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What Your Church Needs Even More Than a Vision

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Remember this statement? “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

Those of us trained as pastors, coaches, trainers or consultants before the turn of this century knew that identifying a church’s mission and vision was the gold standard for church leadership.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” was quoted regularly, with good cause. That was the heyday of strategic planning and church visioning.

I can remember some larger churches actually producing 15-year strategic plans. What? Yes, they did.

Here’s the why: Due to the stability of church cultures before the year 2000, visioning provided what churches needed to galvanize their efforts.

Back then (pre-2000), we didn’t think church culture was stable, but from this 2019 viewpoint, it clearly was.

After World War I, the builder generation got busy building the churches of North America. Their energy, giftedness for organizational development and general knowhow combined toward shaping church culture into several standardized paradigms.

These paradigms spread across this country and Canada, endorsed and promoted through denominational systems, giving rise to Protestant churches as we have known them.

Seminaries could train pastors in one area of the country, exporting them to other locales, where they were generally competent church leaders because the standardization of church paradigms preceded them.

In that kind of church culture, visioning was very helpful. Churches could work a good visioning process, which sharpened their identity, focused their callings and produced a list of initiatives to pursue.

Often, their energy would rise, and momentum would increase through the visioning process.

Some level of vitalization often accompanied their visioning work. Pastors and church leaders came to rely on visioning as a way to invigorate their churches.

That was then, pre-2000, when church culture enjoyed stability and homogeneity across much of North America.

Now, most church consultants and denominational ministers are keenly aware that visioning ain’t what it used to be.

Pastors and lay people often do the eye roll when the subject of visioning arises. Even when they don’t say it, they secretly know the effort, time and expense don’t produce what they once produced.

They understand that visioning processes were a mechanism for helping church-as-we-have-known-it become its best self.

Though visioning still has its place, using outdated visioning processes ends up positioning us to be really effective 1980s-type churches.

It may be a little strange that I would point out the limitations of visioning since my organization, Pinnacle Leadership Associates, has engaged numerous churches in visioning processes over time.

Strange in a way but also very hopeful. As churches change, so are our processes.

As we work with churches of many denominations, paying attention to their evolving lives, we hear their clear communication on what they need now in order to be faithful to the gospel and effective expressions of themselves: transformation.

We learned this through trial and error.

Over time, we watched our visioning processes produce less fruit in churches, due to the radically changing ministry contexts of those churches.

As we listened and learned and consulted with other consultants, we discerned the need of churches for increased awareness about their ministry contexts along with a high need for adaptive capacity.

More than they needed a strategic ministry plan with 12 items to pursue (organizational development), they needed the ability to adapt to their shifting environment.

One way to say this – the vision of churches for this season of life and ministry may need “to become an adaptive organism, living into relevant and faithful expressions of ourselves as church in this current community context.” This is what churches need, post-2000.

It turns out there were two missing components in the visioning processes from the pre-2000 era.

Both of these must precede visioning work, or else people will simply identify visions that are slightly modified versions of what they did back in their heyday.

  1. Accurate understandings of our swiftly changing world: accepting that things have changed and that culture is not likely to return to its previous expression.
  2. Increased adaptive capacity: giving ourselves permission to engage holy experimenting, following the fresh winds of God’s Holy Spirit, adapting our expression of church while remaining true to our identity.

So, does visioning still have a place in the church world? Yes, but it’s located in a different place, functioning as a subset of something bigger and better.

Instead of visioning, churches need transformation processes in order to be faithful, effective and viable.

Transformation processes typically include visioning at the right time and place, but only after churches gain an accurate understanding of what’s going on in their worlds.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle Leadership Associates’ blog. It is used with permission.

Mark Tidsworth

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.