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.


Marks of a Healthy Faith Community

For Baptists Today
11/30/09

Marks of a Healthy Faith Community

By Chris Gambill

What is a healthy faith community? That seems to be one of the great mysteries of the faith. There are many approaches to describing church health and definitions vary widely. As a consultant to hundreds of churches over the past 17 years, I have yet to find the one all-encompassing definition. I can say with assurance that, while no one definition of health fits all, there are some basic characteristics, or marks, of a healthy faith community.

In the Center for Congregational Health’s® extensive 17 year experience in working with faith communities, we have discovered that healthy congregations don’t all look or act the same. We have observed healthy faith communities in a variety of sizes and ministry contexts, with vastly different resources, and with varying outlooks for significant growth and development.

Congregational health is often viewed in light of theological principles derived from scripture. These include transforming spirituality, prayer, discipleship, compassion, evangelism, stewardship and generosity. It is important to point out that, while a sound theological foundation is vital to any faith community, it is simply not enough to keep it healthy. The Center for Congregational Health’s® approach to opening doors to hope and wholeness for faith communities, lay leaders and clergy enables faith communities to maintain their own theological perspectives. Our goal is to help them develop and maintain the framework within which these ideals and aspirations can flourish.

To understand and identify the marks of a healthy community of faith, I suggest turning to scripture. Examples from the earliest Christian communities provide helpful glimpses into the lives of God’s people striving to live together well.

The Biblical marks of a healthy faith community

Constructive conflict resolution

A healthy faith community is not one that never has conflict; it is one that resolves conflict constructively. When faced with internal conflict over the distribution of food in Acts 6, the apostles allowed the congregation to own the problem and participate in solving it. They avoided polarization (Grecian Jews versus Hebraic Jews) and sought what was best for the congregation. They were able to remain in a constructive, problem-solving mode and find a collaborative solution.

Adaptation to change

A healthy faith community has the capacity to adapt. Beginning in Acts 10, the scriptures portray an early church facing a potentially crippling crisis over identity and diversity. Christ followers were no longer limited to Jews. With this change, questions arose over who could rightfully be a member of the faith community and under what circumstances. Faced with this challenge to its most fundamental sense of identity, the early church adapted, emerging stronger, more inclusive and ready to take on the task of evangelizing the world.

Authentic community

A third mark of a healthy faith community is, well, community. One of the many casualties of life in the twenty-first century is the loss of what Robert Putnam calls our social capital.[i] He has documented numerous ways in which our relational connections have broken. This is in stark contrast to the church where “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46, NRSV). Many faith communities attempt to make difficult decisions, resolve conflict, overcome a financial crisis, grow and develop their ministry, and plan their future with minimal social capital within the congregation. The result is a decision-making that erupts into conflict and processes that produce not progress but frustration.

Ministry that reaches out as well as in

A healthy faith community ministers to those outside as well as inside the church. The Acts 2 believers shared among themselves as needs arose. They sold their possessions and “had everything in common.” Their strong ministry to believers was balanced by Peter’s and John’s healing and preaching outside the community of believers, as when they healed the beggar at the temple gate in chapter 3. They were also bold in proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers. It is easy for churches to be caught in the trap of spending the vast majority of their resources, time and energy on those within the faith community, while neglecting their mission and service to those outside the walls of the church.

Good communication

A healthy faith community encourages honest and civil discourse. Communication is between people, not about them. In Acts 10 -11, when facing a critical juncture in the development of Christianity, the earliest Christians had to wrestle with whether Gentiles could be full members of the Christian community. To their credit, they were able to have what was, no doubt, a challenging conversation. It ended with Peter describing his experiences and the assembled apostles and believers declaring, “then God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). The scriptures are full of many examples of God’s people having honest, but difficult, conversations about important issues. On their best days, the honest discourse led to a realization of God’s will and purposes and a desire to fulfill them together.

A balance between clergy authority and lay leadership

A healthy faith community supports participatory leadership. Clergy and lay leaders see themselves as ministry partners and work together to build fundamental capacities within the congregation. Clergy support, encourage, mentor and coach developing leaders. In Acts 6, seven church members were elected to share leadership responsibility. Their empowerment helped the church to grow. In I Corinthians 12, Paul emphasizes the importance of every gift within the church.

Clarity of identity and mission

A healthy faith community is bound together by a shared identity and mission. Faith communities are riddled with differences of opinion and belief about everything from politics to theology. They need something to bind them together that is bigger and more compelling than those things that could tear them apart. Getting clear about identity—understanding the congregation’s values, its shared history and culture, and its unique strengths and challenges—is one kind of binding agent. Another is identifying what inspires the congregation and pulls them forward into mission and ministry.

The early church in Acts again provides an example of a faith community with an overarching sense of identity and mission. In Acts 4:32, the writer says of this community, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Their sense of connectedness was so deep that “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34). Though Acts clearly shows there were significant differences among the early believers, they were able to overcome these and seek the greater good of the community and their calling in Christ.

It must be said of healthy communities of faith that there are no perfect ones. A case in point can again be found in the Book of Acts. For many Christians, the most compelling picture of a healthy church is the early church described in Acts 2. However, later portrayals of this same church in Acts 5 and 6 reveal major shortcomings. Even within healthy communities of faith, it takes balanced effort and resourceful leadership to live together well in a fallen world. The striving for well-being is continuous, but absolutely worth the effort.


[i] Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
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.

#####

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