Sundoulos - Fall 2012

Look Where You're Going!

by Kent Edwards

Most pastors stand behind a pulpit every Sunday without completely realizing what is in front of them. It is more than just a piece of wood to hold the pastor’s notes, but in fact has deep metaphorical significance. The word pulpit is borrowed from sailing vessels built before the days of sonar and radar. Many ships had extended platforms built on the very front with railings attached so that they were safe to stand on. When a ship was in a fog, harbor or treacherous waters a sailor would go to the front of the ship, stand out on the pulpit, and lean as far forward as its railing would allow so that they could see what was coming. If the sailors manning the pulpit saw dangers ahead, they would tell the crew how they must change course, providing vision for the crew. Without someone on the pulpit, the ship would be sunk. Literally. The same is true for our churches.

Visionary leaders, by definition, are leaders who see what is ahead and use that insight to guide the people following them to where they ought to go.. Vision is a critical part of leadership because

leadership is about going somewhere. If you and your people don’t know where you are going, your leadership doesn’t matter... the biggest impediment blocking most managers from being great leaders is the lack of a clear vision for them to serve. 1

If we update our metaphor we could say that visionary leadership is for churches what eyeglasses are to myopic airline pilots: absolutely critical for going in the right direction. Unless we see what is ahead, our churches will never arrive where God wants them to be. The FAA requires flight plans, because even a Boeing 787 Dreamliner can’t arrive at its destination unless the pilot punches the destination coordinates into the onboard computer. Planes without destinations just sit on the runway and waste fuel. Lots of noise, but no significant progress.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches idling on the runways of their neighborhoods, or flying off course, for lack of a compelling vision. This is a shame, because churches, like airplanes, were created to reach far greater heights.

Is Visionary Leadership Biblical?

If God is a good leader, then good leadership is visionary. In the beginning, God stood on the edge of the history of humanity and looked forward into a future that had not happened and envisioned what would be. After envisioning a reality that did not yet exist, God began to lead the universe so that the vision would become a reality.

Notice God’s comprehensive, global vision and the strong leadership style in the following passages.

Isaiah 46:9-11

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.

I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’
From the east I summon a bird of prey;
from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose.
What I have said, that I will bring about;
what I have planned, that I will do.

Psalm 33: 10-11

The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
the purposes of his heart through all generations.

Job was right when he made this observation about God’s leadership: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

Jesus also demonstrated visionary leadership during his ministry. In Mark 1:14-15 Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come . . . the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” This grand vision of God’s reign, rule and righteousness coming to earth was so compelling that Simon and Andrew immediately gave up their fishing careers to follow him.

When God leads he does so with a clear and compelling vision. He does not wake up every morning, turn over a blank page in his calendar and “wing it.” Every action that God takes is purposeful and moves the universe closer to his vision of his kingdom.

Keep in mind, however, that God’s visionary leadership extends beyond the global to the personal. God’s plans include how individual people will contribute the establishment of his vision of reality. The Apostle Paul emphasized how important individuals are to the realization of God’s plans when he wrote “God chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:4a). That is long-term personal planning! But why did God choose us? What was his purpose?

Paul goes on to explain that “ in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will...for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:11-12).

God has a vision for how you and I, and the individuals in our churches, can play an important role in helping God accomplish his purposes. Individuals do matter. Every Christian is an important thread that God weaves into the tapestry of his vision for the world. Pastors exercise this visionary leadership when they discover and clearly communicate how their church corporately and their people individually can contribute to God’s overarching vision.

Check Your Agenda

Secular writers on leadership are often very helpful, but keep in mind that the visionary leadership required of a leader of God’s people is very different from the visions cast by secular leaders. Why? Because the vision we provide is not our personal vision, but the way we see God’s purposes taking shape in our corner of the world. God’s leaders discover, adopt and communicate God’s vision rather than their own. This makes all the difference.

Some years ago my wife, who works in the information technology field, told me of the vision that her boss had expressed for his company. Her boss’s vision was to be personally wealthy. His vision for his company was to grow large enough and profitable enough to make him a multi-millionaire. His vision was as clear as it was selfish.

This kind of self-serving vision is not new. Many people have personal ambitions and focus their influence and energy to encourage others to help them realize their goal, but self-centered visions are incompatible with God-centered visions. Unlike my wife’s boss, the church is not our company, and the people who attend on Sundays do not work for us. Just like us, they have been bought with a price. Our life is not our own and we belong to him. God calls us to act as under-shepherds, not overlords.

