Monday, April 26, 2010

Confessions of a Recovering Visionaholic

My name is Joe. I love visionary thinking. I'm a recovering visionaholic.

Just because I love and admire visionary thinking does not make me a visionary. Occasionally I am moved to an innovative idea or thought. Often I am inspired to respond to a provocation of the Holy Spirit and imagine a project that brings connections to God and people. These ideas stretch me and the congregations I serve. I've never been a part of a congregation long enough to experience a vision producing benefits first hand. Sometimes I read or hear a story about a congregation I served make a great leap toward reaching a vision; I smile and give thanks that I helped build something visionary.

My working definition of vision for years: a Holy Spirit idea that stretches my capabilities and the congregation I serve. In the first congregation I served, Our Savior's Evangelical Lutheran Church--Hartland, WI, I was full of ideas and experiences from seminary. I worked toward a partnership vision for the congregation--I used the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18, "Where there is no vision, the people perish," as a guiding Bible verse for the congregation to imagine grand possibilities in serving God and neighbor. I think this understanding and usage of vision is good and faithful. I think a key part of congregational mission is reliance on God and corresponding grand thinking, followed with action and discernment related to vision. I made a mistake in using Proverbs 29:18--I ignored the context, ignored the Hebrew, ignored the other translations. I was too busy convincing the congregation about the goodness of visionary thinking (forgot some of those good principles of my seminary education) beyond having a nice, new building.

I delved into reading on congregational vision and mission. I attended conferences and workshops addressing vision and change. I wanted to develop a vision statement to accompany their mission statement. I remember workshops at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN and their vision statement (which has evolved a little checking the above link "10,000 passionate Christians in every generation." POP showed me the only congregational vision that has inspired me in 16 years of seminary and ministry.  That's not to say that congregations fail in ministry, but the ministry gets cut short without a compelling vision. At a Prince of Peace workshop I learned that a vision is a compelling idea so big and grand that only God can help you get there. I believe congregations are inhibited by small thinking and fixed on what they can sensibly accomplish: budgets, keeping the lights on, having a pastor to serve as a chaplain for the members, occasionally serving food to the hungry, etc.

For over 9 years I served in transition congregations with varying thinking scopes, and varying degrees of ministry effectiveness--though none with a compelling vision that stretched the congregation to imagine what was possible with God. Though I witnessed good ministry over the years, every mission seemed sensible and well within the realm of the congregation's skills. I was sucked into small thinking to a degree in the past decade. Vision developed into a buzz word over the years, losing its meaning for congregations. In this trajectory, vision looks like white flour--something good milled into something filling, yet bland, with little nutritional value.

Sunday, April 25th at First Lutheran Community Church revealed their passion about visionary thinking. Pastor Allen Cudahy was a visionary leader at FLCC for 20 years--partnering with forward thinking leaders and turning around and growing a Mainline Protestant/Lutheran congregation in the Pacific Northwest. Visionary thinking is embedded in the congregational culture. The people of FLCC speak some of the language of vision, but they've equated it today with the dream of a community center in Port Orchard. I think a community center represents visionary thinking. It inspired passion yesterday in a public discussion about the dream's future. People don't want to lose that visionary thought--they've had a taste of visionary thinking and action, and they don't want to let it go. I do not blame them. The dream of the community center is no longer visionary, because the congregation has not taken discernible action on this project for a few years. A vision compels people to act beyond what they deem sensible.

In short, vision does not equal a community center (or fill in whatever project your congregation is in process). Vision is a word that is thrown around in hopeful congregations all over North America. I mistakenly attached myself to the feeling of vision rather than the guidance of God. It's time for me to stop being a visionaholic and connecting myself with more sound reflection, prayer and discernment about vision. Vision is more than a good feeling. The good feeling is a by product of God's gracious provision. More learning and some sermons on the topic are forthcoming.

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