Throw Out Your Vision Statement
It was an incredible weekend. At a gorgeous mountaintop retreat, Pastor Jerry and the elders of Crossroads took 48 hours to pray and dream about what God had in store for their church, and then draft a vision statement.*
Over the past couple of years it had become obvious that the church didn’t have a clear picture of where it was headed. Various leaders and ministries were pulling in different directions, so the church wasn’t going much of anywhere. The pastor and elders decided to go away for a weekend, and before they headed home they had adopted a 12-point vision statement.
Over the next four weeks, Pastor Jerry preached on the vision statement, covering three points in each sermon. The elders heard several positive comments about the sermons. They were on their way.
One year later, the elders were discussing a ministry program that required so many volunteers that other ministries were coming up short on workers. Carol commented, “I’m not even sure this ministry is helping us get where we want to go.” Jamie chimed in, “I see that not just with this program, but two or three others as well. It seems like our ministry leaders are pulling in a half dozen different directions.”
The room fell silent. Finally Ralph asked, “Isn’t this why we spent a weekend in the mountains writing out our vision? Is it just me, or does it seem to the rest of you like we’re no closer to being on the same page than we were a year ago?”
Deeply shared vision
A vision statement that isn’t working can do more harm than good. Why? Because it creates the illusion that the church has a shared vision when it doesn’t; it masks the real problem.
What every church needs to unify and align all its ministries is a deeply shared vision. In fact, creating synergy among all the church’s ministries through a deeply shared vision is the starting point for maximizing ministry with limited resources.
What is a deeply shared vision? It is a picture of a way of doing church and a preferred future for the church that is shared by a critical mass of the church’s core leaders, and which serves as the lens through which leaders make all major ministry decisions.
Here’s how this worked in one urban church. Through a thrift-store ministry, this church not only met needs for clothing but also built relationships with people who came to faith and then became part of the church family. After 20 years, though, staffing the store had become a constant struggle and the ministry was no longer bearing fruit as it had earlier. This raised the question: Is this a ministry we should continue?
By this time, the church’s core leaders had developed a deeply shared vision of where God was taking their church—a vision that had taken a new direction over the past couple of years. The pastor asked, “Is the thrift store part of the picture of where God is taking us, or just part of where we have been?”
At once the leaders knew: God had used it in the past, but it was not part of where God was taking them in the future. The decision to close the store was easy.
Though the leaders of this church had a shared vision that made this decision easy, they didn’t have a vision statement at the time.
What do you do, if, like so many other churches, you have a vision statement that is collecting dust? Rather than dusting it off and trying to sell it, it’s healthier to throw it out and start over, engaging all your core leaders in developing a deeply shared vision. How do you do that?
A church’s vision grows out of its core values—those essential behaviors that define what makes this church different from almost every other.
Values come first
A church’s vision grows out of its core values. Before you can have a shared vision, you must first have shared values. For example:
- Lost people matter to God and therefore must matter to us.
- Discipleship takes place best in small groups.
- God has called us to be a church that primarily serves people who are living in or are coming out of a culture of poverty.
- We believe most ministry should be done by teams.
- To encourage creativity, we will reward people for taking ministry risks within clearly defined boundaries and will celebrate failures as well as successes.
Patrick Lencioni in his book The Advantage describes four kinds of values:
- Core values are the few essential behaviors that define what makes this church different from almost every other church. They are essential to the church’s identity and do not change.
- Permission-to-play values are minimum values that are expected of any leader in the church.
- Accidental values have grown up unintentionally over the years and may not be helpful to the mission of the church.
- Aspirational values are characteristics that do not yet characterize the church but that the church needs to develop to be all God wants it to be.
When values are in tension, churches must clarify: Which is more important to us?
Who defines the church’s values?
Though they might not put them in writing, some churches have actual values that look something like this:
- We care more about protecting our building from wear and tear than we do about ministering to the children of our neighborhood.
- We care more about keeping the style of music that we are comfortable with than we do about communicating the gospel in a way that connects with the people of our community who do not yet know Christ.
- We want our pastor to spend all his or her time taking care of us, not spending time with unchurched people.
These contrasts highlight values in tension. In most cases, the tension is between accidental values and stated values. Church facility upkeep and ministry to neighborhood children are both positive values. Pastoral care and evangelism are both important. When values are in tension, leaders are responsible to point out the tension and ask people to clarify: Which is more important to us? What do we need to give up to gain something of greater value? How a church prioritizes and balances these values determines what kind of church it is and how effectively it fulfills its mission.
Who defines the values? The church’s governing board, led by the pastor, should lead the process, but the process should include everyone who is doing ministry.
Writing down values that are already shaping the church’s life can be done fairly quickly. When people hold conflicting values, however, the process of thinking and talking through which values will guide ministry decisions can and should take longer.
As you begin to clarify values, you may discover areas where your leaders are not all on the same page. Without shared values, you cannot rally around a shared vision. Yet developing a shared vision cannot be accomplished simply by adopting a vision statement. It requires engaging hearts and minds by listening to one another and seeking God together. One of the most important functions of church leadership is to cultivate a holy discontent with the status quo and a passion to become what God is calling the church to be, a passion shaped by a deeply shared vision.