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.

Visions and Missions, Part 2 of 2

Thesis: Vision from the top. Round 3.

The Bible is all about vision from the top. God spoke to Moses, and protected him from others that sought to impose their own visions. God sets up and takes down kings. God speaks to the prophets. The people are supposed to submit to authority in both church and state.

English: Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afa...
English: Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, as in Numbers 27:12, by James Tissot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gnostics and the Judaizers appeared to come from “false apostles” or people who had a partial picture of the truth and caused great problems in the church. It is the authority of wise leadership that kept the false visions of these apostates and heretics from destroying the church.

Antithesis; Vision from the bottom. Round 3.

The divinely envisioned in the Old Testament were usually not the ones in charge. Moses was a unique unrepeated exception (See Deut. 34:10-12). Commonly, the visionaries were prophets who were closer to the people than to the power establishment. Jesus was a visionary of the people not of the power establishment. Submission to God is unlimited, but submission to human authorities (be they government or church) in the Bible is always limited and cautionary.

In the NT church, visionaries did not seem to be fought against. Philip, a deacon, went out as the first missionary, apparently without official sanction. Long before Paul was sent out by the church of Antioch, he served God ministerially, and he liked to emphasize his lack of reliance on the 12 apostles to do so.

Thesis: Vision from the top. Round 4.

Even if the church did have renegades, the leadership had the authority and responsibility to support or restrain (see for example Acts 15). Leaders lead. They envision, and act. Such envisioning may give freedom for some to act, but may also prevent bad action.

The body/member concept of the church emphasizes the idea of roles. Some are to envision and some are to carry out that vision. The Bible cautions the idea that all members should share a common role.

Antithesis: Vision from the bottom. Round 4.

Joel chapter 2, verses 28-31, talks about God giving dreams and visions to all of His people, not just the leaders. This passage is often used to focus on eschatology and how “cool” dreams and visions are. Yet the key focus appears to be lost in this. The two key things are this:

  • Visions and dreams have a purpose… they are not meant simply to be spiritual entertainment. They must, certainly in part, be instructive as to what God’s peope should do.
  • The visions and dreams are universal. Whether one wants to see Joel 2 being applied to the present or primarily to the future, the passage certainly expresses a divine ideal. The ideal is that God’s envisioning is to all people, not simply top leaders.

Conclusions?

I don’t really have any firm conclusions. I tend to emotionally embrace the antithesis. I have seen far too many leaders who talk about vision yet are not visionary… or simply have bad vision. At the same time, the vantage point of leaders does allow a bigger picture that is needed for sound action in certain cases.

A few tentative conclusions follow:

  • Leaders do need to have a vision… but sometimes that vision may be to empower others to act on their own visions.
  • Leaders do need to prevent the excesses that comes from the pressures for change (from some) and the unhealthy maintenance of the status quo (from others).
  • People closest to problems and opportunities are OFTEN the best to know what needs to be done. They should not be supported unilaterally, but leaders should be ready to facilitate and empower action, and should encourage creativity.
  • Too much power in the hands of a visionary person is almost always tragic.

How does this apply to missions? Don’t know, but I believe that mission agencies must be somewhat visionary, but they should train, encourage, facilitate, and empower the vision of the local missionaries as well. They need to be open to the idea that the local missionary knows what is going on better than they do. However, the mission agency does need to maintain accountability and oversight. To much power locally can be as dangerous as too much power centralized elsewhere.

Considering how much difficulty we have with the issue of power (and recognizing that wisdom/vision is also a form of power), it is not surprising to me that the issue is difficult. Add to that human selfishness that seeks to accumulate personal power and execute personal vision, and I feel that an ideal solution is not likely to be found anytime soon.

But I welcome your vision on this.

Visions and Missions, Part 1 of 2

Attempting to block integration at the Univers...
Attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, Governor stands defiantly at the door while being confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)   Is this a good example of “visionary leadership” or bad?

<Note:  I am using a looser definition of “vision” than some would like. I am not assuming vision necessarily means “vision from God.” After all, those of us on the outside of the experience cannot say for sure that a positive view of the future is from God, or self or somewhere else.>

No, despite the name, this is not about Organizational Vision and Mission Statements. Actually, this is about the role of vision, or actually who is to be the source of vision, in missions. This post is a Thesis and an Antithesis without a Synthesis. Someday I hope to have a synthesis.

Thesis: Vision “From the Top.” Round 1

Vision from the top is in many ways the classic viewpoint. The king may not do all that much in his kingdom, but one thing he does is stand at the helm of the ship of state guiding the overall direction the people should go. When I took ministerial leadership class in seminary, I was told the same basic idea for the church. “The pastor is the visionary in the church.” In corporations, the Chief Executive Officer is often selected for leadership skills and vision, rather than familiarity with the business or product line. Denominational structures and Mission organizations tend to do the same thing.

In some ways this makes sense, and it seems foolish to consider another option.

Antithesis: Vision “From the Bottom.” Round 1

There are definitely those who question the classic thesis. The king may be at the top but he has two things that work against him as a visionary.

  • He is the most out of touch, in many ways, with what is “really going on” in the kingdom. He is shielded by levels of bureaucracy (and social stutus) that filter and shade the information that he has.
  • He has a strong vested interest in the status quo. His job security exists partly in not rocking the boat (to return to the ship analogy) too much.

Additionally, when vision is left to the hands of only the person(s) at the top, the visions of the vast majority are squelched. The Civil Rights movement of the United States, and the People’s Power Revolution of the Philippines occurred due to the vision of people who were not in political power. In fact, often the people at the top, the so called visionaries, are not visionary at all. Or their vision is self-serving. Or “their” vision is simply parroting the vision of another (who may or may not have good vision).

