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I have been involved in visioning efforts in business and church for the past 25 years. I have seen vision quadruple the size of my business in a decade, inspire a $2 million church expansion, and create a web community. Sadly, the simple truth is that most visioning efforts fail, and I think that is especially true in churches. I have facilitated a number of visioning processes for churches, and I've had a chance to observe church leadership in action many times. From this experience, I have distilled several reasons why visioning efforts fail in church.

We Fail to Get the Right People on the Bus

A vision will not take root in a congregation until a core leadership buys in and helps others buy into the vision. All too often, visioning in the church is not rooted in discernment by spiritual leaders. It is either brought by the pastor alone, or by a pastor and a team of people who have some experience in strategic planning in business.

Bill Easum taught me years ago that transformation in a church has as its starting point spiritual leadership. Pastors often struggle to bring together a team of leaders who share two essential characteristics: the gift of leadership, and a personal commitment to a deeper spiritual journey, expressed in the marks of discipleship.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, lays out the principle of “first who, then what.” Great leaders, upon joining a new organization, first concentrate on putting together a leadership team, and then, with that team, cast a vision for the future. As he puts it, “You get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. Only then, do you decide where to drive the bus.” Many pastors take the council as a given as the leadership of the church. Sadly, many church councils are ill-prepared to discern a vision for the church. See more from my day with Jim Collins and 20 mega church leaders here.

To see a vision before it is created requires conceptual thinking. While 80 percent of the population are concrete in their thinking, only 20 percent are conceptual. So, you need visionaries to discern a vision. One or two concrete thinkers can bog down a visioning process by their inability to see what isn’t there yet. The selection process for church council often uses criteria other than the gift of leadership and the commitment to the marks of discipleship. The result is a leadership team that might be totally inept at discerning the leading of the Spirit for their congregation. So, if you have not gathered a small group of visionary leaders together, get busy, because that is job one.

For the rest of this article, let’s assume that the leadership has worked to discern and share a vision that is truly the leading of the Holy Spirit. What follows are four pitfalls that might still derail the visioning process and lead to its failure.

Vision Describes a Process, Not an Outcome

Many struggle to differentiate mission and vision, so let me give a couple of illustrations. I believe Jesus has given the mission to the church. It can be described a hundred different ways, but it's basically this: Be disciples, make disciples, and feed the sheep. This describes process.

Charlotte Roberts gives two good illustrations of the difference between mission and vision. A mission is like the frame around a painting. It defines and puts boundaries around the area of work for the organization. A vision is like the painting within the frame. It describes the outcome the artist had in mind, and it plays out within the frame of mission.

In a sports analogy, the mission is like the playing field. We play the game on the field defined by the mission, within those boundaries. Our bedrock beliefs and values are like the rules by which the game is played. The vision is the outcome of the game at some future point, if it is played well.

This illustration from Mike Foss might be helpful at this point. Mike and I have done some visioning work before, and this illustration gives a good idea of the terms.

So, a vision statement should describe an outcome of the mission done well over the next couple of years. What will the church look like if it lives out its mission? What will be the outcome of living true to the mission in this particular place and time (context and culture)?

An effective vision paints a clear picture of what the church will look like at some future point. It describes the preferred outcome if the people get busy creating what truly matters (from God’s point of view). So, the next time you see a church vision statement, ask yourself, does this describe an outcome, or a process? Can I see a picture of what the vision looks like?

The Vision Is “World Peace”

Your vision can describe an outcome and still fail. All too often, our vision statement actually expresses vague hopes and longings. In my business, whenever we were doing strategy, someone would throw out an idea that was so far-fetched, so far beyond our capabilities, that we would write “world peace” on a sticky note and post it above all the other ideas.

Dan Southerland, in his book Transitioning, cautions against stretching too far in casting a vision to the church. “The difference between a leader and a martyr is two steps,” he says. “A leader stays one step ahead of the people. A martyr gets three steps ahead and is shot in the back.” As one who has gotten too far in front several times, I can attest to the great pain it causes.

My own ELCA Southeastern Synod is the Great Commission Synod. Here is the vision statement adopted in 1999:

We will love God and neighbor so that all people, transformed by the Holy Spirit and believing in Jesus Christ, will be His disciples.

