Listening Together: Vision-Casting in Community
By Chris S. Baker
Casting vision should be shared among leaders rather than done by one in top-down fashion.
“There has to be more than this.”
That was the impression I was left with after one specific session in a class about pastoral leadership. We were reading books with titles like “37 Lengthy Laws of Leadership for the Lonely Latecomer” and “The Pastor as President of the Church”. The advice and instruction given seemed like decent, common-sense leadership direction. It’s not that the information was bad; it just seemed like something was missing. If Jesus was actually the unique, revolutionary person most Christians think he is, shouldn’t leadership taken from his example be unique too? There had to be more than what I was reading in these leadership manuals.
Fast-forward a number of years to the time when I became familiar with Thomas Jay Oord’s work on God’s nature as uncontrolling love. I soaked in all I could and found it very helpful in many areas of thought and life. As I read, I realized there are two major characteristics of God that run through Oord’s work: God is self-giving and God is others-empowering. Those two characteristics are at the core of who God is and what uncontrolling love looks like. If we are created in the image of God and God is self-giving and others-empowering, what might that mean for leadership? What might it look like for Christian leaders to be self-giving and others-empowering?
I co-pastor a small Nazarene church with my wife Teresa. For a number of reasons our church is going through a time of turning the page. We’re experiencing redefinition and transformation in many ways. Because of the needs of the church, we find ourselves in a time of heavy vision casting. Quite naturally, then, we have been considering what it might look like to cast vision in a way that is self-giving and others-empowering.
In the contexts that Teresa and I grew up in and serve in, it is common to think of the pastor as the sole vision-caster. Though it is not usually spelled out quite this plainly, the model most people have in their minds is that as the pastor spends time in prayer, God gives the pastor a vision for a local church. It is then the pastor’s job to express or share that vision in a way that excites or inspires the local church enough to go accomplish the work of the vision. It is common to hear people pray that God would give vision to the pastor for the church.
With this model of vision casting, there can be great pressure on the pastor to hear something new from God. Everything relies on the pastor and her reception of the vision God is giving. How long should it take to receive God’s vision? How much time is too much time? As the pastor, should I have heard a clear vision from God yet? Did God already speak, and I missed it? Then, when the pastor receives the vision from God, there is pressure to communicate that vision to the church board, council or congregation in a way that inspires action and dedication to the vision. If the dedication and inspiration aren’t there, is it because the pastor misheard the vision? Or maybe the pastor just didn’t communicate the vision well. This method of vision casting can lead to great anxiety, pressure and doubt about the process itself.
What if there are other models of vision casting?
As we listen for God’s voice leading our church, we have taken a few steps that don’t fall neatly into the vision-casting model summarized above. First, as we met with the church board, we encouraged them to take a full month to pray consistently that all of us—the pastors, church board and whole church—might hear where God is leading us. We asked them to pray not just for us as pastors, that we might hear from God, but also for themselves as the church board and the whole church body. This was important because it affirmed to them that as pastors, we believe God speaks not only to us but also to the whole body of Christ. In addition, it made them aware that not only should they be praying for us as their pastors (which we greatly appreciate!), but they also should be listening for what God might be saying to them about the vision and future of the church.
The second step in vision casting happened over a period of time. The next few months as the leadership of the church gathered in different settings, Teresa and I opened the conversation by asking a number of different questions: How has God made this local body of believers unique? How is this local body different from other local bodies of believers? What do we do well? What gifts has God created us with that God might be leading us to use both for the benefit of the local church and for the benefit of our community?
As we began to ask these questions, ideas began to flood out. People began to affirm gifts in one another. As we thought about the history of the church, specific events and ministries were affirmed as beneficial and helpful. We began to see a few key gifts that were common to the ministries and events that were brought up. Recognizing the gifts that were common in those ministries and events helps us to be intentional about using those gifts in the future. For our particular church, those gifts were hospitality/sharing meals and music.
The last step we’ve taken is to put the theory into practice. We ask the question “How might we use these gifts for the benefit of our church body and our community? How might we use these gifts to love God and love others?” For our particular local church, the question was “How might we use hospitality/sharing meals and music to fill the needs of our church and community?” Once again, as the leadership of the church began to ask this question, ideas flowed. (How different churches decide on which ideas to implement will likely depend on the polity of the church. For our church board, it was a simple majority vote when needed; although in most cases, these were agreed upon unanimously.)
In our context, we prepared meals for a recent widower. We had a gathering in a local park open to the public with the purpose of celebrating music in the community. It’s likely this music gathering will become an annual event. We have regular events when we welcome people not associated with the church for a meal. We have had other ideas that we are still in the process of putting into practice.
It is my belief that this model of vision casting reflects a more others-empowering, self-giving model than I have typically encountered. It is intentionally designed to be others-empowering. All three steps have an element that empowers others. Others are empowered to listen to God themselves, because God is giving vision not only to the pastor, but to them too. Others are empowered as gifts are recognized and affirmed. Others are empowered as they give ideas of how we can practically use our gifts together. Overall, others are empowered because the process continually draws ideas out of the group, rather than just one leader.
This model of vision casting will also be self-giving or self-sacrificial, especially for the leader who likes to be in charge. This model is the polar opposite of controlling. The leader is constantly asking for input from others and taking that input seriously. Rather than being the sole person receiving the vision, the pastor becomes the person who helps other leaders to hear where God might be leading the body. The pastor is no longer in the center as the one who has the “inside word” from God. This may take some sacrifice on the part of the pastor who is used to the more traditional view of vision casting.
There are other benefits to this model as well. Excitement is almost built-in automatically, as it is the leaders themselves who are coming up with the ideas. There isn’t much convincing needed. They’re already excited because the ideas were theirs in the first place. Or more precisely, they don’t need to be convinced of the ideas because they have been listening to God’s leading voice from the very beginning. Another benefit is that pressure is relieved from the pastor, since vision casting becomes less centered on one person.
When we empower one another to follow God’s voice and when we as leaders are willing to give up our power in order to empower others, we grow closer to one another and closer to God. As we have used this model, a unity has developed that I didn’t anticipate. That unity feeds further vision casting as we grow even closer to God and others. Empowering others and giving of oneself brings people together like little else. That alone is reason enough to practice leadership that is love-centered and uncontrolling.
Chris S. Baker is a co-pastor at Columbus Community Church of the Nazarene in Columbus, WI, alongside his wife Teresa. He previously served as Associate Pastor involved in worship and discipleship in Upstate New York. Chris enjoys reading, a wide variety of music and camping.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.