Jesus was very clear about the incompatibility of personal ambition and discipleship. In fact, when a man declared his intention to follow Jesus, our Lord was clear that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So much for a life of luxury! And to another man who wanted to follow Jesus - after his personal family agenda was met - Jesus was equally blunt: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:58-60).

Those who would lead God’s people need to surrender their personal vision for God’s vision. This exchange of visions is as difficult as it is important, which is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray the Lord’s prayer. Do you remember how the prayer begins?

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10).”

Jesus, knowing our selfish tendencies, deliberately focuses our attention away from ourselves by having us pray “your kingdom come, your will be done.” We need to regularly pray this prayer to counteract the tendency to lead God’s people toward our agenda and not his. If we use God’s name and the resources of his people to advance our own kingdom or career, we are not leading God as we ought. Our example should be John the Baptist who said “the bride (God’s people) belongs to the bridegroom... [so] He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:29-30).

God asks the visionary leaders of his people to be like the moon, and not the sun. We are to provide the light people need to move forward, but we are to do so by reflecting the purposes of God’s son, not our own.

Christian leadership is not about you. As leaders, we stand before God’s people and below God. The only agenda we can have is to advance his kingdom, not our own. This is what we are to pray, and the kind of leadership we are to practice so that our vision will be God-centered and kingdom oriented. No hidden personal agendas allowed!

Appreciate Your Church's Potential

It is easy on Monday mornings to become discouraged in ministry. It is then that the demands of weekend ministry tempt us to minimize our ministries and the likelihood that our church can change the world. Don’t fall into that trap.

The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 that every Christian in your church is indwelt with the Holy Spirit. While in the Old Testament only select individuals such as the prophets and Samson enjoyed the overwhelming power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, Pentecost changed everything. Now all of God’s people have been given a supernatural ability, like Samson had, to push back the kingdom of darkness. Pentecost changed everything.

Churches are a creation of God, filled with people supernaturally equipped to help their church help accomplish God’s great mission. We fail as leaders if we underestimate the contribution that God intends the people in our congregation to make to his purposes in the world.

Your church members emerged from the spiritual womb with the potential for meaningful ministry. Like players in an orchestra, they have God-given abilities that can help the entire orchestra make beautiful music. What they need is for a director to select the music and raise the baton. Without this leader, an orchestra can make nothing but noise. Likewise, without a visionary leader, churches are nothing but noisemakers. God’s people will never reach the heights that God intended for them unless their leader clearly understands and communicates God’s vision for these people.

What Is God's Vision for Your Church?

Discerning the vision for your congregation is harder than it looks, and, ironically, it’s often harder for people with a seminary education. Why? Because we learned in theology class about the essential elements of true churches. While this list varies among Protestant scholars, the definitions include the faithful preaching of the Word of God and right use of the sacraments.2 While this is both correct and helpful, this concise definition can have two negative side effects.

First, this theology can encourage us to think that the goals of the church are met when we preach well and administer the sacraments properly. This is not true. This is like sprinters believing that they are successful if they have a good exercise regimen and nutrition. Wrong! Exercise and nutrition are the means to an end, not an end in themselves. Sprinters are only successful when they actually enter and win a race. Exercise and nutrition are not the goal, but the preparatory work that the athlete needs to win the race.

Preaching and the sacraments are necessary and beneficial for the body of Christ but should not be understood as an end in themselves. We have not succeeded as pastor-leaders by just preaching and serving communion. A leader leads. You have to envision a future and move the people, strengthened by faithful preaching and the proper administration of the sacraments, to accomplish God’s agenda.

A second danger of our seminary understanding of the church is that it can encourage us to view churches as identical. Since all churches do the same things (preach and administer the sacraments) we can mistakenly assume that God’s vision for every church is the same. That is just not true. In the same way that all people are made in the image of God but still exhibit remarkable diversity, so churches, despite their common elements, are to be extraordinarily diverse.

It would be wrong, for example to suggest that a church in rural south India is identical to one in Boston, MA. Yes, they should both faithfully preach well and administer the sacraments correctly, but the unique people who attend these congregations and their unique ministry contexts should combine to create a unique vision regarding the way in which they will work toward the extension of God’s kingdom. Both churches will work for the same goal but do so in very different ways.