I cannot find an instance in the Bible where everyone turned towards God. Even Jesus himself did not accomplish this vision; how could we?

To be effective, a vision has to be actionable. I did a talk a couple of years ago at a conference on the topic of visioning. A bishop came up to me after the session and told me he had always understood that visions had to be so lofty as to be unattainable. Don’t get me wrong--I think we should dream big, and visions should cause us to stretch and invent new ways of getting there. I think in God's house, we should have visions that can't be possible without His intervention. But there comes a point when a vision is so disconnected from reality that it would be impossible to accomplish. When we cast a vision at 50,000 feet, we cannot see the lay of the land well enough to map our approach. Better to cast a vision at 5,000 feet, where we can see the obstacles that lay ahead and map a path forward.

Misdiagnosing Point A (Today’s Current Reality)

Mike Foss has this to say about visioning: “The major reason churches don’t achieve their vision is that they misdiagnose point A, the starting point. They assume point B, the achievement of the vision, is much closer to point A than it really is.”

I find many churches are in denial. It almost seems like a conspiracy to ignore reality. When we can articulate a clear picture of our vision, and then take a brutally honest look at our reality today vis-à-vis the vision, the contrast creates a very strong tension. When I see how Jesus lived, and I look honestly at my own life, the contrast creates tension. That tension is relieved when we move ourselves closer to our vision. We call this tension structural tension, and it is the most powerful tool you can use towards achieving God’s plan.

Leaders who are not aware of the reality facing them quickly lose credibility with their people. To continue the map analogy, if I say I’m going to take us to Nashville, but I think we are starting from Chattanooga, and you know we're actually starting in Atlanta, how much faith will you have that I can get us to Nashville?

Goals Fail the “SMART” Test

Part of articulating a sound vision is to describe an outcome clearly enough so you can tell when you have arrived. Once you have a clearly articulated vision and taken a brutally honest look at your starting point, you identify what action steps will move you from the reality of today to the successful accomplishment of the vision. To be effective, these action steps (as well as the vision itself) must pass the SMART test.

Effective goals are:
* Specific: They provide a clear picture of the desired outcome.

* Measurable: You can measure your progress and know when the goal is accomplished.

* Actionable: The goal is clear enough that the actions needed are apparent.

* Relevant: The goals are relevant to the accomplishment of the vision.

* Timely: Dates for completion and primary responsibility for action are assigned.

I find most churches avoid accountability and devalue the possibility of measuring what is important. It’s true that measures never tell the whole story, but the lack of accountability is one of the major challenges facing our church leadership. Leaders need accountability; they thrive on accountability. Those who wish to avoid accountability are not prepared to lead.

So, visionaries take heart and learn from the struggles of those who have tried and failed and tried again. Learn to practice building structural tension into your lives and churches and you will gain the ability to accomplish those things God lays before you. A vision from God can transform our heart of hearts.

Suggested Timeline/Content for a Healthy Visioning Process

Month One: Identify and gather a vision/discipleship team for its first meeting to work together on discernment, prayer and study.  Look for two characteristics: the gift of leadership/influence, either formal or informal, and a commitment to a deeper spiritual journey.  Ask for a commitment from the team to walk deeper into the marks of discipleship. Hand out a copy of Reveal: Where are You? and tell the team that you will discuss the book at each meeting. Create norms and expectations to help a healthy team to emerge. Decide how often you will meet (every two to three weeks is optimal) and the other housekeeping details. Pray together. Lay out a schedule of team-building, growing self-awareness, and identifying gifts and strenghts as you cast this as a spiritual journey together. Distribute Myers-Briggs, DISC, and Conflict Assessment tools for use in the first three months.  Begin the call to a vision of discipleship and invite the group to grow into a team rather than a committee. It would be very helpful to see a ministry team functioning in your midst. End with Rob Bell's video "Dust," a great introduction to discipleship.  Begin the practice of sharing God Sightings at each gathering.  The goal here is for us as a team to become more aware of what God is up to in our lives, our workplace, and our communities.  Once we see what God's up to, we have ample chances to join in.  It is important to plant the idea that God is not just in the building, and the idea of spiritual journey to replace the commonly held view of spiritual place.

