A DILEMMA OR AN OPPORTUNITY?

I like structure.  I like order and predictability.   I am an organized person.  My workshop has a place for all my tools, a place where I expect them to be.  Now, I am not obsessive about the order and structure–I haven’t drawn the outline of the tool on the wall behind its place on the wall.  But I do know where the tool is because I put it there in the first place and return it to its place when I am finished using it.  Tools don’t  lie around on the work bench partly because I don’t have a lot of workbench space but mostly because I put them away when I am done with them–one of the rituals I have when finishing a session in the workshop is making sure all the tools are back where they belong.

I have friends whose tools tend to get deposited here there and everywhere.  When they want a 15/64s drill bit, they have to think about the last project they used the drill bit on and search that work area–or go buy a new one.  I might not remember when I last used the 15/64s drill bit but I do know the bit will be in its container where it is supposed to be, unless I broke it the last time I used it, in which case, the replacement is in the proper place in the container.

My books are organized–now, the organizing principles might not be readily understandable to anyone else, but I understand it and can find the book I want when I want it because it is where it is supposed to be.  Even my computer and tablet files are structured and organized so that I can find the file I want when I want it–I know the topic of the file and can quickly find the appropriate folder and sub-folder.

So, with that in mind, I approach the church, where as I have already mentioned, there is more chaos than structure;  more confusion than order; more questions than answers.  About the only thing that is predictable about the church many times is that if a person who attends regularly shows up, they will sit in their particular place.  Almost everything else, well, it is probably easier to herd cats than get everyone and everything in its place in the church.

So, I go from the structure of my workshop and study and computer to the chaos of the church.  I carefully put my tools away, replace the books in their proper places, save the files in their proper sub-folders, put everything I will need in the proper brief case, check the phone calendar to make sure I am on time and going to the right place and step into the chaos of the church.

On some levels, my structured personality should find the church difficult and frustrating–but the truth is, I don’t find it that way.  Certainly, I can and do get frustrated with some church stuff.  I occasionally get frustrated with some church people.  But on the whole, I enjoy the church and its chaos.  My love of structure doesn’t mean that I approach the church with fear and trembling.

And as I have thought about that, I realized that my appreciation for structure isn’t one of the driving forces of my life.  What is a driving force is the gift that the Holy Spirit exercises through me, the gift of helping bring structure and sense to what appears to be chaotic.  I don’t have an obsessive need for structure–rather, I have a Spirit given gift of being able to make sense out of chaos for myself and others.  Having structure isn’t the goal of my life either in the workshop or the church.

Helping create an appropriate and workable structure out of what seems chaotic is one of the goals of my life.  And it is a goal not because I need the structure but because God has been and continues using me to help congregations see their underlying structure and order that their chaos both hides and reveals.  This is important because as the divine structure and order become visible to the church, they can become much more effective and comfortable with their place in God’s work and his kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ENDING WELL

I am a pastor who has spent my entire career working with small congregations.  The largest average attendance I ever remember having was in the neighbourhood of 50 or so, depending of course on the proximity of the latest blizzard, the season of the year, the opening and closing of various cyclical events and so on.  The smallest congregation I ever served averaged 4–although we did eventually have a 50% increase and average 6 in attendance.

Although I am comfortable working in small congregations and can do a lot of ministry there, I am also aware that congregations of the size I work with are always aware of the possibility of closing down.  In the area where I live and work, I regularly drive by up to a dozen buildings that used to house churches–or the spots where the building used to stand.  Some were closed by decisions made outside the congregation–presbyteries and bishops and other bodies crunched numbers and issued decisions and churches ceased to exist.

Closing churches is a bit harder in my denomination.  We Baptists don’t have an outside agency that can close a congregation down.  As long as there is one member alive who wants to keep the church going, the church–and its building–keeps going.  Things get a bit more complicated, though, because often, people in the community whose great-grandmother was married in that church’s building get involved in the process and don’t want to see the church shut down.  Of course, they are actually trying to preserve the building–the church that inhabits a building is the people.

And so the reality is that many of us who are part of small congregations are living in a paradox.  On the one hand, we seek to be faithful to God, doing the best we can to ministry with the limited money and people and resources that we have.  We worship, we fellowship, we organize fund raising events, we minister to the wider community, we experiment, we pray, we hope.