The church in southern India faces the challenges and ministry opportunities that come with cultural collectivism, extreme poverty, low education levels and the antagonistic Hindu population that surrounds it. The church on the edge of the Boston Common is likely filled with affluent and highly educated professionals. If being located on the doorstep of Harvard University, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and the Berklee College of Music doesn’t make a difference in that church’s vision for ministry, then something is very wrong. Likewise, if the church in India does not creatively use its resources and ministry context to advance the cause of Christ it will have failed. In each case, the task of the leader is to envision how God wants to use their distinctiveness to accomplish his purposes.

No church in the world has the people you have in your church and no church in the world has the same ministry context that you have. Your uniqueness should result in a unique vision for ministry.

You see the differences of people and community influencing the vision of the churches in the book of Acts in obvious ways. The church in Jerusalem had a vision of sharing the gospel to Jews. Why this particular vision? Because the church was located in the heart of Judaism and filled with converted Jews. As a result, of these internal and external factors, this church was ideally situated to reach out to the community.

Visionary leaders don’t get their ministry visions from a seminar or a book table. Neither do they adopt vague visions for ministry that could be applied to hundreds of ministry contexts. Visionary leaders spend significant time learning about their people as well and ministry environments and, when this is done, they spend significant time in prayer asking God for insight into the best way they can leverage these factors for the glory of God. Their prayer is not if they should work for the extension of God’s kingdom but how they have been uniquely created and situated to extend God’s kingdom.

Visionary pastor-leaders see how a local congregation can make their unique contribution to God’s kingdom, and use that compelling vision to call their people to action. They inspire others to help create the new reality that God desires.

Does Vision Make a Difference?

Unless and until you have a clear vision your ability to lead God’s people will be severely hindered. Unlike the business world where people frequently follow their leader to earn a paycheck, you don’t have that financial leverage. On the contrary, not only are you asking people to follow you for free, but you are also asking them to donate their money for the privilege of following you. Leading volunteers is very different and much more difficult than leading employees. The question you must ask yourself is ‘why should volunteers follow you?’

As Peter Brinkerhoff pointed out, when it comes to non-profit organizations, the mission is the reason.

Let’s be realistic: If you are a staff person of a not-for-profit, you are not in this for the money, nor for the low stress, short-hour job. If you are a volunteer, you are not spending time with this not-for-profit so that you can miss time at home or at work, or avoid getting eight hours of sleep at night. You came and you stay because of the mission – what the organization does. 3

Brinkerhoff’s observations apply to churches as well. When the people in your congregation have a clear sense of how your church is making or wants to make a genuine contribution to the kingdom of the God they love, and the part that they can play, they will volunteer their time and money generously. The vitality of your church will be determined by the strength of your vision. Compelling God-centered visions that fit with the local church and its context will create new excitement, commitment, resources and progress.

Visionary leadership makes all the difference. If you can show people how their church can make a unique and significant contribution to God’s work in the world, then they will gladly give the church their resources. If you don’t have a compelling vision, however, they will withdraw and redirect their resources elsewhere.

Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was near and invited his disciples to be fishers of men. They were so moved by this vision of God and how they could contribute they left their nets and followed him (Mark 1:14-17). What is the compelling vision you are calling your people to?

Conclusion

God is so passionate about his vision for the world that he had the Apostle John write the book of Revelation to show us where and how his purposes will be fulfilled. When you read the book of Revelation, you see a description of what is to come written with such clarity that we cannot help but believe that it will become a reality. We want the lion to lay down with the lamb, to have Christ return triumphantly on a white horse, to sit down at the marriage supper of the lamb, and to have every tear wiped away.

When we lead like God, people will see the future that God has for them. When they grasp this large and compelling vision they will respond by giving what they have to help make it a reality. Kingdom-oriented leadership is the ability to inspire other others to help create his new reality.

This Sunday, use your pulpit for what it was intended for. Be the pastor who leans into the future, and, seeing what is ahead, leads God’s people forward!

Notes

1  Ken Blanchard, Leading at a Higher Level (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: FT Press, 2010), p. 17.

2  J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993) p. 204, 205.

3  Peter C. Brinkerhoff, Mission-Based Management, (Danvers: John Wiley & Sons, 2000) P. 47. 


Kent Edwards (BTh., MDiv., D.Min., PhD.(cand)) is Professor of Preaching and Leadership and Director of Talbot’s Doctor of Ministry program. He’s the author of Effective First Person Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005) and Deep Preaching (B&H, 2009) as well as several articles and book chapters. He brings to the classroom over 30 years of pastoral experience and currently serves as the founding / senior pastor of OASIS Community Church in Yorba Linda, CA.

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