Leaders understand the importance of vision. Their hearts and minds are captured by a picture of a preferred future—the way the world ought to be. Vision paints a picture of how the world will be different because of the work you do.
Leaders also understand the power of vision. The right vision can capture the hearts of people and mobilize them to action. And while that might sound easy on paper, be certain that it’s quite challenging to do. Carrying out your vision will grow you as a person and stretch you as a leader like almost nothing else will. There will be days filled with hurt and confusion, unfounded criticisms and unexpected setbacks, mounting frustration, and sheer exhaustion.
But the cost of not working toward your vision is even greater. Your church or ministry will move toward one of two places: accomplishing the purposes of God “on earth as it is in heaven” (the dream God has set in your heart) or drifting into some default place that you never intended (the distraction someone else has in mind).
Here are a few things to consider as you navigate the path from present reality to God’s preferred future.
1. Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were.
What are the issues and challenges you face? How are people feeling about the present? The future? The past? How desperate is the situation?
If people know something different has to happen, just be candid and say what everybody is thinking. For example: “We need to change. And it’s going to be hard. It’s going to impact us in ways that we may not like.” No matter what you do, change will be hard. Not everybody will respond to it the same way.
So, be candid, but don’t forget to be kind. Most visionary leaders I know don’t have a problem being candid. But they often forget to be kind. Remember, love first and lead second. Not the other way around.
2. Listen well; listen often.
The traditional way of vision-casting—sharing your vision with others—often starts with a leader receiving some kind of word from God while alone on a mountaintop (in prayer, Scripture meditation, or a time of fasting) and then coming down to share with the masses (usually through preaching) the content of the vision. The purpose of this sharing is for the leaders and congregation to get behind the vision.
Some of the worst disasters in ministry and leadership are the result of casting vision in this way. People may give intellectual assent to your vision; some may even consider the vision a good idea. But they won’t follow it. And the harder you try to convince others, the more pain and frustration it will produce for you and your people.
While you may have a firm grasp on your vision, allow the right people to shape and influence some of the details and nuances of the vision. Listen well to their ideas and input. Share the vision in a way that it becomes their vision as well. Any vision worth reaching requires the combined efforts of many individuals to make it happen. Listen often to these key people to ensure that the vision continues to be shared.
Are you looking for the right people to come around you to support and share your vision? Contact me for more information on joining one of many peer-coaching cohorts sponsored by the Reformed Church in America and The Everest Network.
3. Communicate a clear and compelling vision.
This is the flip side of the previous step. Effective communication entails speaking and listening. Do both. Do them well. Do them often. Communicating the vision is always important, but especially during times of transition, confusion, or chaos. People want to know someone is guiding the ship. Here are two elements to formulate a clear and compelling vision:
Is it specific and unique?
One of the most common problems in casting vision is to communicate such a broad picture that it could fit any church or ministry. For example, I heard one pastor say that his church’s vision was to “make disciples who make disciples.” That sounds good, but that is not the vision of your church; it’s actually the mission of your church. And not just your church, but every church (based on the Great Commission). I heard another leader say, “We’re called to reach everyone with the gospel.” While that may be theologically true, it is missiologically too broad to be compelling. A compelling vision will be specifically tailored to your unique calling and context.
Is it inspirational and relational?
Another common mistake in casting vision is to focus only on the “what” of the vision. Don’t just stop with sharing some “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG is an idea conceptualized in the book Built to Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras). Sure, your BHAG will issue a call-to-action for your team to pursue that will make a lasting difference. But without an overarching narrative and multiple subplots involving names, faces, and stories, the vision will eventually lose meaning and purpose. A compelling vision will involve people and stories to humanize the vision.
4. Stick with it.
Now comes the hard part. Leadership is difficult because there is no silver bullet. There is no one-size-fits-all or plug-and-play program that will substitute for the slow, demanding work of creating the right processes to allow the right people to do the right thing for the right reasons. In our quest for certainty, we often apply the wrong tools to solve our problems. Thus, we end up solving the wrong problems.
Leadership requires us to engage in the paradox of “both/and” thinking so we can employ clear and simple action steps to navigate the challenge of leading organizations (e.g., churches and companies) and people (including ourselves) from where we currently are to where God wants us to be. Leaders must think about both the present and the future in order to fulfill that vision of God’s preferred future.
Leadership demands that we embrace uncertainty and ambiguity while holding multiple possibilities in our minds at the same time. Here are two paradoxes of leadership to hold in tension as you do the hard work of casting vision, leading change, and becoming the kind of leader that God created you to be.
Be patient; be vigilant.
The process of casting vision doesn’t happen over a weekend. Just because you preach a sermon series on the vision doesn’t mean that it’s time to execute it. Most visionaries want to see things move quickly, but vision without thoughtful planning and urgent prayer will fade quickly, sometimes doing more harm than good. Also, consider the timing of when to share your vision. A well-timed vision can create momentum and catalyze people in some powerful ways, which is one of the most underestimated factors in casting vision.
At the same time, guard the vision before you with continual reminders. Distractions and setbacks will abound, people within and without will attempt to thwart your efforts. Don’t let little bumps (or people) on the road grow into vision-distracting obstacles. And remember, the leader who casts the vision must also live out the vision. So keep yourself healthy—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—so you can continue to navigate the muddy waters of leading change.
Stand firm; continually recalibrate.
When opposition comes your way (and it will), challenge those who want to bring their own agenda. Invest the majority of your time, energy, and attention with people who are willing to grab an oar and help row the boat. Consider this: if a ship leaves San Francisco for Hawaii but drifts just one degree off course, it will end up almost 500 miles from its intended destination. Leaders must be ready, willing, and able to draw a line in the sand.
At the same time, be willing to recalibrate due to changing conditions (new opportunities, unforeseen challenges, etc.). It is said that an aircraft is “off course” as much as 99 percent of the time. The pilot (or autopilot) makes nearly continuous course corrections to compensate for the forces that would send the plane into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Leaders must be ready, willing, and able to make small course corrections to ensure the vision is heading in the right direction.
In the end, vision is accomplished through interpersonal influence rather than formal authority. No matter how powerful the vision may be, people are more likely to follow someone they trust. Trust is built through relationships. And relationships require time, energy, and attention. Remember, the vision is not the message. You are the message.
Sung Kim is the founder and lead pastor of Grace Church, a multisite church based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that is reaching a young, diverse, and progressive population in and around the University of Michigan. He is also the Chief Operating Officer for the Reformed Church in America. Previously, he led the RCA's leadership development ministry. He is a certified Enneagram coach, church planting trainer, and CoreStrengths facilitator. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the RCA. You can connect with him by email at email@example.com.