Nearly every congregation has a mission statement. A good mission statement describes both its identity and purpose. Fewer congregations have a vision statement. A vision statement is oriented to the future. The mission statement describes current reality, while the vision statement points to a desired future.
For example, the succinct mission statement of the congregation our family attended in Casa Grande, Arizona, reads as follows:
Our mission at First Presbyterian Church is to be a family of believers charged to reflect Christ in the world.
This statement tells us how the congregation sees itself (as a “family of believers”) and why it exists (“to reflect Christ in the world.”) A good mission statement reminds leaders and members of who their congregation is and what it does in the world.
A vision statement, by contrast, points toward the future. It is our best attempt to answer the question, “Where is God calling our congregation in the next 10 to 20 years?” Here is the vision statement of my current congregation:
Park View Mennonite Church is a community of communities who worship God and follow Jesus by the power of the Spirit. Each community and its members participate in God’s saving, healing, and reconciling mission in our world, our neighborhoods, and our church.
This is an aspirational statement, as the congregation has not yet fully achieved the vision of all members being part of smaller “communities” (small groups), or of each member fully participating in God’s saving, healing, and reconciling mission.
Having worked with dozens of congregations in strategic planning and visioning processes, I offer five guidelines that contribute to a successful outcome of such a process:
1. Plan a visioning process when things are going well…not in the midst of a crisis.
A creative and collaborative visioning process is most likely to emerge when congregational life is relatively smooth—not in the midst of a congregational storm. When high intensity conflict flares, we are likely to be motivated by fear rather than by faith, and creative visioning work requires high levels of trust. If things are going reasonably well, but you are unsure where God is leading your congregation, now may be an ideal time to plan a visioning process.
2. Do not do this alone. Effective visioning requires a team.
In large staff-led congregations, a top-down visioning process may succeed because the congregation expects the lead pastor to be the primary “vision-caster.” For most congregations, a mixed team of pastoral staff and lay members is more likely to produce buy-in and ensure that the proposed vision will be implemented. The visioning team can consist of pastoral staff and current members of the governing board or council, or it can be a special task force comprised of members appointed by the board.
3. Give it time…and listen broadly.
I have never seen a legitimate congregational visioning process completed in less than three months; a typical time-frame is six to nine months. That is because it takes time for the team to listen broadly and then to draft a statement that reflects what they have heard. The listening needs to take place at three levels—to congregational members, to community members, and to God. A vision statement that emerges purely from listening to current congregational members is likely to be the classic “do more of the same but do it better” variety. A transformational vision can only emerge when we both listen to our communities and discern what God is calling us to become.
4. Develop goals that support implementing the vision.
There are myriad examples of vision statements that are exquisitely written but have no impact on the congregation. That is generally because no one bothered to draft goals that would lead the congregation towards achieving the vision…or because no one took responsibility for implementing the goals that were drafted. Clear goals—ideally with an action plan that clarifies “who will do what by when”—are an essential part of a visioning process. It’s true that “Where there is no vision, the people perish”—and it’s also true that where there are no goals, the vision dies as well.
5. Keep the vision in front of people…and be willing to adapt.
An inspiring vision takes a long time to achieve and needs to be revised every three to five years to reflect changes in the congregation and community. Many congregations print their mission statement in their weekly bulletins along with the vision statement if there is one. Truly visionary congregations revisit their vision statements regularly at meetings of the board or council and the congregation.
A vision statement that reflects a congregation’s unique context and God’s special calling can transform that congregation’s life. An effective visioning process requires a team (of both lay and clergy members), sufficient time for listening, and a tone of openness to God and to our neighbors. A vision cast by just one person is likely to fall on hard ground. When we give a team sufficient time to develop a shared vision that expresses God’s unique calling on the congregation—accompanied by specific goals to achieve the vision—real transformation can take root.
Note: This post is adapted from an article originally published in Leader magazine, Winter 2018-2019.