Doubts About “Vision”


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Over the years, I have been having more and more doubts with regards to the concept of “vision” as it is used in the Christian Leadership culture. This may come out as more like a laundry list of concerns… and I am not at a point of resolution… but I think writing them down will help me think them through a bit better.

A.   “The Vision Thing.” My first doubts on vision and leadership occurred when I was taking “Ministerial Leadership” in seminary (not including a plethora of doubts on leadership in general that go back to my admittedly awkward days as an officer in the United States Navy).  I was in class in seminary when our professor made a statement to the effect that, “The pastor is the vision person in the church.” This statement is a bit innocuous, but at the time it struck me as quite strange. You see, I was working with a ministry where the pastor/leader considered himself to be a very visionary person. However, from my perspective, he seemed to be almost exactly the opposite. He parroted the  opinions of a couple of other people. I have a hard time seeing that fit anyone’s idea of vision.

Frankly, I saw this over and over again over the years. Pastors and other religious leaders who read a book or go to a seminar and come back with “vision.” Truthfully, pretty much no good ideas come out of nowhere, so the fact that a person gets some inspiration from an outside source, or someone else, is not a problem. But since anyone can read a book or attend a seminar as easily as a religious leader can, it is a bit disingenuous to say that vision is a “leader thing.” Ideas should stand on their own merit, rather than gain a certain credence because they were repeated by a specific member within the church.

Many leaders are quite obviously not “vision people.” I am not sure that that is necessarily bad. I know years ago US President George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton due to the perception that he lacked vision. That may or may not be true, but if true, it is not clear that that made him less competent as a leader than “visionary” Bill Clinton. It seems like in the Bible, a good leader has good moral character, chooses good advisers, and filters the best advice from the nonsense, and acts courageously.

B.  Who has Vision?  I was reading “Courageous Church Leadership: Conversations with Effective Practitioners” by John Chandler (a good book to read). One of the interviews was with David Chadwick, the pastor of a successful church in North Carolina. I very much liked the interview, and found much of what he said to be quite insightful. But there was one statement that seemed odd to me:

“Some would say, how audacious to think that you are the only person in the church who gets vision. But where, in the Bible, does God give vision to a group of people? Number one, God gives vision to the leader.  I’m not arrogant; people know that. But this is what I think we’re really supposed to do.”

That got me thinking… I certainly have no reason to think this person is arrogant, he presumably is repeating what he learned in seminary (or somewhere else). But is it correct that in the Bible, God doesn’t give vision to a group of people? It took me about 30 seconds to come up with things that question this. Joel 2 speaks of God giving dreams and visions to a broad number of people (we will deal with how the term “vision” is used in the next point.). It doesn’t seem possible to interpret the passage as referring to single individuals associated with individual congregations of believers. Related to Joel 2, one should add Acts 2, not only because the passage explicitly links to Joel 2, but because it seems as if the ability to speak in foreign tongues was linked with a clearly divine/prophetic message to the 120 members of the group. One could also add Matthew 28 where Jesus (God’s son) gave his vision (Great Commission) to a group of disciples. And while we are at it, may as well add Acts 13:1-3 where God gave the vision to send out Barnabas and Paul on a mission journey, to a group, not to an individual. I suppose there are more, but these are a few passages that cast doubt on who God gives vision to, and who not. An interesting final thought in this area would be in Acts 19 and 20 where Paul believes he has a vision from God to go to Jerusalem, while brethren in Tyre believe they receive a message from the Spirit that he should not go. Paul ignores the group vision and acts on his own. The reason why this is interesting is that since the next several years of his ministry were relatively ineffective, one wonders if he improperly ignored sound guidance. Perhaps, sometimes, God is heard more clearly by a group (the “God of the gathering” as some people put it) than by an individual.

But taking it further, if vision is viewed as being a specific counsel from God, the Bible shows that such vision very often did not go to leaders. Prophets were rarely leaders. Even in the New Testament, prophets and prophetesses did not appear to normally serve as leaders in the church. In fact, the term “prophet” in the early church seems to usually apply to traveling ministers who spoke to different churches, providing guidance to members, but having no direct authority over them. So, based on the Bible, I would have to say that vision commonly goes to a group, and not just one person, and vision commonly comes to one who is not the designated leader.