Month Two: Gather the team to share results of the assessments, so each can begin to value the gifts and diversity on the team.  Use these assessments (in at least two meetings) with other team-building exercises to develop good group dynamics.  Distribute Spiritual Gifts Inventory and ask each to complete and reflect on it by next meeting. Begin each meeting with prayer and devotional, and a reflection on Reveal. It would be helpful for this team to have Percept data from the neighborhood around the church.  Order a Percept Pschographic Report for a radius of three miles around the church.

Month Three:  Gather to share the Spiritual Gifts Inventory.  Share your results with the team.  Try to see what gifts God has gathered around the table.  Our personal calling is rooted in the gifts God has given us, and a church's call to mission is rooted in the gifts present in the body. Continue with shared prayer and devotion focused on personal discipleship, and becoming a healthy body of Christ within this team. Review the Percept report and discern what that is telling you about the needs of your immediate community.  This is very important in informing our look at current reality.  Take a look at Natural Church Development and begin to understand the eight health factors in a congregation.  Prepare to discuss at next meeting.

Month Four:  Discuss the eight health factors described in Natural Church Development.  It would be very helpful to survey the congregation as part of this visioning process.  I recommend using either the NCD Survey or the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey.  Decide as a team which of these tools would be most helpful in creating a clear picture of current reality, and to create a sense of urgency.  The NCD Survey is taken by 30 members, where the Reveal Survey, to be representative, needs to be taken by 50 percent of your regular worshipers.  Map a process to get the buy-in of the leadership and the congregation about these surveys.  Continue prayers of discernment and time for Bible study/devotional at each session.

Month Five:  Finalize plans for the vision event, and begin publicity within the congregation.  It will take a month or more to fully prepare the congregation and leadership for the surveys, then another month to complete the surveys.  Spend time with each person on the team articulating more fully the gifts they bring, and what calling might be nested in these gifts, as you imagine together what calling God has nested in the cumulative gifts of this Body of Christ.

Month Six: Lay out the logistics for the vision event, set the date, and begin asking those who are formal and informal leaders of the congregation to save the date and participate.  Take the NCD or Reveal Survey, and begin to unpack the results with the team.  Plan a series of cottage visits in people's homes with small groups of your people.  Unpack the findings with them, and seek their understanding and feedback as you work to make meaning of the date.  This step is critical.  When you survey a group of people, for it to have a positive impact, you must circle back and share the results and what plans will be initiated by these learnings.

Month Seven: Spend this month in further discernment as you go through the cottage meetings, preparing your people with some hints of what is emerging around ministry teams.  Share the excitement of working in this collaborative way, out of the strengths of the gifts of the Body.  Share your enthusiasm as a team with the learning you have encountered in this journey of discipleship, growing deeper in your relationships with God and each other.

Month Eight:  Create a full court press with sermons, newsletter articles, posters, inviting people to join the vision event.  Finalize all logistics for the event.  Continue to share the glimpses of discernment that the team is seeing as you study, pray and have dialogue about the survey, the percept data, and from your personal experience of ministry team, and growing deeper spiritually.  By now, this team should also be functioning as a small group together and helping plant seeds of a new way of life together. A new, healthy DNA is emerging in this team.

Month Nine: Bring together a large cross-section of the congregation for the vision event.  Again, the concrete folks (Myers-Briggs Sensors) will struggle with this process.  Try to draw as many conceptual people into the process as you can.  A mix will make sure that you are incorporating pragmatic, concrete steps towards the vision, not just creating another "world peace" vision that will never get legs in the congregation.  Plan to set aside 12 to 16 hours for a visioning process.  In eight hours you can create a vision.  In 16 hours, you can create a vision with four or five main action steps that will move you towards the vision, and the participants will have self-selected into teams around each of these main action steps, which become goals in support of the vision.  Now, the challenge is to make this a shared vision.  The budgeting process must then be shaped by the vision, because a failure to align resources around the emerging vision will be a path to failure.

So, these are the steps I have found helpful in creating a sticky vision, one that becomes a shared vision and comes into reality.  I would be most happy to discuss this process further if you have some interest.  There are hundreds of possible variations on the process I have described here.  Some of them actually work.  Most don't.  This one will, if the right people are at the table.  May God bless you with a mighty vision and draw your community into a walk of discipleship and mission.  May your Body of Christ become healthier each year so you can live out the purpose, mission and calling God intends.

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