From Fuzzy to Focused: How to Bring Clarity to Mission and Vision

For Baptists Today
05/01/11

From Fuzzy to Focused: How to Bring Clarity to Mission and Vision

By Chris Gambill with Beth Kennett

During a transition, it is essential for a faith community to clarify its mission and vision. Why? Because when individuals enter or leave a community, the group’s sense of identity is affected and it has to be reformed. This is especially true during a pastoral transition. Clergy typically play a key role in forming a congregation’s self-understanding. When they leave, the congregation has to wrestle with who it is and will be apart from their former pastor. Moreover, clarifying mission and vision during a pastoral transition is a matter of practical necessity. Potential pastoral candidates want to know who a congregation is and in what direction it is moving.

Why clarity matters

Clarifying a congregation’s self-understanding has other benefits as well. A national survey of congregations by Faith Communities Today (2008) showed a strong correlation between congregational spiritual vitality and its sense of self. It also showed a significant positive relationship between sense of self and other measures of congregational vitality like financial health, worship attendance growth and lack of conflict. A congregation gains a clearer sense of self when it clarifies its mission and vision.

Furthermore, confusion or ambiguity about identity can have negative consequences. In a 2004 Christianity Today survey, 64 percent of pastors cited vision/direction as a source of conflict. A congregation that does not have widespread agreement and understanding of its vision is more prone to internal conflict.

A congregation’s mission – its reason for being – is usually easier to articulate than its vision – or picture of its future. Both are important, but vision has a particularly large impact on congregational life. A clear and compelling vision is attractive and energizing both for members and potential members. It also provides a touchstone for decision-making. With a clear sense of mission and vision, leaders have a tool to use in discerning whether to say “Yes” or “No” to mission and ministry opportunities that present themselves to the congregation.

How we get there matters—a lot

Some congregations want their pastor to articulate a vision for the congregation. Articulating mission and vision should never be left to a pastor alone. Pastors are temporary, and particularly when new, do not fully understand a congregation’s giftedness, assets, and passions. Similarly, mission and vision discernment should not be left to a small group of congregational leaders to decide. While this method may be efficient in terms of time and energy, it is highly ineffective in creating ownership and energy for mission and ministry within the larger congregation.

Clarifying mission and vision is best understood as the work of the congregation. God equips and calls a congregation for mission and ministry, and the congregation needs to work collaboratively in this vital work of discernment. At the Center for Congregational Health, we believe that the wisest decisions are made by the congregation. Any process seeking to bring clarity to mission and vision should engage as many members of the congregation as possible.

Before a congregation can articulate its mission, it must understand who it is. Many congregations have dated ideas about themselves that must be traded for a current, more accurate view of the congregation. A breakdown by gender, age, and life stage is important, because it changes over time.

A congregation can then take positive, appreciative approaches to identifying its strengths and assets by asking questions such as, “What are the human resources that we have? What are our physical resources? What do we value most as a congregation?”

To understand who a congregation is and what it aspires to become, it is important to name its values. One way to approach this is for individuals to reflect upon those times and places when the congregation has been at its best, and then identify the values exhibited in those circumstances. Exploring a congregation’s history and traditions is also a helpful way to gain important insights about its core values.

Once a congregation has identified its resources and values, it is easier to say, “This is our mission – this is who we are.” The next step is to clarify vision – to answer the question, “What is God calling us to do and be?” Clarifying a congregation’s vision – how it wants to impact the world – is both challenging and energizing.

Every congregation needs an empowering and compelling vision to guide its mission and ministry. Creating a compelling vision requires careful listening to the Spirit along with creativity and courage. Otherwise, a congregation risks just repeating what has been successful in times past—but probably won’t be in the future. Instead of simply asking, “What shall we do?” we suggest that congregations use a visioning exercise. For example, small groups can be utilized to create the front page of a newspaper with headlines describing the church’s accomplishments five years in the future.

Though it is challenging work, clarifying mission and vision is vital if a congregation wants to remain faithful, healthy, and thriving. God’s call is dynamic—so should be our response.

– Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

– Beth Kennett is spiritual formation coordinator for the Center for Congregational Health.

 Please site Chris Gambill, Beth Kennett, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

A few questions for thought:

1. What do you think are the key components of “identity” for a congregation?

2. How important is it for a congregation to identify and communicate it’s uniqueness?

3. There are potential liabilities associated with articulating identity. Do the benefits outweigh the liabilities?

4. After clarifying identity, what are other key tasks for a congregation seeking to communicate it’s message to it’s community?

Comment here or respond on our Facebook page.

Resources for Clarity

The Center is available to help with your time of clarity and vision as a congregation. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at www.healthychurch.org. If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

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