3.  What is Vision Anyway? The two previous points identify a potential problem with the ambiguity of the term “vision” as it is used in Christian leadership. One way the term “vision” is used has to do with “strategic thinking.” Gary McIntosh, for example, would say that a pastor of a larger church should be visionary– meaning either that he (or she) is able to think strategically as far as the church’s direction, or is good at developing a team around him (or her) who has such strategic thinking. Vision here is tied to keeping the mission of the church in view– the big picture as it connects also to the details. It can be seen as desired or preferred vision or image of what the church should be in the future. If one uses this sort of definition for vision, it would appear to be correct that the senior pastor (or perhaps the board of elders) is responsible for the overall vision of the church, but that everyone is responsible for the input into that vision. After all, everyone really should have some sort of preferred view of the church in the future. Not all are correct, but all should be heard. Post-modernism accepts that each perspective has validity. But one does not have to embrace post-modernism to recognize that no perspective is entirely right or entirely wrong– so embracing one perspective only is simply unwise.

Of course another view would see vision in terms of a special revelation from God. As such, determining the difference between good vision and bad vision is not just a matter of common wisdom, but of spiritual discernment. If vision follows the more business-model understanding, there are good visions, better visions, and poorer visions. But with the more revelatory understanding of vision, there are true visions and false visions.

A lot of problems seem to come from waffling between a business model understanding of vision, and a spiritualistic revelatory understanding. Frankly though, regardless of one’s definition, no one should be granted innerancy. No one is God or entirely speaks for God.

4.  Does it matter? I believe it does.

  • The church is a mutually accountable organism. If a member is seen as being the only one to receive “vision” (regardless of how one is using the term) from God, it removes a great deal of needed accountability and insight from the membership. That is a great potential loss. Additionally, it sets up the unnecessary (and even sinful) burden of suggesting that questioning a leader means questioning God. The Bible (both Old and New Testament) as well as many of the Church Fathers point to the need to test both prophets on prophecies, as well as “spirits.” That suggests some level of competency outside of a single leader to identify good versus bad (or better versus worse) vision.
  • Leaders are at their best when they do not identify themselves as “the visionary.” Frankly, when the leader (pastor) of the church assumes the roles of visionary and mediator, he (or she) has taking on the roles of Prophet, Priest, and King. I think that is too much power for most people to handle. That is why I really don’t think God normally sets things up that way. In the Old Testament, the priestly role was clearly separated from normal prophetic and kingly roles almost from the start. With Moses, Prophetic and Kingly roles were united, but with the transition to the period of the judges, the prophetic role was often separated from that of ruler. With the Kings of Israel, the separation was complete. Three different roles… four if you accept Wise counsel of the sages as being separate from prophetic vision of the prophets. I see no evidence that they are united in the New Testament, except in the parousia of Christ (and then only in Christ).
  • Leaders are myopic. Liberation Theology (regardless of one’s view of its merits or lack thereof) at least recognizes that the powerless have a perspective that is commonly hidden from those in power. There is not a large leap from saying only leaders have vision to saying that those who are powerless have no valuable input into the overall vision and mission of the church. Leaders need the perspectives of a wide variety of people in the church (and, frankly, those outside of the church), and those perspectives must be taken seriously with the possibility that God has given some measure of real vision to even the least within the church.

For me, the issue of vision takes me back to Ezekiel 34, where God challenges the religious and civil leadership of Israel. I believe there are two challenges built into the parable:

First, the leaders are guilty of acting on a self-serving vision rather than one truly accountable to God. In a sense, they are also guilty of not being accountable to the people as well, since they turned a deaf ear to the cries of injustice from the people.

Second, the leaders seemed to think that they were uniquely above the people (as a shepherd is uniquely different from and above the sheep). But God makes it clear later in the parable, that leaders are also sheep, just as the people.

If leaders recognize themselves as responsible to God and mutually indebted to the people as fellow members, I think we may be able to embrace a healthier, more theologically sound understanding of vision in the church.

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