Archives For Vision

“They want me to preach a three-point sermon, finish worship within an hour so they can beat the Baptists to breakfast, and not make any the elderly man prays in the churchchanges they don’t first approve. Above all not to push them.”   Ruth sighed, deeply discouraged. This Native American pastor is a strong leader: compelled by vision, in tune with the Gospel, led by love. “I thought things were going so well,” she continued. “But then they told my district superintendent how they really felt.” She shook her head, eyes not meeting mine. “I’m not sure my leadership style really works here. Actually, I think it’s because I’m Native American. And female.”

“Girl,” I said, “It’s not you.  It’s them. Don’t take this personally.”

How do I know? I had a similar conversation with Veronica, a skilled and talented African-American female pastor. Almost word for word. She, too, took it personally. It’s hard not to. I told her the same thing I said to Ruth.

As both of these conversations unfolded, echoes sounded from my own past. Previous congregants once said the same kinds of things to me. Yes, I’m female. But I’m neither Native American nor African American. But here’s what all three of us have in common: we each serve(d) congregations in the life-stage of retirement.

When a church reaches the retirement stage of development, a living vision is a thing of the past. Dreams of the future no longer guide them. In the post-glory days of the church, it’s all about managing the faded fruits of vision: activities, building upkeep, and finances. On their way down the far side of the bell curve, these congregations feel the pinch of smaller offerings, shrunken worship attendance, diminished possibilities, and the loss of friends and acquaintances. More pews are empty and the congregation is decidedly more gray.

Blame is a defining dynamic of retirement. “Whose fault is it?” is the unspoken question. The pastor is the most visible person to tag. Chances are, though, the decline started several pastorates before you got there, has been unfolding for at least 10-30 years and the congregation has resisted changes suggested by you and your predecessors.

At the time my congregation blamed me, I took it very personally. I figured the decline was somehow my fault.  If only I worked harder, tried harder, was a better Pied Piper I could turn this church around. If only I had the wisdom to say, “Church, it’s not me. It’s you.”

Truthfully, for congregations in retirement it’s not you, and it’s not them either. They’re simply saying and doing what people say and do when they are afraid, uncertain of the future, and resisting the change they know they need. So just like you don’t need to take their comments personally, don’t make it about them either.

Instead, continue to step into your role as visionary leader. Much as they may want you to be a chaplain, your job as a leader is to be brave, bold, and faithful to the Gospel. Stand and cast the vision. A Jesus-like dream is the only thing that has any chance of making a significant difference. Otherwise, they’ll have every right to say: “It’s not us. It’s you.” Click To Tweet

Here are three best practices and two cautions when casting a vision in a retirement stage congregation.

Best Practice #1: Identify your sub-congregations. At this point you have several sub-congregations, even if they all worship at the same hour. Your people have come in waves under different pastorates and that pastor’s particular style, vision or goal. So, each sub-group is expecting something different of the church. Find out who joined when. Discover what they remember of that particular time and pastor. As you cast a new vision it’s important to scout out and address each sub-group distinctly and intentionally.

Best Practice #2: Connect the dots between the past and the future. Help each sub-group see how the new vision fulfills the vision they were first attract ted to. If the old vision was about growing the Sunday school with a promise of more young people, and the new vision is about easing suffering by reaching out to the homeless families in your neighborhood, help them see the common underlying principle: sharing the hopeful story of God’s love to create better lives for people.

Best Practice #3: Provide a strong rationale. Base your vison in a strong rationale that answers these questions: Why us? Why now? How will we partner with God to realize our vision? Include a strong biblical and theological foundation that connects the Gospel vision with your people and your context.

While you’re carrying out these best practices, do exercise caution. To bring retirement folks on board requires heartfelt emotional intelligence.

Caution #1: Be kind. Change isn’t easy. Look, they know they need to change. They just wish they didn’t have to. Give them as much input on the vision as possible. Even if you don’t take all their advice, complete the circle of listening by letting them know you heard them.

Caution #2: Give in on the things you can. I encouraged Ruth to preach a 15-minute sermon and finish worship in under an hour. Instead of fighting it, use that hour to gain their trust, love them, and begin to lead them in prayer for a new vision. Don’t waste the hour. Otherwise, I might say: “It’s not them. It’s you.”

Conflict can take us out when the stakes are high. But it needn’t have the last word. Build your emotional intelligence as you discover how to handle your own anxieties and fears during times of stress. Join me in January for a 2-part online Mastering Conflict workshop.


How do you know if it’s time for a new vision in your congregation? Or your denomination, for that matter? It’s not as hard to discern as you vision3might think. I want to share with you three tell-tale signs. And one important next step to take.