In this view, vision comes from the people who most understand the situation. Vision to right wrongs comes from those who are downtrodden or at least interact most with the downtrodden. Vision as far as direction comes from those who DO rather those who TELL WHAT TO DO.

Thesis; Vision from the top. Round 2.

The people at the bottom are too busy doing to take time to analyze. They have a firm understanding of the little picture, but cannot (or at have not had the opportunity to) grasp the big picture.

If people at the top want to maintain the status quo, the regular people often want change, but change without clear focus– change for the sake of change. The multiple visions often lead to chaos, and can make things worse than before. The clear vision of the lowly National Socialist party of Germany in the late 1920s into the early 1930s led to the replacement of a fairly incompetent government with a hugely destructive, diabolical power structure. The laissez-faire tyranny of royal France, led to a devastating poorly focused revolution and the ascedancy of another eventual tyrant. Putting vision into the hands of the people is not such a great idea.

Besides, even the positive visions “of the people” typically did not come from the absolute bottom. The People’s Power Revolution had as its two leaders, a member of a family with great monetary and political power, and the local leader of the Catholic church. With the American Civil Rights movement, the voice of positive change came, to a large extent from a major religious leader. A lot of the other voices from that period were far more destructive or self-serving.

Leaders must lead. They have the wisdom and perspective to see what needs to be done.

Antithesis; Vision from the bottom. Round 2.

Much of the problems listed above with grassroots visioning seem to come not from the bottom but from oppression at the top. When those at the topic see themselves as the sole source of wisdom, and sole wielder of power, pressure for change builds. If that pressure is not given a healthy path to relieve and work, such pressure can lead to dire results.

The problem comes from leaders who see their followers as tools to enact their own vision. Leaders should facilitate and empower others. Leaders should wisely disperse power not hoard it. They should encourage others to envision a better future.

Organizing and Equipping

I noticed that I have been putting in a number of posts that fit into the category of “Christian Leadership.” I haven’t been doing that much in the past. I suppose it is because we have been in the process of organizing our mission group, Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center (www.bukallife.org). I have also been trying to do a better job as Director of Missions at West Baguio Baptist Church (Baguio City, Philippines).

Although the plethora of leadership books out there in the world seems to me to express an unhealthy obsession and self-absorption of people who think of themselves as leaders… I have to accept that there is a value in learning and growing from each other… including in areas of leadership.

So I decided to add an article I wrote in graduate school called “Organizing and Equipping” which I feel good about. It may not be a masterpiece, but seems to hold some good insight in these areas of Christian Leadership.

If you want to read the article, go to ARTICLES page on this blogsite and click on “Organizing and Equipping.

Balance in Christian Leadership

Cover of "Out of the Comfort Zone"
Cover of Out of the Comfort Zone

A lot of times in Christian circles, we focus on the extremes. Extreme faith, extreme dedication, extreme charisma, extreme courage, etc. There is a place for that… and I suppose, it is reasonable that the heroes of the faith are often people of rather extreme temperaments, even (perhaps) collectors of personality disorders. They are people you might like to read about or even watch on TV (watching a TV evangelist who can say the word “preach” in three syllables), but you REALLY wouldn’t want to have them living next door to you. We focus on someone like Bob Pierce who clearly had drive for Christian Missions, yet greatly injured his family in the process.   (See Ruth Tucker’s Book “The Christian Speakers Treasury: A Sourcebook of Anecdotes and Quotes” or This Article). His creation of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse certainly should IMPRESS. But should it INSPIRE?

There is a place for the extremes, but I think there is a place, a calling, for “the radical middle”… daring to find balance. George Verwer of Operation Mobilization, speaks of a few of these balance points. (“Out of the Comfort Zone and Into Missions,” pg. 51-57, OMF Literature Philippines Version, 2000).

1.  Balance of FAITH and COMMONSENSE.  Verwer Quotes A.W. Tozer“In our constant struggle to believe  we are likely to overlook the simple fact that a bit of healthy disbelief is sometimes as needful as faith to the welfare of our souls. I go further and say that we would do well to cultivate a reverent skepticism. It will keep us out of a thousand bogs and quagmires where others who lack it sometimes find themselves. It is no sin to doubt something but it may be fatal to believe everything.”

2.  Balance between DISCIPLINE and LIBERTY. I would hope this is obvious… but the temptation to extremes is strong in ministry. Many fall and fail, unable to find this balance.

3.  Balance between AUTHORITY and FELLOWSHIP. Strong authoritarian leaders destroy ministries… either during their leadership or upon their ill-prepared for absence. But a leader who is everyone’s friend may well be tossing aside his duty to lead.

4.  Balance in PRIORITIES. Time home and time in service, work and play, family and others, witnessing to unbelievers and helping believers.  This list is endless.

5. Balance between DECISIVE/FIRM and GENTLENESS/BROKENNESS. In Pastoral Counseling, there is a great deal of respect for paradoxical imagery such as “the Wounded Healer” or “the Wise Fool.” (See “Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings,” Robert Dykstra, editor).  In Christian leadersip, we need such imagery. The Gentle Warrior, The Broken Builder. 

6. DOCTRINAL balance. Balance between life and teachings. Creative tension in theological paradox. Little good is done demonizing honest Christians for disagreements in smaller issues. Little good is done in demonizing period.

7.  Balance regarding GOD. God is love and just. God is Omnipotent Creator and Heavenly Father. God is the Gentle Lamb and Strong Warrior. Unbalanced focus on metaphor will lead us away from God, not toward Him.

Anyway, you can look at the book for a better (and longer) description.