But we are also aware that being a church takes money–and that is always in short supply.  If the building needs major repairs or Aunt Emma goes to a nursing home or dies or the big church in the next community attracts the family with our youth group, we face an inevitable financial crunch, which often gets expressed in very simple and graphic terms:  If we pay the pastor, we can’t afford to pay for the heat for worship but if we heat the building for worship, we probably can’t afford to pay the pastor.

Small congregations are very adept and very resilient and very good at finding and stretching money.  They are very good and adept at getting people to multi-task.  They are not so good at making tough decisions about their future, especially when those decisions seem to represent a step along the road to closure.

When the income won’t support full time ministry, it is hard to make the decision to move to some form of part-time ministry.  When the income won’t really support heating a very energy inefficient sanctuary in a Canadian winter, it is hard to consider moving or closing worship down.  When the church owned house the pastor lives in needs too many repairs, it is hard to consider getting rid of it.

The end result is that many small congregations keep going, dealing with the potential reality of closure by trying to ignore and avoid and pretend isn’t there.  Occasionally, the church must deal with the reality–when the sills rot out or the pastor moves on, the church has to look at the present realities and future possibilities.

And generally, the church will worry and stress and pray and come up with a solution that replaces the sills and finds a pastor.  That happens because we are talking about the church and the church has a resource that no other organization has.  We have the Holy Spirit and when we open ourselves to the Spirit, the results and consequences are completely unpredictable.

We who are part of small congregations live with the reality of closure looming over us.  But we also live in the presence of the Holy Spirit–and that means that we open ourselves to the Spirit, follow his leading and minister until we can no longer minister.  Because of the Spirit’s presence, we can live until we die.

May the peace of God be with you.

WIRES

I’m sitting in one of the two chairs in the living room where I do most of my work.  Both offer good opportunities for staring out the window when I need to write something but have no idea what to write.  Often, during the course of a session writing a sermon, blog post, Bible Study or anything for that matter, I will begin in one chair.  When the writing is going well, I will stay in the chair.  If it isn’t going well, I will switch chairs–maybe the different view will inspire something.

While the views from the chairs are different, the both have some things in common.  From both of them, I see trees.  I also see a portion of the street in front of the house and a bit of the marsh that fills up when the tide comes in.  And both provide me with an opportunity to watch the deer and squirrels that are frequent visitors to our street.

And because I much prefer looking at trees and natural stuff, I tend not to notice another significant part of the view–the power line pole in the middle of our front lawn, with its four different wires on it and the five wires that come from it to our house.  The top one coming to the house is the power line, a vital connection that I am happy about.  I have lived and worked in places with no power or limited power so having regular, consistent electricity is something I enjoy.

One of the lines is a cable line, which is also vital to me anyway–not so much because of the TV content (although I do appreciate that) but mostly because the cable supplier is also our internet supplier and I, like many people, am somewhat addicted to being connected.  One of the other wires is from the phone company but since we don’t have a landline, that wire is pretty much useless.  The other two–well, I have absolutely no idea what they are for but since we don’t own the house, their presence doesn’t really bother me, except it means I have to be a bit more careful not to hit them during my infrequent sessions with my drone.

So, the question is why am I writing about the wires?  It could be that the reason is that this is Monday morning and I need to have something done to post on the blog to satisfy my own self-imposed deadlines–and since I have already written about the tress outside the window, that leaves the wires.

Actually, although that may have been part of the reason, really seeing the wires this morning showed me a couple of interesting things.  The first is the ability I have not to see the various lines and wires outside the window.  While I like the products provided by the wires (electricity, internet, TV), I don’t particularly like looking at the wires.  When  I look out the window, I want to see the trees, the deer, the state of the tide, or whose car is driving by.  And so I simply blank out the wires.

We all have a tendency to blank out what we don’t want to see.  When I am ignoring the wires in favour of the trees, that is a normal and understandable process.  But unfortunately, we human beings are able to do this in all kinds of situations, many of which are a problem.  As a species, we are really good at ignoring a lot of what is right in front of us so that we don’t have to deal with it.

When I make one of my infrequent trips to the city, I am good at not seeing the panhandlers on the sidewalk–if I don’t see them, I don’t have to deal with them or the social issues that lead to panhandlers.  When I watch the news on TV (via the second wire), I can ignore the videos of refugees and the starving and the corruption that produces so much of the first two.  When I am working, I can ignore the signs that tell me someone needs more attention than the sermon that I think I should be working on.

