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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Godly Vision

George Bullard is a church-leadership consultant. In a recent column, he has some very helpful comments on the sort of vision Christian leaders need to cultivate, in order to be most effective in serving God.

He begins by highlighting the sort of vision commonly practiced by many church leaders, which is little more then warmed-over tips from secular management literature:

"Leaders — even in Christian congregations — approach vision like church is an organization, a sports team or their country. It is about winning. It is about reaching tangible goals in the short-term. They cannot divide the success they see in the world around them from the success only God can offer.

This translates in everyday life for many congregations as a numerical measurement. Vision is a growing membership and attendance. Vision is program events that are wildly successful. Vision is surpassing the budget. Vision is filling the worship center. Vision is a full schedule of ministries. The source of these visions is our own pride."

In order to practice godly vision, we need to be in relationship with God. That means more than lip-service, or slapping "I love God" stickers on the bumper of the car. It means getting serious about spiritual discernment.

Bullard also makes the point that congregational visioning is a long-term process. No quick fixes. No handy-dandy questionnaires:

"Vision is not about quick results. Its fulfillment does not have to be fast. It is a commitment over a long period of time. Vision is not about what we will do this year. That is focusing on tactics. Vision is not about the next one to three years. That is focusing on strategies. Vision is about the long-term.

Vision is about changed behavior that develops in congregations over a period of years, and becomes hardwired in the Christ-centered, faith-based culture of the congregation."

There are things - good things, in many cases - that can get in the way of faithful visioning in congregations. Like the American flag in the sanctuary (full disclosure: we have one in our sanctuary - as pastor, I've chosen not to fight that particular battle, though I know it can be mildly idolatrous).

There's a whole raft of secularist assumptions related to money that likewise creep into congregational life: like the judgment that high-rolling big contributors are the people churches ought to be seeking out as members. Of course the church needs money to operate, but if money were the be-all and end-all, then the most successful church would be the one wealthy enough to hire employees to do all the work (hardly the sort of foot-washing servanthood taught by our Lord).

I think we also wander far afield from the Great Commission when we imagine that our goal in attracting new members is to replicate ourselves, to find more nice people like us to sit in our pews. In my experience it's people who stand out from the herd and bring gifts no one else can offer who have an outsized impact on the mission of a congregation.

If there's one thing Superstorm Sandy has taught our church in the coastal town of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, it's that the church is most effectively the church when we're doing mission ourselves. I have the feeling we were more authentically the church cooking food on our gas stove for the neighborhood, on those dark nights when nobody had electricity, than we've been while cooking any number of fellowship meals since (not that I'm knocking congregational fellowship, which is important in its own way - it's just not the main thing).

Finally, as Bullard makes clear, God is not in the reassurance business. God's in the transformation business:

"To be captivated by God’s vision is a paradigm shift. When such a shift occurs then everything goes back to zero....

When our church buildings, our unwillingness to take a stand for where God is leading us, and the pride we feel in our heritage are in conflict with God’s transformative vision, too many congregations reject God’s vision. They want change they can see and immediately measure. That is a transactional vision. God’s transformational vision is unseen and long-term."