Watch for these three key dynamics first identified by church life-cycle specialist, George Bullard. If you see them at play in your setting, then it’s time for a new vision.

Blame: Watch for finger pointing. If it’s easy to identify the problem person, dynamic or influence that’s at fault—and it’s not you—then you are witnessing the dynamic of blame. Listen for statements such as: there aren’t enough young people coming to church; no one tithes anymore; we don’t have enough visitors and it’s all the pastor’s fault.

Sacrificial Commitment Required: Everyone is asked to give more, more, more. More money, more time, and more service to the organization. This would seem to solve the problem of waning energy and attendance. But the problem is lack of vision, not lack of commitment. And I suspect the actual underlying problem is something else.  There isn’t something big to commit to!

Nostalgia or Anger: Nostalgia about the way things were quickly turns to anger when it becomes apparent that the good old days aren’t coming back. And they’re not getting resurrected easily. Bullard points out that a focus on teenagers is a focus on the past. A focus on senior adults is a focus on the present. A focus on 25-40-year-olds and their kids is a focus on the future.

These three tell-tale signs are evident not only in individual churches but in denominations as a whole. Click To Tweet  I’ve spotted these three dynamics at play within the United Methodist Church. Consider that we have been in the blame-each-other mode for a while. Both progressives and conservatives point fingers at each other when it comes to church decline. In fact, many of our denominational fights have been framed as a lack of commitment. Some say that we have a lack of commitment to Biblical authority. Others say we have a lack of commitment to inclusivity. I suspect that the issue isn’t so much a lack of commitment as it is a lack of vision.   These fights are further fueled by both nostalgia and anger. Can’t we go back to the way we used to believe, used to organize ourselves, used to live? This nostalgia is countered with anger that our denomination isn’t more inclusive or farther along in the world.

It’s time for the leaders of the denomination to muster a new vision. I am in favor of the One Church Plan. However, deep down inside I know that it won’t make much difference if we don’t have a new vision driving us. If the denomination were to split it would be worth it IF each new movement was led by a vision giving us fresh energy and leading us in new directions. A vision based on blame, nostalgia or anger, however, won’t cut it. We’ll stay stuck in the same old patterns of decline.

When you’re ready for a new vision, the most important next step you can take is to productively address blame, anger and nostalgia. This isn’t always easy.   However, I want to introduce you to an effective approach.   That’s why I’m inviting you to join me for my next Mastering Conflict Online Workshop, January 4 and 11, 2019. 

I had a vision to beautify the barren property that surrounded the church I served. It was an engaging vision that trees4garnered lots of buy-in. Trees and fencing were donated. A spring Saturday was set for planting the trees. Folks were excited! Lots of trees got planted that day. Sadly, almost none of them survived.

For years, their brown boughs served as a living, or rather dead, reminder of that failed vision. In fact, the property looked even more barren with dead trees dotting it than it had before.

What was the culprit here? Blight, bad weather and critters are all good guesses. But the truth is simpler and harsher than that.

When it came to planting trees, we had several things going for us: vision, alignment and even people willing to execute the vision. But there was also an unnamed saboteur in our midst: lack of planning. We sabotaged the vision by failing to think through what should happen next. Like watering and follow up care. Even more so, we sabotaged the vision by failing to engage people who would have noticed the lack of a plan.

Personally, I was quite comfortable shooting from the hip, making stuff up as I went along. I didn’t need a thought-out plan. But those poor trees did! I wish I could say the great tree planting caper was the only example of aborted vision, wasted energy and squandered good will in my tenure there. But it wasn’t. As an idea-generator with lots of energy, I had all kinds of great ideas. And the persuasiveness to get others on board. What I lacked was awareness that each of my ideas needed a thorough plan to succeed. Bottom line: I had failed to plan and planned to fail.

If you’re a regular reader you know that I have a bias toward risk-taking, adventure, and boldness for church leaders. I’m all about visionary change. So this next thought may come as a surprise. Here it is: There’s genius in putting on the brakes and slowing down the pace of change. Yup, you heard it here.

Slowing down the pace of change allows a plan to emerge. It also allows structures to be created which ensure the change is sustainable. Developing a structure requires putting the brakes on and thinking things through. All the way through. Including who is going to buy the water hose.

I now know the best way to plan is to begin with the end in mind. Then provide a framework that allows you to get there step by step. With all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed. It’s detail time, folks.

You want gorgeous, healthy trees that thrive in the high desert plains for years to come? You want flowers and bushes and color that vivify brown prairie grasses and silver-green sage brush? That all takes planning! Likewise, you want an outreach ministry that makes a real difference in the lives of street people or the underemployed? Or a prayer ministry that will impact each and every person in your zip code? How about a community garden that will nourish the elderly? All that takes planning. Start with the end in mind and work your way backwards.