If it was just me that has this selective vision, it would be a problem but not a major one.  Unfortunately, we human being are way too good at not seeing the wires that we don’t want to see.  But just because we don’t want to see the wires doesn’t mean they aren’t there and it definitely doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

May the peace of God be with you.

TREES

A few years ago, I had a stretched muscle in my back that made sitting at a desk very painful.  Since I was well into laptops at that point, the obvious solution was to do as much of my work as possible sitting in a comfortable chair that didn’t aggravate the pain in my back.  Eventually with the help of therapy, my back got better.  But by then, I was so comfortable working in the living room that it became my permanent office.  I still have a desk in our home office and it serves a very important purpose–it provides a place to put everything that I need to deal with sometime but not right now.  Normally, I try to clean it up sometime before the pile falls over and crushes the robot vacuum cleaner.

So, what does that have to do with the title of this post?  There is actually a connection.  Sitting at a desk, I tend to focus on the desk and other office junk–the printer, the books, the calendar telling me what I have to do and on and on.  It is a work environment and while it might be effective to have all the work stuff in one place, it isn’t an overly inspiring or creative environment for me.  Working in the living room, well that is a very different thing.  I have the laptop I am working on.  If I need something else, like a hymn book to plan worship, I have to go get it.  Since the coffee table beside the work chair also holds a candle, some plants, my coffee cup or cereal bowl and occasionally my feet, there isn’t a lot of room for much else.

I get to focus on what I am working on–and when the inspiration isn’t flowing or my spelling is so bad that even Spell-check can’t figure it out, I can look out the window.  Looking around in the office shows me stuff that needs to be done.  Looking out the living room window allows me to see trees.  Right now, the maples and the oak are in full leaf, the pine is showing its different coloured growing tips and the unknown berry bush is in bloom.  If I look a bit more to the right, I can see the tidal flat and the hills and trees beyond that.  If I look carefully, I don’t need to look at the lawn that needs mowing.

This is important to me because trees are an important part of my relaxation process.  Being able to see trees somehow relaxes me and helps me think.  When the sermon isn’t coming together or the blog post doesn’t make sense or the phone call goes on and on, being able to look at trees provides a break and a whiff of peace and relaxation.  And, if one of the local squirrels happens to be performing in the tree when I look up, that is even better. Staring at trees does much more for my mental and spiritual health that staring at a desk (cluttered or clean) ever did.  Looking at a wall of green leaves and needles is a much more powerful mini-break than looking at a wall with a calendar, a bulletin board and some pictures.  Even looking at shelves full of books, as helpful as that is for me, doesn’t have the same effect as resting my eyes on trees.

I am not recommending this for everyone.  But I would suggest that all of us have something that has this same sort of relaxing effect.  My wife likes to see water–rivers, lakes, oceans.  Some like to see children at play.  A friend likes to see his car–or any car for that matter.  There may even be some people who get that jolt of relaxation from looking at a cluttered desk and functional office space.

I think it is important that we learn about ourselves and what makes us tick and what makes us relax and build our daily rhythms around these insights.  I have always known that trees relax me but it took a serious back pain before I learned that I could incorporate that insight into my actual work.  I don’t know how much more effective and efficient my work is because of being able to see trees when I write but that doesn’t really matter–and if I ever need to quantify the effect, staring at the trees will help me figure out how calculate the effect.

Anyway, the squirrel is back and the tide is coming in.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT AM I DOING?

There are some days when I have no clue what I am doing, at least in terms of what I am doing as a pastor.  It is important to remember the context here.  I have been involved in some form of ministry since 1973.  Although I have done many different things during that time, I have primarily been a pastor, serving small rural congregations in western Nova Scotia, Canada.  I have advanced education in ministry and have taught other pastors at schools in Canada, Kenya and Rwanda.  I have done seminars and workshops and conferences geared towards pastors.  And so when I saw that there are some days when I have no clue what I am doing as a pastor, it isn’t because I have no background.

Nor am I doing the false modesty thing–you know, pretending that I am less capable than I really am.  I am actually being honest here–there are a lot of times when I really don’t know what I am doing in ministry.  And that is a culturally difficult admission because I do ministry in a climate when pastors are supposed to be all knowing and all capable leaders who have a vision and a plan and who are going to build the next great mega church.

