We at the Alban Institute are often asked where the vision is supposed to come from in the life of a congregation. This question is not really a technical issue that can be addressed with a “correct” method. Rather, assumptions about how vision emerges reflect the underlying ecclesiology of a particular faith community. By ecclesiology, we mean one’s understanding of the nature of the church and, as a corollary, one’s assumptions about religious authority. In practice, we can identify at least three typical approaches to the issue of vision—each reflecting a different “theory of church.” While it would be rare to find the positions stated quite as starkly as we have done here (in our “quotations” of three imaginary church leaders), the sharp contrast may be clarifying.

A congregational theory of vision formation. “Authentic vision for our congregation can originate only in the membership. Our aspirations may be clarified through a congregation-wide planning process, through the work of ongoing committees, or through informal conversation among members. Whatever its source, any proposal for future direction will be brought to a congregational vote to ensure that it truly represents the people of our church—who we are, what we value, how we understand our future calling.”

This theory is a characteristic basis for planning in the explicitly congregational traditions (United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, and American Baptist, for example). Even in traditions where pastors, rabbis, or bishops have more formal authority, the behavior of leaders and members in North American congregations is often shaped by congregational assumptions.

A pastoral theory of vision formation. “Our ordained minister is our spiritual leader. As a person of prayer, our pastor spends time discerning God’s intentions for this church. Through preaching, teaching, and organizational leadership, our pastor offers the congregation a unifying vision for the future and invites other leaders to participate in bringing that vision to fruition.”

This theory of vision formation is often presented in books on leadership by authors from the evangelical tradition; they commonly describe the pastor’s task as “casting the vision.” Lay leaders with a business background sometimes advocate a variation on this model, arguing that the top organizational leader must set the future agenda (a prevalent, but not universal, view of the executive role).

A connectional theory of vision formation. “The primary unit of mission is not the congregation but rather the wider fellowship of believers in this region. To discover an authentic vision for our congregation, we look to our mutually acknowledged religious authority [such as bishop or presbytery] for inspiration and guidance. We test our congregation’s particular aspirations against that larger vision whenever we engage in discernment about the future.”

This approach to vision formation might be found in the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Methodist traditions, for example. Goals of the regional unit (diocese, presbytery, annual conference) are lifted up as benchmarks for congregational mission. The vision of the regional body may be implemented through funding of congregations, clergy placement decisions, and each pastor’s self-understanding as one with dual accountability—serving both the congregation and the wider body.

Making Meaning Together 

The congregation’s vision might be seen in another way—as the “meaning the congregation makes” about its present and its future. Theories that rely on either the “visionary leader” (whether this is the local pastor or the bishop) or on the conventional machinery of parliamentary self-governance may miss the underlying process by which people make sense of their faith lives—as individuals and as congregations. Writing primarily for corporate executives, Wilfred Drath and Charles Palus argue for a richer view of a leader’s work. They see the person in formal authority as one participant in an organization-wide process of “meaning-making” that is going on all the time. “Meaning-making is all about constructing a sense of what is, what actually exists, and, of that, what is important. . . . When this happens in association with practice (work, activity) in a community, we say that the process of leadership is happening.”(1)

While their specialized vocabulary can be a bit daunting, Drath and Palus highlight fundamental human longings (meaning, purpose, significance) and competencies (telling a story, making meaning together) that are “home territory” for a religious congregation. In fact, meaning-making occurs at two levels in a religious system. Just as in any other organization, people need to “make sense” of their experience as members or leaders. Why am I part of this congregation? What kind of participation is meaningful for me? What is going on here?

However, religious systems engage in another level of meaning-making not found (at least consciously) in most other organizations. A central function of religion per se is to interpret reality, to make sense of the cosmos, to tell the foundational story in which other stories may find their proper context. So when leaders work together to articulate a vision for the congregation, they are “making meaning” of an enterprise that itself “makes meaning” of the universe.

