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Visioning: You may lead, but is anyone following?

| by Ronald Keener

Very recently one of Thom Rainer’s podcast episodes (#321) carried what he calls a highlight that got me nodding my head and thinking “Boy, does he have that right.” That can often happen for all of us who get his amazing insights into ministry and church work, but this one was timely for me.

The highlight went this way, “Not everyone carries the same vision for the church that you do.”

Pastors run into that one with regularity, and it can be a career buster or at least a detour to growing healthy churches. I’m not a pastor, but it applies just as much to a lay person like me who served two years as chair of the leadership team/board of our congregation of 200 adults, until December of last year.

Thom’s highlight was made all the more vivid when a friend shared a comment from a parishioner the other week: “Ron wanted to make a mega church of us.” Like, how terrible it would have been to see dozens and even hundreds of people make decisions for Christ in those two years!

It’s true that I had aspirations for change in the congregation that might have set them on a path to transformation and to a place where they were not just surviving but thriving. About eight years old as a church, that was the result of a split from a denominational congregation in town after a messy fight and vote on the pastor, who lost that vote for retention of just seven people.

The split wasn’t his fault, and in fact, he was working toward transformation in the five years he had spent with the congregation. Some 300 people followed him when he left and agreed to form a non-denominational church that first met in the local college’s auditorium, then purchased an available church facility in the middle of town that well suited their needs.

But to some degree, this pastor in his new church played it safe and hoped to stay on until near age 70. Any real change was just too risky in what was now a secure post.

To the matter of not sharing the same vision about growth, a pastor-friend of mine had these thoughts to offer: “The line I have used many times here is that I want to reach all the people God wants us to reach. Not a single person more, but not a single person less either. We are unfaithful to God’s call for us if we exceed either limit.

“That is followed with this question: Which of the people we are trying to reach do we not want to have here? Why them? Or, if we are getting too big, which of them do you want to leave? It forces them to reckon with the reality of what they are saying.”

But in my two years heading up the board, I made mistakes and was in too much of a hurry. There are lessons to be learned from the experience:

First, two years isn’t long enough to effect transformation; however, that word is used with a church. One better think long-term and plan on ups and downs; it is best to have the board solidly behind you in all respects. In my third month on the board, I proposed a consultant’s help, but that got shot down even with the pastor’s support.

Second, arrive first at the church’s vision and mission and use it constantly so that every member can repeat it without prodding. Keep it short. But more importantly, a vision requires implementation, it won’t happen just by repeating it. It should be reflected in the budget and goals. In the prior year, I led a small team of leaders in five meetings before we nailed it, but after that little was done to make it operational within the congregation through budgeting or visioning or goal setting.

Leading a church’s official board is not for the fainthearted. And there is room for a lot of mistakes. Moreover, I should have been looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was following me.

Ronald Keener

Ronald E. Keener was editor of the national business and leadership magazine, "Church Executive," for eight years, and writes from Chambersburg, Pa. His church interests lie with congregational transformation, church health movement, church strengthening and revitalization and reporting on churches that have not just survived but thrived. 


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