I have read all that stuff and have even attended a few of the conferences on vision and stuff like that.  And for a short spell a few years ago, I was actually doing workshops on the vision process.  Being me, I took a different approach to the vision process, suggesting that the vision for the church needed to arise from the church and that the pastor’s real task was helping the congregation see and articulate their own home-grown vision.  So I know the expectation of other pastors–I should be a vision-casting, purpose-driven inspired and inspiring leader who knows where he is going and where the church needs to go.

But the truth is that most days, I have difficulty articulating a vision for anything, let alone the church.  I feel many days that I really have no clue what I am doing.  Of course, that isn’t entirely true.  I know that I have to lead Bible Study, preach on Sunday, visit the sick, connect with the congregation, be open to emergencies and unexpected calls and all that.  But at the same time, there are many days when I couldn’t tell you why I do these things and how they fit into some overall scheme of things.

In short, I really don’t have much of a vision for the churches I pastor.  Some of the stuff being produced these days about vision and leadership would suggest that this is why I have spend my ministry career in small congregations–if I don’t have a vision and a plan to implement the vision, I won’t get anywhere.

Some of this not knowing comes about because I am still relatively new in the congregations I serve and I have discovered that developing a real and meaningful vision for a church takes time and effort on the part of the church and the pastor.  After I am there for a few more years, the church and I will probably have a sense of what God’s vision for the church is.  I have some hints and glimpses of that in the congregation I have been working with for a couple of years now.

But when I really think about it, I realize that the stuff I am doing as a pastor is often the goal and purpose of my calling anyway.  I have never sensed God calling me to be a visionary.  I am called and gifted to be a pastor and teacher–or, to use one variation of the list of gifts found in Ephesians 4.11, I am a pastor/teacher.  I care for people in the name of God, doing things like preaching and teaching and visiting and caring and counselling and praying and answering the phone and returning calls and responding to emergencies.  The things I do don’t always have some great visionary purpose-they just need to be done because that is what God has called me to do.

If in the process, God chooses to use the things I do to help me and the church develop some greater vision and purpose, I hope and pray that we are open to seeing that vision.  But even now, the things I do are important and so when I say I don’t know what I am doing, maybe I am saying that I don’t know where things fit in some cosmic vision–but I do them because they are important and I have been called to do them and maybe that is enough, at least for now.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PASTOR’S PERSONAL VISION

My experience has taught me that the majority of pastors are fairly driven people. It may be due to the nature of our calling or something in our personality or some other intangible factor but we pastors tend to want to accomplish something and we want that accomplishment to be important in our eyes, in the eyes of others and sometimes even in God’s eyes.

It may be that part of the problem we have with maintenance ministry is that it doesn’t seem to accomplish much–actually, it is probably better to say that it doesn’t seem to accomplish much in the short term. Like most people in North America, we want to accomplish great things is less time than it takes for our latest electronic device to become obsolete. The regular caring ministry of the church does accomplish great things but it takes time.

This drive to accomplish may be part of the reason why so many pastors push and prod and even demand that their churches adopt a vision, often a vision that these pastors have developed. Their vision will help the church, they claim. A careful examination of the proposed vision will sometimes reveal that the proposed vision will also do great things for the pastor if it is adopted.

Pastors, like congregations, have times when they need a vision. Some pastors, in fact, seem to need a vision all the time, while others need a vision at certain times in their lives and ministry. It is important therefore for pastors to understand their need for a vision and how that personal vision relates to the congregations they serve.

There will often be a connection between the personal vision and the ministry the pastor is involved in. When I decided that I wanted to study for my D. Min., that personal vision had a direct effect on the churches I was pastoring at the time: the congregations had to recommend me to the seminary; they had to allow me time off for study; my work for them was the focus of much of my study and they had to be willing to be a part of the project that was part of my study.

The important thing about this process was that it was my personal vision and I gave them a free and clear choice about being a part of that vision. Had they not been interested, I would have had to revise my personal vision. It was not a requirement that they become part of my personal vision.

I encourage pastors to develop a personal vision–it can be a very important part of their personal growth and development. While some might chose a vision that has nothing to do with ministry, most will chose a vision that has ministry implications. But we must always be clear that our personal vision doesn’t necessarily have to be the church’s vision. If the congregation isn’t interested in our vision, that doesn’t mean they are unspiritual, unwilling to develop, against us or anything like that. It simply means they aren’t moved by our personal vision and if we want to pursue that vision, we need to do it on our own.