Our churches are full of people who excel at thinking things through. They’re the ones that usually like to put the brakes on anyway and consider all the angles. They value harmony, stability, and well-thought through change. If that’s you, please stand and take a bow! This is where your genius shines. By tapping into your ability to think systematically, supply details, include the right people, ask the right questions, and challenge flawed thinking, you can enable changes to take hold and take root. You can ensure that change is sustainable.

Of course, there’s still a place for your faster-paced, more adventurous fellows, too. In fact, you need them to keep the momentum going, so you don’t get bogged down or stopped. The truth is that you need each other.

Here are eight tips for making sustainable change while keeping forward momentum going:

1. Get input from the visionaries as well as the analyzers. Make sure to include the very people who will be implementing the vision. Engage them with both voice and a vote to create strong buy in. And a greater likelihood of seamless implementation.

2. Have regular meetings. But don’t space them too far apart! Otherwise, you’ll lose momentum. The more often you meet, in fact, the shorter each meeting can be. And the more focused. Monthly or quarterly meetings are the graveyard of too many worthy visions. At the same time, give yourselves enough time to make a good plan, and to think through what needs to be done.

3. Together, anticipate cause and effect, plan for contingencies, think through what could go wrong, and wherever possible eliminate risk.

4. Plan for things going better than expected. With God in the mix, lots of things go well and right! Consider new opportunities that could arise from your vision being implemented. Includes plans to jump on those opportunities so you can keep the momentum going.

5. Let your plans be vigorous, focused, and move things forward. Then take the foot off the brakes. You can’t know everything before you finally say “go.” But your plans will help you deal with what you encounter along the way precisely because you will have thought through what could go right and what could go wrong. Develop your faith by trusting God and trusting your fellows, even if you don’t feel 100% ready yet.

6. Once you have a plan, remember to stay in communication! Consistent and timely communications keep planning on track and allows for real-time analysis. It also helps people feel part of things.

7. Embrace your adversaries. Both the ability to craft a vision and to carefully implement it are gifts from God. But most people have one or the other, not both. Learning how to work well together is key.

8. Have fun! Feel the joy of doing things well, and creating a sustainable culture shift. Surprise people by excelling at making good, enduring change. Revel in the fact that the Kingdom is at hand.

I’d love to hear about your failed visions. And your successful changes. Both are inspiring. Because we learn from failure and success.

Not sure how to bring all this together?  Check out Creating a Culture of Renewal. It’s a step by step process that shows you how to bring out the best in the people who frustrate you the most. All while empowering you and your church to dream and lead like Jesus.

It’s not the person who collects the money, counts the money or deposits the money. It’s not the person who heads up the annual campaign or chooses a stewardship theme.   It’s not the person who tallies or takes the spiritual gifts inventory, or who pledges their time, talents, and treasure to the church. All of this is important. But none of it is the most important stewardship job. In fact, this particular job has nothing to do with money.

Last week I met with the person who has THE job in question. He didn’t know it at the time. Neither did I. But as we plumbed the depths of his job description, it quickly came to light.olympic torch

There it was in black and white: his job was to be the steward of the vision for the entire region for his denomination. He was to make sure that the vision was kept alive, interpreted, and implemented. That’s the most important stewardship job, ever. Except, of course, for the person who holds that position in your congregation.

What’s this have to do with money, you ask? The prophet is quick to remind us that without a vision the people perish. What the prophet doesn’t mention is even more dire: without a vision, hope and purpose perish, financial support dries up, and the congregation itself withers and dies. That leaves a heartbreaking vacuum in the center of your community. All that you once provided—prayer, love, compassion, acceptance, small group ministry, meeting space, communal worship, friendship, potlucks, a listening ear, help for people far and near—is now gone.   People are less likely to give money to support a budget than they are to support a Kingdom-oriented vision. That makes the steward of the vision the most important stewardship job ever.

So who stewards the vision in your congregation? Who is responsible for its existence, interpretation and implementation? Who is making sure that the vision guides all that you do? These are important questions for every congregation to answer. Denominations as whole, regional bodies, and non-profits would be wise to pose this question, too.

If you can’t name a person or a team whose responsibility it is to steward the vision, then consider the following two options. Either vision so naturally arises in your congregation that it doesn’t need a specific home. Or, vision has been long forgotten.

If it’s alive and well, pause to acknowledge the visionaries among you. Then look throughout your structures, meetings, and results to make sure that the vision is actually getting implemented.   If it is, celebrate! You are a gifted, focused, and results-oriented bunch. You get things done. It’s probably time for you to come up with your next vision! Keep the momentum going.

dying churchIf vision has been long forgotten in your setting, it’s time to get to work. Pronto. There’s no time to lose. Likely, your congregation has shrunk, giving has shrunk, and you are more concerned with maintenance than mission, comfort than outreach, and paying the bills than making a real difference in the world. You may not know it, but you’re living on borrowed time. These are the kind of congregations most likely to flounder and close.

