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Why the vision statement doesn’t get a rise

September 16, 2021
By Dr. Derek McAleer, Director of Administrative Services

Sometime in the early ‘90s I began to learn about how critical it was for a church to have a vision statement. Somewhere in the intersection of business, academia, and the practical administration of the church the idea of a compelling mission or vision statement surfaced in the minds of pastors and other church leaders. Our annual conference got behind the idea, and soon we were merrily discussing the difference between a mission statement, a vision statement, and a statement of values. Of course, I got my local church leadership off on a retreat so we could discern our church’s vision statement.

I did it again at the next two churches I served, convinced I was onto something good. Then I was appointed to an extension ministry in the same city where I had been serving a congregation. I moved to a pew in the same church, supported the new pastor, and all was well. Except now I began to see things from the view of laypersons in the church. For the first time as an adult, I lived through a change of pastors … and then another change … and then another change. My new perspective gave me some very interesting things to witness.

Those who have succeeded me have been very capable pastors. Their leadership has helped our church, and they have brought things to the table I could never have brought. I want to be very clear that my comments are not some veiled denigration of their ministry. Rather, I offer my opinion on one thing I have observed, and hope others more capable than I will help use this to guide us to more effective ministry.

Every new pastor to our church has led us in discerning God’s vision for our church. Each pastor has sought to clearly hear what God is saying to our church, where God is calling us to serve, and how we should allocate our resources for effective ministry. In this, they have tried to exhibit faithful pastoral leadership. I did the same thing in churches I served.

At the same time, my church has had three different mission statements and three different ways of expressing God’s vision for the church. We’ve had different logos and color schemes. And we’ve had laity who are glad to see whatever the new buzzwords are printed up on the bulletin and promotional pieces without it really impacting their engagement with the church. Oh, these laypersons love the church, honor and respect the pastor, and sincerely want to serve Christ. But the ever-changing landscape of vision and mission statements leaves them a bit disconnected from the power these could evoke.

Perhaps the pastors have been in the same place I have been (and perhaps you have been there, too). After all the work involved in discerning and delineating the new vision, mission, and values, it is disappointing to find that, after the initial rush, the laity do not rise up and follow with much enthusiasm. No one speaks against the new statements; in fact, most like them. But for some reason the statements do not bring the focus, energy, and motivation we hoped they would.

Put simply, if laity recognize that the “new” mission and/or vision statement will last as long as this pastor does (which experience says will be the truth), then how do they really key into these as expressions of God’s desire for the church? If God wanted A with the last pastor, and B with the current pastor, has God’s will changed, or just the pastor? Is this the church’s mission and vision, the pastor’s expression of what he or she wants for the church, some mix of the two, or something else entirely? Does anyone in the lay leadership care enough to parse through all that, or will they just let the new pastor do what they want with mission, vision, and logo?

Put a different way: if the mission and vision statement belong to the church, why would it change when the pastor changes? Would it be wiser for a pastor to align their own practice of ministry with the church’s vision and mission? Does the pastor’s unwillingness to do so reflect the burden on his or heart to seek God anew, or just an unwillingness to receive what they perceive as the former pastor’s vision? (If the latter, doesn’t that reveal where they think the mission and vision come from!)

Naturally, the laity of the church expect the new pastor to have their own way of leading and their own gifts and graces. Of course we anticipate that a new pastor will lead us into areas that previous pastors did not go. This is one of the values gained from the itineracy. Should vision and mission be counted as part of a pastor’s way of leading, or is there something about them tied more to the church than to the pastor?

My own opinion, uninformed as it may be, is this: Something that changes every time there is a pastoral change does not belong to the church. If it does not belong to the church, then the congregation will not embrace it as completely as might otherwise be true. Laity do not commit themselves to short-term visions in the way they might to a long-term vision. The perceived short-term nature of the mission statement robs it of much of its power and motivational ability.

Are you in a new appointment? Take a look to see if there is a current mission or vision statement. Look at it carefully, consider it with your intellect, mull over it in prayer. Perhaps the Spirit will lead you to accept it as God’s vision for that church, God’s mission for the congregation. If the Spirit gives you freedom to work with the present mission/vision, do so with gusto. Claim it as the church’s mission and vision, honor the statement, and move forward under its guidance. And see if the vision does not gain new authority over that congregation.

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