In my ministry, I have had many personal visions. Some, like my educational desires, have been shared with the congregation who happily volunteered to participate in the vision. Others, like my desire to be involved in denominational activity, were approved and supported by the congregation but not adopted as their vision. Others, like my writing, were quite separate from the congregation who didn’t always know what I was writing or for whom.

The pastor’s personal vision is important–but it isn’t always important that the church adopt that vision. Particularly in the small church, the congregation’s vision needs to grow and develop from the real setting and needs of the congregation. While the pastor is an important part of the congregation and vision process, he/she must always be aware of the important distinction between his/her personal vision and the congregation’s vision. The two may be related–but they may also have no real connection beyond the person of the pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW VISION DEVELOPS 2

Many years ago, I was asked to lead a seminar on developing vision. In response to that invitation, I developed a six stage cycle that I thought would help small congregations and their pastors develop a sense of vision when it was necessary. During the discussion part of the seminar, a friend of mine who was attending made a suggestion that lead to me adding a seventh stage to the process. I am presenting a brief summary of that process here. The process focuses on the work of the pastor in the process because I am a pastor and developed the plan out of my experience. However, anyone in the congregation could follow the process.

STAGE 1: In the course of regular ministry, the pastor not only develops relationships with the congregation but also develops a picture of the congregation, getting an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, potential and dangers facing the congregation. He/she might also begin to develop a sense of the longings and dreams of the congregation.

STAGE 2: The pastor has accumulated a lot of information, impressions and ideas. After a year or two of this, this pile of accumulated ideas needs to be pulled together to develop an overall picture of the congregation. Some do this intuitively as they are accumulating. Others may need to keep good notes and spend some focused time developing the picture. As much as possible, the pastor is trying to develop a clear overall sense of the congregation: where it has been. where it is now and where it might be able to go.

Some pastors are tempted to use the gathered information and jump to a vision immediately. This is a mistake in the small church because any vision developed at this point is the pastor’s vision, not the church’s vision. Some pastors may have the ability to transform that vision into the church’s vision but unfortunately, many pastors don’t have that ability.

STAGE 3: The pastor’s sense of the state of the congregation is the pastor’s sense of the congregation. The third stage involves the pastor sharing that sense of the church with the understanding that it needs to be examined, tested and modified. Pastors, being human, approach anything they do with their own biases and preconceptions, which work their way into the picture of the congregation. The congregation needs the opportunity to give their input so that a fuller picture can be developed.

This stage requires a great deal of trust between the pastor and congregation which is why is shouldn’t be attempted until after the pastor has been in place for a couple of years. It also requires that the pastor be willing to listen carefully to the congregation and change his/her thinking based in congregational input. It may also be wise to use a congregational examination process in this stage to help develop the picture

STAGE 4: Now that the congregation has been included in the process, they become vital in the rest of the stages. As a result of STAGE 3, both pastor and congregation have the same agreed upon understanding of the congregation. They can work together to develop a vision for the congregation based on what they see. While the pastor may have ideas and suggestions for the vision, the ultimate vision needs to develop as the congregation and pastor discuss and pray together. If the pastor insists that congregation adopt his/her plan as is, there will be serious problems.

STAGE 5: This is the implementation phase. If STAGE 4 has been done well, it will be the easiest stage since the congregation takes responsibility for most of the work of implementation. The pastor may find that he/she is doing a lot of cheer leading and maintenance ministry while the congregation does the work. Since it is a shared vision, this makes sense.

STAGE 6: This is the stage I added to the original cycle. After the hard work of thinking, planning and implementing, the congregation and pastor need to celebrate and rest. This will be a plateau stage but it is an important stage that should not be skipped or shortened.

STAGE 7: The process begins again. If the vision is implemented, the congregation is different. If it isn’t implemented, the congregation is different. Either way, the cycle needs to begin again because the old picture has changed.

One final note. This is not a fast process. In small churches, ministry runs in cycles of 5-7 years. This vision cycle is based on that time frame. Many pastors need to learn to adjust their personal time frame with the real time frame of the small congregation.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW THE VISION DEVELOPS 1

I find myself getting upset these days whenever I read or hear something that puts “maintenance” ministry in a negative light. It has become almost the accepted standard that maintenance ministry is bad and vision driven ministry is good. The more I read and hear this, the more I realize just how wrong it really is.

Maintenance ministry needs to be seen for what it really is–the basic, day to day work of the church and pastor that actually builds and strengthens and protects the church. To downplay or ignore this vital part of ministry is to risk everything–without good maintenance, things fall apart.

