I had always thought I had perfect vision—or at least near-perfect vision. As an adolescent I sometimes “manipulated” my eyes a little during eye examinations to read the 20/20 line on the eye chart. Corrective lenses? I wanted nothing to do with them. Perhaps this reluctance was vanity, or simply a desire not to be encumbered with glasses.

During a visit to an ophthalmologist during my second year of seminary, the diagnosis was clear: I needed corrective lenses. I vividly remember putting on my glasses for the first time. Walking out of the doctor’s office, I looked at the grass, at the leaves on the trees, at the clouds in the sky. The colors were vivid, the details sharp. By alternately removing the glasses and putting them back on, I could see major contrasts. I did this several times as I looked around. With these new lenses, I could see things in a way different from before. I had no clue what I was missing until I began to wear corrective lenses.

Vision is a key factor in how congregations embrace change, move beyond the intense pain of loss, and rediscover their capacity to hope. Congregations that remain in the grip of loss and grief and anxiety are unable to see the present clearly—or to envision the future.

Clearly, vision points to what the future may hold. The process of casting a vision may be creative and hopeful and provide a source of considerable energy and enthusiasm as a congregation considers future ministry opportunities. The most effective “visioning processes” typically look forward and backward, learning from the past without being restricted by it.

Some leaders ignore the congregation’s rich past in casting a vision. Hoping to move boldly into the future, they may overlook the voices and traditions of the past and proceed too quickly with new initiatives. In doing so, they place the congregation at risk—and their capacity for effective leadership in peril.

The first task for leaders who seek a new direction for their congregations is to uncover vision in existing values and stories. This task will take the conversations about the future back to the past and will entail remembering the joyful moments and painful losses, memories of former members and staff, the congregation’s central place in members’ lives, some of the congregation’s most deeply held traditions, and structural supports for congregational life that no longer exist. The purpose of this task is not to reopen grieving processes or to recreate the past. Rather it is intended to identify values that are deep in the history of the congregation and central to its present identity.

Strategic leaders seek to cast a vision that builds upon the best of the past as a congregation moves toward the future. They understand that a degree of continuity with the past allows members to “connect the dots” between past, emerging, and future realities. They know that appropriating the past diminishes unnecessary risks and enables “measured” change. They are sensitive to the negative impact of discontinuities between the vision and the past and recognize that the greater the dissonance, the more likely it is that members attached to the past will resist the vision.

Yet strategic leaders are equally aware of the dangers of remaining fixed on the past and avoiding the difficult task of casting a vision. Staying focused on the past may reflect a wish to relive it and lead to missed emerging opportunities for ministry on the congregation’s doorstep or on the other side of the world.

Wise leaders understand that vision provides a crucial source of power for embracing change. Vision by itself, however, is insufficient. Leaders must be adept at linking a vision to key attributes of the congregation’s identity.

Effective leaders realize that a vision for the future is often embedded in values and stories that are only beginning to emerge. Because of the emerging dimension of these values and stories, leaders are asked to see around the curve, anticipating what may be coming without any assurance that it will materialize.

What leaders often do not do well is to consider God’s vision for the congregation. To be sure, they may frame their work as a “discernment” process. Yet, their intent may be to discern what the members want (and will follow) rather than to discern what God hopes and what mission God is calling them toward. Aligning a congregation’s vision with God’s vision for the church and world is a congregation’s best chance of inspiring the hearts of people. And it is the most faithful.

What could energize a congregation more than a vision for its future that is focused in Scripture, relevant to its historical and contemporary contexts, and faithful in its service to God in the future? An inspiring vision enables us to see beyond the painful losses and overwhelming challenges that have caused us to flounder; it prepares us to find a new way.

In the face of change, congregational members and leaders want to find the “perfect” vision. An imperfect vision, they fear, will not be successful and will lead to more loss. In the face of the losses the congregation has already endured, the stakes are too high for the congregation to get it wrong. The pressures to cast a perfect vision, I fear, keep congregational leaders and members from engaging in a visioning process that is bold, creative, and ultimately life-giving.

Congregational leaders cannot guarantee the perfect vision. What leaders can do is to underscore the importance of casting a vision that encourages the vitality of the congregation and the purposefulness of its ministry.

Casting a vision is hard work. The leader who rises to the challenge to cast a vision that truly inspires a congregation empowers members to embrace change. Wise leaders understand that the power of vision stems more from the vision itself than from the visionary. They realize that an inspiring vision mobilizes congregations to work through substantial challenges and to make significant choices as they seek a future to which members will attach anew.   

 

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog

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Adapted from Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future by Kenneth J. McFayden, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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FEATURED RESOURCES

AL392_SMStrategic Leadership for a Change:
Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future

by Kenneth J. McFayden



Strategic Leadership for a Change provides congregational leaders with new insights and tools for understanding the relationships among change, attachment, loss, and grief. It also helps leaders facilitate the process of grieving, comprehend the centrality of vision, and demonstrate theological reflection in the midst of change, loss, grief, and attaching anew. All this occurs as the congregation aligns its vision with God’s and understands processes of change as processes of fulfillment.


AL371_SM Pathway to Renewal:
Practical Steps for Congregations

by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon 


Pathway to Renewal offers pastors and congregational leaders a framework for understanding and addressing the deep cultural shift facing the people of a congregation during congregational renewal. This book will help leaders make sense of where their congregation could get stuck and guide them in thinking through what needs to be addressed next as a congregation seeks renewal. The realigning of a congregation’s heart and sense of purpose can be a long process but one that ultimately all congregations must experience in order to fully live out the world-transforming mission that God has given them to do. pan>

AL373_SMImagining Church:
Seeing Hope in a World of Change

by Gary and Kim Shockley

<sp
an id=”book_ContentBlock”> Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church, we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”

AL186_SMLeading Change in the Congregation:
Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders

by Gilbert R. Rendle 



Many books have been written about leadership and change, but until now none has focused on the kind of change that tears at a community’s very fabric. In Leading Change in the Congregation, Gil Rendle provides a respectful context for understanding change, especially the experiences and resistances that people feel. Rendle pulls together theory, research, and his many years of consulting work with churches facing change to provide leaders with practical diagnostic models and tools.

AL378_SMLiving Our Story:
Narrative Leadership and Congregational Culture

Larry A. Golemon, Editor 

Living Our Story explores how good narrative work—the retrieval, construction, and performance of valued stories—takes place in ministry. These authors show how stories witness to God’s presence in the unfolding of human life and how the best leaders craft stories that reveal how God is at work among the people and inspire them to become a part of this larger story.

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