Churches need a clear and compelling vision to go to the next place God is leading them.
The Rev. Lovett Weems Jr. distinguishes a church’s vision from its mission. The mission may remain consistent throughout the congregation’s life. The vision, however, will likely change as the church discerns how it will live out that mission in its current context. Churches that have grown larger or smaller, changed dramatically in terms of membership or watched the neighborhood around them become something different may need a vision change, explains Weems, senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.
Instead of thinking of the vision as something the brightest minds of the church develop in a backroom somewhere, leaders need to understand that vision comes from God, not them. When churches change their vision, they look ahead to the signs indicating the future to which God is leading them.
Where to start
The Rev. Kate Walker, senior pastor of Deer Park (Texas) United Methodist Church has led workshops teaching local congregations how to implement and communicate their vision. She recommends tailoring the approach to the size and culture of the congregation.
Congregations of less than 100 members are typically informal and relational in their polity. They may not have a formal statement of vision or values in writing, but they know in their hearts what unites them. Informal talks led by the pastor will help congregants articulate the principles that inform their vision.
Larger congregations will usually have clearly defined statement of values and/or a vision statement. Often a larger church will appoint a specific team and develop a process to give direction and structure to discerning a new vision. Weems advises that the team include representation from three key groups:
- Church leadership: These members hold offices like lay leader, church council chairperson or lay member to annual conference. Leaders give the team credibility and oversight while also helping to keep the larger congregation in the loop on their work.
- Front-line ministry leaders: These people serve in specific areas of ministry such as Sunday school teachers, outreach coordinators or worship planners. They have a good understanding of the church’s current work and impact.
- Fresh faces: These are newer members of the church (preferably for six months or less) who can still offer an outsider’s perspective. They are also less likely than longer-time members to get lost in nostalgia or sentimentality as they try to envision the church’s future.
How to guide the conversation
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership identifies three key questions to guide the conversation:
- Who are we now?
- What are our needs and strengths?
- Who are our neighbors?
First, the congregation needs to identify itself. The Rev. John Thornburg of the Texas Methodist Foundation suggests using exercises such as finding the church’s biblical narrative – asking the group in what story from scripture do they see themselves as a church. For instance, some churches might say they are like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness or living in exile in Babylon.
Second, the team needs to look critically and realistically at the church’s membership, assets, capacities and limitations. This can be sobering, but the vision must come from what the congregation is, not what it wishes it were. Thornburg also warns against getting lost in nostalgia for the past. Look specifically for where the passions and continuing strengths of the church lie and how these might best be utilized in the future. Let the church’s positive characteristics guide the conversation.
Third, identify the congregation’s neighbors or the community it believes it is called to reach. This can be the most challenging step. Walker says most congregations err by assuming they know their community without doing any independent research. To be effective and generate good information, this step requires leaving the church building and talking to community members directly. Find out what the people are like, what their needs and concerns are and how the church might be able to help them. Congregations may also want to use MissionInsite to receive a demographic study of the neighborhood, but nothing beats direct contact and engagement. Walker also suggests inviting community members to sit-in or address the team if they are available and willing.
Implementing the vision
The most spiritually grounded, well-developed vision will mean nothing without practical ways to live it. Every member of the church will need to claim the vision as his or her own; every ministry and program must adopt it. As the team is developing the vision, it should communicate with the entire congregation through reports, small groups and other means, getting feedback on its work. Once the vision is developed, the pastor should lead a church-wide meeting and ask the whole congregation to adopt the vision.
Weems warns leaders against settling for the congregation merely consenting to a vision. Make sure there are real energy and passion to live it out before asking for it to be adopted. If passion and energy are lacking, the team may need to revise its vision and make certain it includes members in the conversation whose support is vital.
Adoption of a vision does not end the work. Reminders and reinforcements of the vision will need to be part of the church’s life for six to nine months. Walker recommends reminding members of the new vision from the pulpit and in classrooms, Bible studies, fellowship events and mission opportunities over the next six to nine months. Infuse the vision into the very DNA of the congregation so that it becomes second nature to everyone.
The congregation then needs to attach clear goals to the vision. The goals need to be realistic and measurable. If, for instance, a church sees its vision as combating homelessness in their community, the members might set a goal of seeing the total number of homeless people in the community drop by a certain percentage or to a certain number.
In addition to setting goals for the entire congregation, Weems suggests asking each leader or group in charge of a particular ministry, such as youth, outreach and worship, to come up with their unique strategies and goals. This will help further infuse the vision across the congregation and assure that everyone is working toward the same future.
Visioning done right can reinvigorate a congregation that is feeling lost or irrelevant by reminding it of its core values and strengths. Visioning also creates a realistic picture of a future that is neither pessimistic or a pipe dream. When churches know who they are, whom they are called to serve and how they are able to do so, they are much more likely to achieve their goals.
It all starts with knowing – and taking – the next step.
Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership
- A God Corrected Vision, Melvin Amerson
- Casting a Vision, Melvin Amerson
- Congregational Focus, Lovett Weems Jr.
- Planning Inspired by the Spirit, Myung Sun Han
- Two Views of Vision, Lovett Weems Jr.
- The Three Tell-Tale Signs It’s Time for a New Vision, Rebekah Simon-Peter
- Discovering and Communicating Vision, Kate Walker
- Holy Conversations: A Strategic Discernment Process, Texas Methodist Foundation