When we owned a house, I was always doing something around the house–painting, repairing cracks, replacing windows, mowing lawns, replacing roofing, repairing plumbing leaks, clearing the driveway. All this activity took time and energy and most of it I enjoyed, except for mowing the lawn. But even if I hadn’t enjoyed the work, it still had to be done. Letting a leaky roof go would result in serious harm to the basic structure. Ignoring a dripping tap increased water and electricity bills. Putting off painting risks rotting wood or worse.

While the basic maintenance of a house kept it in good condition, it also had another benefit–I always knew the overall state of the house. There were very few surprises around the house because I was looking at things enough to know generally what to expect and often when to expect it. The surprises that did come tended to be in areas that I couldn’t look after, like the furnace or appliances.

In the church, the maintenance ministry does the same thing. The regular pastoral activity of connecting with people through visitation, casual conversations, talking about the weather, children, work, sports, gardens and so on provides the pastor with an overall picture of the state of the congregation. It is rarely a waste of effort to spend time with members of the congregation–not only does the time benefit the congregant but also it allows the pastor to develop and maintain a sense of the health and status of the congregation as well as prevent surprises from upsetting the ministry or the minister.

Pastors who don’t do the basic maintenance ministry don’t know their congregations–and they will face many surprises in their ministry. One of the big surprises is often the sudden realization that the congregation doesn’t agree with the pastor–and may not even like the pastor. Not doing effective maintenance ministry is a good way to ensure a short, painful ministry filled with surprises.

What does this have to do with vision? Well, the connection between maintenance ministry and vision is strong. In the small church, the awareness of the need for a vision grows out of the maintenance ministry of the church. It will often be the pastor who first becomes aware of the need for a vision because the pastor will (or should) have the clearest overall picture of the church because of the effective maintenance ministry.

This awareness doesn’t necessarily lead directly to the development of a vision. In fact, the pastoral awareness developed from the regular practise of ministry will sometimes assure the pastor that things are going well, ministry is being done and there is no need for anything more just yet.

However, the awareness of the congregation developed from the regular ministry may help the pastor see that there are issues and needs and possibilities that need to be addressed but which are beyond the regular scope of ministry. Developing a vision may be one of the possible solutions at times like this.

This pastoral awareness developed from good maintenance ministry isn’t an open invitation for the pastor to develop a vision for the church. While he/she may have a clearer picture of the church than anyone else in the church, the pastor’s awareness of the church is not infallible nor it is complete. Before the need for a vision can be established, there is a lot of work for both pastor and congregation to do. Because the small church works on the basis of relationships, the vision process has to be worked through in a way that involves as much of the congregation as possible–and that will be the focus of tomorrow’s blog.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHEN THE SMALL CHURCH NEEDS A VISION

As I began thinking about this post, I realized that I had put myself in a bit of a difficult position. I planned on listing some times when a clear vision will benefit the small church but as I was thinking about the topic, I realized that it isn’t as easy to come up with a list of times when the small church needs a vision. One example came to me immediately but as we will see, it probably isn’t the greatest example of such a time.

Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that the small church doesn’t always have to have a vision. As long as ministry is going well and the church is responding to the needs it sees through the leading of the Holy Spirit, it probably doesn’t need to waste the time, energy and resources developing and implementing a vision requires.

As I continued to think about the need for vision, I realized that the time for vision in the small church depends not so much on the chronological time but on what the New Testament calls “kairos”. This kind of time describes a set of circumstances that come together and create the right setting for something to happen. God seems to work on this time rather that clock time.

There are then “kairos” times in the life of a small congregation when the vision process is a benefit and the resulting vision can help the congregation. The times I mention here are not a complete list and I would be really interested in hearing from you about your thoughts on the topic, either disagreeing with the things I have suggested or adding to the list.

A small church can benefit from the vision process when:

1. They have been static or in a plateau period for an extended period of time–probably more than a year or two. Such a period will also probably be accompanied by a small but noticeable decline in giving, attendance and ministry activity.

2. When there has been a crisis in the church. The crisis might be the result of a dispute in the congregation, loss or damage to the building, a leadership failure of some sort, a significant community event like the closing of a major employer or any one of a number of negative events that take the energy, resources and enthusiasm from the congregation.

3. After a long and successful or a short and disastrous pastoral tenure. Either of these can have a significant effect on the congregation that can disrupt their ability to minister well.

