Can you see what I see?

Published May 1, 2006

John’s church was in the midst of a visioning process. The enthusiastic members jokingly let slip that they had already chosen John’s vision for him, that he was to be the new Sunday School co-ordinator. After all, what better way could a retiring high school principal serve the congregation and use his gifts for ministry? John seemed resigned to his fate. Vision seemed to be about how others saw the church’s future. He would just try to fit in. John dutifully went to the discussion session on the birth of the early church as described in Acts 2.  He was disturbed, but also strangely exhilarated by the story of the Pentecostal wind and fire that got the whole thing going. The leader of the session asked people to think of two kinds of change in their lives: changes that were trying to restore equilibrium, like a pendulum, and changes that were more dramatic and irreversible, like the symbol of fire. John wondered about his retirement and the dread he felt but had never expressed about leaving both a career and a passion. Was this a pendulum or a fire type of change? The leader pointed out that it was fires that released enormous amounts of energy, not pendulums. If the vision of a church was to get anywhere it had to be animated by the spirit and energy of its members and God. John felt fearful. The visioning process culminated in a weekend retreat for all members of the congregation. On the Saturday participants divided into groups according to their interests to develop vision statements and ministry projects. Building Christian community, worship and the life of prayer, teaching and learning, compassionate care, social justice, evangelism: these were the options. To no one’s surprise John chose teaching and learning. At the end of the afternoon, there was a report back. People were looking forward to a revitalized Sunday School under his leadership. John stood in front of his congregation and said, “I know we need a new Sunday school co-ordinator, and I know you want me to be that person. But I’ve been thinking a lot in this visioning process about my life, my faith, what I care deeply about and what place my church has got in my future. What is central in my life right now is that I am afraid of retiring. I’ve never admitted this to anyone before now. But I’m afraid. This afternoon I decided what I could contribute to this congregation’s vision for ministry in the area of teaching and learning. Instead of being a teacher I will become a learner. I will come to the church every Wednesday afternoon, put on the coffee pot, and talk and learn with any other men who are going through similar transitions in their lives and want to talk about that and their faith.” John sat down, and the session continued with the description of the many other ministry projects devised by the groups. John is not a fiction. He is a real person. He did what he said he would, and a considerable group of men began to gather every Wednesday under his leadership. It didn’t stop with talk. For some time a group of teenagers had been gathering in the church parking lot to skateboard. They were considered by church members to be dangerous pests. The men’s group overlapped with these teens and after a time befriended them. They discovered the difficulty they were having with their own transitions – moving into colleges, universities, jobs. The men began to develop mentoring relationships with the teens (and regularized the skateboarding). Vision means seeing. It means seeing clearly, deeply and differently. Seeing in this way is transformative and brings new life and energy. It results in direction, purpose and value for self and others. People become true disciples of Jesus, which means they become learners, open to the unexpected places the Spirit leads. Seeing on its own is not enough; it needs expression in sustainable action. John’s “seeing” was highly motivating for himself and others. All of this “seeing” takes time and discernment in community. John’s story depended upon the collective visioning process undertaken by his congregation. Congregations, like individuals, have their times of transition, crisis, and decision when it is important to seek God’s gift of vision for their future. These times may be taking decisions about growth and expansion (physical or spiritual), finding new purpose in a dramatically changing social environment for ministry, exploring options with reduced resources, or simply feeling stuck. Whatever the time, the vision of our people needs to be animated, not by the ticking pendulum of an old fashioned clock, but by the energizing fire that gave birth to the first congregation. Paul MacLean is executive director of Potentials, He writes occasionally about congregational development in the Anglican Journal.


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