The problems facing mainline denominational churches are legion.  As I work with leaders in churches, I often find them in problem-solving mode.  The motivation for change is the perception of the negative:  budget problems, declining worship attendance, shifting neighborhood demographics, trouble attracting the younger generation, conflict in the church, worship wars. 

The church building spree after World War II and running through the 50's and 60's has left a legacy of facilities that are underutilized and aging, no longer appropriate to the use for which they were built.  Bill Easum describes these buildings as an albatross around the church's neck.  These facilities we built to serve us.  Now, all the cash flow goes to building upkeep, maintenance and utilities, starving program budgets. 

Declining churches face a stark choice between paying for the building or paying a decent salary to the pastors.  I've seen this happen firsthand, and when I related it to my friend Dave Daubert, he said, "When it comes down to paying the pastors or paying for the building, the pastors always lose."  This from the man whose portfolio at ELCA Churchwide was the redevelopment and turnaround of dying churches.  He'd seen many stories like this.  90 percent of our ELCA congregations are on plateau or in decline, so there are plenty of problems out there. 

The Fallacy of Strategy Without Vision

I consulted with a large congregation in conflict early last year.  At the second meeting, the Long Range Planning Committee attended.  They were in the midst of creating strategies and plans, but there was no vision in place.  They did not like to hear me point that out, and they went on their merry way.  The situation blew up later in the year, and the pastor left.  Now they are in transition, have lost hundreds in worship, and are beginning a process to discern a vision for the future.

A litany of problems move congregations to action.  "We need a strategy," leaders assert.  So they implement change to solve a problem.  "Let's start a new worship service" is a common response, and then the worship war starts. 

Anyone who has tried exercise or diet plans knows that it's rarely enough just to want to move away from the negative reality of being overweight.  In a course called Creating What Matters, my friend and mentor Robert Fritz described it this way:  "Problem-solving is like building demolition--you are trying to take something away.  Creating is like architecture, trying to make something new. Moving away from a negative situation is not a vision." 

Fritz says, "Have you made the fundamental choice to live a healthy life?  In so doing, you will readily adopt secondary decisions that are negative, like diet or exercise, in service of creating a healthy life."  We will choose negative choices that are moving us closer to a compelling vision, but we rarely choose them for their own sake.

Living in a Zone of Tolerable Conflict

I spent 25 years working in a family business.  For the first 15 years, my brother and I worked with our father in an organization built around problem-solving.  My father was a great problem-solver, and I learned it well from him.  We did not have any coherent policies across the organization.  We had an incredible number of procedures that were written to solve a particular problem.  Many were not consistent with each other.  When you just keep writing new procedures to address each problem as it arises, you have a bunch of band aids stuck on top of each other, none of them addressing core issues, so tiny wounds fester. 

Fritz talks about our tendency to live in a zone of tolerable conflict.  When something pushes us out of that zone, we address the problem.  However, we don't solve it, we just work on it until it gets a little better, then the next problem crops up, and our attention moves on to the next problem.  Underlying problems are never solved, just tolerated.  Since many churches have adopted, consciously or unconsciously, a conflict resolution of avoid, we sweep things under the rug where they just fester until they boil over. 

What Do We Want to Create?

So, the right question to ask is, "What do we want to create together?"  As we begin to think in this way, we can design our way to a better future.  When my father died in 1990, we were a 35-year-old company that had been on a plateau for many years.  We did no planning, and our attempts to hold talks with our father over long-range strategy were painful.  He was a firefighter, who came to the office and spent his day reacting to what happened, never looking to the future.  Sure, we made some strategic decisions, opening new branches and taking on different suppliers.  But overall, we just reacted to the circumstances that unfolded, never looking over the horizon to anticipate the future.

When my brother and I took over the business, our first step was to put together an annual plan and a budgeting process to support it.  Two years later, we did our first visioning process for the company.  Within three years, we had doubled the size of the business and accomplished the vision we set out.  After another round of visioning, we started a new equipment rental business. Within five years, we had grown the 38th largest rental business in the country.  By 1999, we had quadrupled the size of the business, after 15 years on plateau, and public companies came calling. 

We found organizing a new business around a vision and creating a new culture to be vastly easier than turning around the culture in the old business our father started.  Despite all our efforts to restructure and create a new culture, within three years after selling the rental business, the old business collapsed.  We found ourselves stuck in a mature industry with suppliers who were not up to the changes needed to stay relevant.  It was kind of like my friend who owns two Saturn dealerships in Atlanta.  It doesn't matter how well he ran that business. When GM tanked, his future was decided by factors totally out of his control. 

Synods as Firefighters

I have observed this same behavior in our synods over the years.  Bishops are so over-scheduled and under-resourced that they spend most of their time in firefighting mode, reacting to the latest church in conflict, to the latest pastoral misconduct, and now, to the firestorm around the churchwide decisions on sexuality.  Now, local pastors are being whipsawed by the reaction of their members to the decisions handed down from the Churchwide Assembly. In many churches, wrenching decisions to withdraw support or even membership in the ELCA are being debated.  Yet in a few churches, the leaders have been proactive and have weathered this storm without feeling forced to take drastic action.

The Elements of Structural Tension

In 1999, our ELCA Southeastern Synod revisioned itself as the "Great Commission Synod."  Sadly, over the last decade, I never saw the bishop align the resources of the synod around discipleship and mission.  We talked Great Commission but never really put legs under the idea.  So, a great vision is not enough.  First, the vision must clearly describe an outcome, not a process.  It must give the people a destination to seek.  Many confuse mission and vision.  Mission describes process, where vision describes an outcome.

The other critical element is an unflinching look at reality.  You must know your starting point if you are going to navigate toward a new vision.  If you aren't clear about your starting point, you will never design effective strategies for achieving the vision. 

Once you have articulated a clear vision and established a starting point based on current reality, the contrast will create strong structural tension which will move you forward.  The current reality will show where the gaps are and highlight the work needed to reach the vision.  This process is the core of visionary leadership.  The key element in a church setting is that God is the author of the vision. 

Through discernment and prayer, we seek to find God's leading into the future He calls us to live out in our Christian community.  This moves us beyond problem-solving and into the wonderful world of creating a future together.