4. When the congregation has a sense that something more is needed in their congregational life. It might be a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that something in missing, a touch of boredom. This is a somewhat intangible item but wise pastors and congregations pay attention to it.

5. When there is a major new opportunity for ministry. If a major housing development is planned for the areas served by the congregation, that opportunity would require some planning and vision so that the congregation might make the best of the opportunity.

I haven’t forgotten the first example of a time for a vision that I mentioned earlier–I just didn’t want to include it in the main list because that situation comes about when the pastor is doing advanced education and requires congregational participation. I know several congregations that have developed a vision in response to the requirements of their pastor’s Doctor of Ministry studies–including my own D. Min. studies. These visions tend to do a great deal more for the pastor than the congregation although a well designed D. Min. project can greatly enhance the ministry of a congregation.

There are probably other times when it would benefit a small church to develop a vision and if you know of any, I would love to hear them.

Even when the “kairos” is right, good vision doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It requires work on the part of both pastor and congregation to develop and implement the vision. Some of the work required to discover if a vision is needed and then the develop and implement the vision is work that should already be taking place in the congregation. We will look at that work and the vision process beginning tomorrow.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISION TRAP

One of the more abused Scripture passages I have seen in recent years is the first half of Proverbs 29.18, which is often used to make a case that the church needs to have a vision. The passage reads “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”–in the KJV version. Unfortunately for those who use this as a proof text for their calls for vision, the intention behind this 500 year old translation of the original Hebrew is better expressed by many modern translations, such as the NIV, which reads “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint….”
The passage has important insights and can provide the basis for a great sermon but really has nothing to do with vision as we understand it today. The passage is looking at the need for people to have clear revelations from God to guide them in their lives. To use the passage as a proof text for the modern cultural need to have a clear vision driving the church is just poor exegesis, although the history of the church suggests that fear of doing a poor job of interpreting the Scripture hasn’t stopped a lot of preachers.
Many churches have been persuaded or pushed into thinking that vision is the driving force for the church–if we don’t have a vision, we are lost. Of course, to have a vision, there must be a visionary and the prevailing opinion is that the visionary needs to be the pastor. The pastor’s first task must be the vision: developing the vision, casting the vision and forcing the church to accept, follow and achieve the vision no matter what the cost.
For many small congregations, this call for vision-driven ministry has produced conflict, strife, demoralization and more. The basic problem is that small churches don’t always need an over-arching vision and when they do need one, there is a totally different process for developing that vision. Being pushed to adopt a vision that doesn’t develop in the proper way drops the congregation into the vision trap. Getting out of this trap is hard, painful and expensive and can result in the church splitting and/or dissolving. It can also lead to pastoral unemployment.
As I understand it, the purpose of a vision is to give the church a unifying direction and purpose. It seeks to bring all the people and all the ministry together to create a more effective and successful ministry. Another significant benefit of a good and successful vision is that it enhances the reputation of the visionary pastor, who gets to write books and lead seminars on his/her particular vision.
The small church already has a unifying direction and purpose. It is unified by its sense of community. Now, I know that that sense of community isn’t always healthy nor is it always particularly effective at enhancing the ministry of the congregation. But it is a unifying factor. The members do think about each other and their needs. They are concerned about those outside the church community–their family and friends who either don’t attend worship or who aren’t yet committed to the faith.
Out of this network of relationships comes ministry. I have pastored congregations that began nurseries for small children not because the nursery was part of some overall vision to reach the community but because Zeke and Zelda just had a baby and wouldn’t it be nice if the church had a nursery for them? The fact that the nursery also benefited others was a pleasant side-effect. The nursery developed because there was a need for it that was recognized by the community.
Small churches have functioned on this basis almost from the beginning of the church. When the early church found there were troubles with the program to care for widows, they developed the office of deacon–not as part of some great vision for administering the church but because some people needed something more. This story is told in Acts 6.1-7.
Ministry happens in small churches as the community responds to the needs it discovers among its members and in its wider community. Long before the North American church was calling for vision to get ministry going, the church was discovering and responding to the needs around it, not out of a great sense of vision but out of a desire to help the community in some way.
That is not to say that the small church doesn’t need vision–there are times when the small church needs a bigger sense of direction than responding to community needs can provide. We will look at when that need for vision becomes important and how to develop the necessary vision in future blogs.
May the peace of God be with you.