the writers, ‘What is this play about?’ After months of reflection on the whole play it became clear it was about people trying to maintain their way of life in the midst of change.” Out of these conversations the introductory song “Tradition” was born. While it came late, who would debate the outcome?

Is a vision retreat worth the time? Absolutely. Visioning can create a shared picture of the future. By describing what people are doing, learning, and feeling it can help stakeholders become emotionally engaged in more visionary leadership work. You can invite engagement and action if you take time to figure out “what the play is about.”

Robert Leventhal is an Alban Institute senior consultant specializing in synagogues, He is also the author of Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning (Alban Institute, 2008).

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