How do you start? Decide that it’s time to get off life-support and back into the stream of life. Then, re-establish the most important stewardship job ever. How? Prayerfully task a team with creating a vision. Keep in mind that a vision is uncomfortable. It expands whatpeople think is possible. It pushes you to accomplish something you haven’t yet done. It’s not the re-statement of ministries or activities you are already doing. That means it’s bold, forward-thinking, and probably scary. But it is worth giving your time, talents and treasure to. Be visionsure to give the visioning team the leadership, time, resources, respect and prayer support they’ll need to begin the process. Lastly, get on board with it.   Work together to prayerfully, purposefully communicate and implement the vision. Without it, everything perishes.

Not sure what a vision is or how to establish or implement it? Contact me to discover if Creating a Culture of Renewal is the right option for you. New groups are starting in 2016.


I grew up on Mission Impossible, pre-Tom Cruise. It was mission-impossible-logoamazing to watch the TV character Peter Graves tackle the impossible week in and week out. Headquarters gave him tough top secret jobs that were literally impossible with the words, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it….” He was part of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF). Funny, but I don’t ever remember him saying no.

I know church leaders just like that. One such woman would give Peter Graves a run for his money. She has a towering, impossible and inspiring vision: To eliminate racism in her home state. Impossible, you say? You bet it is. Until you say it out loud, that is. Articulating a vision is the first step to making it a reality.

The truth is, if it seems do-able and you already know how to do it, it’s probably not a vision anyway. It’s more like a goal. Goals are good, but they don’t transform the world like a “Vision: Impossible” does.

When Microsoft developed the vision of putting a personal computer on each desk, it was a “Vision: Impossible.” Computers occupied entire rooms, not the tops of desks. The average Jane hadn’t even thought about what she might do with one, let alone if she had the means to afford one.

But that’s the nature of visions: they are impossible at first. In fact, that’s what sets them apart from goals. Goals are do-able. You can understand what steps to take to accomplish them. You might even be able to accomplish them with the people, resources and structures you have on hand. But a vision is a whole different order. It expands assumptions about what people think is possible.

malariaEnding malaria, ending hunger, ending homelessness, and ending poverty are similar seemingly impossible visions. But once some brave soul had the courage to even imagine it, then give voice to it, the impossible started moving into the realm of possible.   Now, interested people have gathered around each of these areas to create structures, assemble resources, establish goals, set benchmarks, gather funding, and attract key people to the vision. I truly believe that each of them will be accomplished.

Visions also require boldness. It requires a great deal of chutzpah to speak of the impossible as if it were do-able. Kind of like Jesus saying we can enter the Kingdom of God. Before Jesus, the Kingdom was a far-off sort of experience. But Jesus brought it to the foreground, and made it a here and now kind of experience going so far as to say that it is within us. That transformed what we think is possible and gives courage to visionaries and dreamers of every sort.

What if communities of faith took on making the impossible possible instead of settling for improvement and incremental change?

If you decide to accept the challenge to dream a “Vision: Impossible,” here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Dream big. Jesus’ own dream was that earth would mirror heaven. The bigger you dream, the more you tap into the energy, power, blessing and realm of Jesus. This can be very scary at first. Not only for you, but for your people. Remind people that this is the stuff of faith. If faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, it means you don’t have all the answers before you start. In fact, you can’t.
  2. Conduct a Kingdom Bible study. Read the Gospels looking especially at what Jesus had to say about the Kingdom. Note how much of his activity is actually about the Kingdom. Don’t stop with the Gospels. Read Acts and the epistles of Paul with this lens as well.
  3. Be willing to fail. When you take on a “Vision: Impossible”, things might fail. On the other hand, they might succeed, or come to fruition in a way you hadn’t expected. The disciples thought Jesus failed. But look at all the good that came out of his life and death.
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Share your vision again and again, to gain adherents. The more you share it, the more people have a chance to get on board, offer suggestions, buy-in, and help implement it. Just about the time you’re sick of saying it, others will feel they’ve heard it for the first time.

There’s more to implementing a vision than just saying it. In fact, building alignment and championing execution are key phases of making the dream a reality. If you are interested in learning how to make the impossible possible, and creating visions that catapult the world forward, then you are ready for Creating a Culture of Renewal. This award winning program helps church leaders transform risk-averse cultures into congregations that are willing to dream like Jesus, enthusiastically tackling new initiatives and launching new ministries. New groups are forming in 2016.