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.
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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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