Because of this duality, the leadership process in a religious system is especially complex and demanding. But it also contains (at least potentially) rich layers of significance, beyond what we might ordinarily expect of routine planning tasks. To explore the deeper layers of meaning hiding beneath “simple” planning questions, participants must be invited to interact with the deepest Source of meaning, wherever that may be located in their particular tradition—in Torah, in Jesus, in Word and Sacrament, or in a founder’s writings, for example. When that deep engagement happens, congregational life may become for people—in brief but important moments—an encounter with God, a taste of the kingdom, a glimpse of heaven.

Breakdown and Breakout 

We might use the term “breakout”(2) to describe these moments when a congregation’s symbols come alive in the present moment, when they “work” to give profound meaning to what is happening right now among us. To take a secular example, we might think about the damaged flag from the World Trade Center in New York that was carried to many places in the following year, including the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Especially in the era since the war in Vietnam, the American flag—potentially a symbol of patriotism and national unity—had for many people either lost meaning or become associated with negative meanings (bitter division over the morality of that war, cultural imperialism, commercialism). While those painful associations did not disappear entirely, two historical events intervened to refocus the flag’s potential meanings. The first stretched over several years, as our country celebrated a whole set of 50th anniversaries related to World War II. And the second was, of course, September 11, 2001—a moment when differences and disagreements were largely (though never completely) overshadowed by national trauma. As a result, many people experienced “breakout” moments related to the American flag during the months that followed the attack.

The opposite of “breakout” is symbolic “breakdown.” During the Vietnam era, antiwar protesters burned the flag to dramatize their loss of confidence in American values. The objects and images we had relied upon to connect us with the deeper meanings of our national life often seemed bitterly ironic—or simply irrelevant as consumerism took over as the dominant shared value among us. (One might argue that
the Nike “swoosh” logo replaced the flag as the single most potent emblem of American culture.)

When church leaders work together to articulate a vision for the congregation, they are “making meaning” of an enterprise that itself “makes meaning” of the universe. Just as in the case of our national life, it may take an experience of breakdown to reveal the connection between “making sense” in our organizational decision-making and “making meaning” of the cosmos in a religious sense. Today’s most profound example of symbolic breakdown in American religious life revolves around the sexual abuse of children by clergy, and the ways religious institutions (across many faith traditions) have engaged in collusion and cover-up. Here the connection between the two levels of meaning-making is powerfully revealed: If the God-symbol in the God-place abuses me (or my child), how can I experience God as trustworthy and life-giving? If I report this behavior to other religious leaders and they betray me (by calling me a troublemaker, by hiding the abuser’s history, or by passing the problem on to another congregation), how can I trust the faith community as a meaning-making body? Where symbolic breakdown has occurred, the relationship between the two levels of meaning must be built up anew from the fundamental Source. People must tell a new story together that is large enough and powerful enough to incorporate the betrayal and to suggest an interpretation of the world that “makes sense” once again.

Spiritual Leadership 

Even in the absence of a major symbolic breakdown, however, the connections between the two levels of meaning are constantly under construction. We may say that spiritual leadership is occurring wherever members of the faith community are weaving new strands of connection between the Source of meaning (as defined by their religious tradition) and their present situation—with all its perils, opportunities, and choices. The act of weaving, no matter who is doing it, is spiritual leadership.

Such weaving can happen within all three of the models of vision formation we cited, provided that members and leaders generally concur that the model applied is appropriate. Each model, in its more extreme expressions, can rob the vision-tapestry of some of its richness by banning the participation of weavers from other parts of the system.

Extremely congregational vision-formation processes tend to block contributions from the pastor or denomination. A highly pastor-centered process tends to limit members and denominational colleagues to the role of responder. A vision-formation process dominated by the denomination may ignore the insights of the clergy and laity closest to the ministry situation. Nonetheless, each of the three basic approaches can be practiced in a way that exemplifies open inquiry and recognizes the interdependence of the parties.

This article was excerpted from Holy Conversations: Strategic Practice for Congregations (Alban, 2003) by Alice Mann, Alban Senior Consultant and Gil Rendle. 

1. Wilfred H. Drath and Charles J. Palus, Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-Making in a Community of Practice (Greensboro, N.C.: Center for Creative Leadership, 1994), 9.
2. Linda J. Clark, Joanne Swenson, and Mark Stamm, How We Seek God Together (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 2001), chapter 1.