Vision and Christian Leadership


Dennis McCallum

What is Vision?

Vision has always been considered an important component in leadership, both in Christian and secular circles. The term usually refers to the ability leaders have to form a plan for the future and to get others excited about their plan. Often, leaders have less a plan, but more of a simple picture of a possible future, and let people sort out the action steps toward that more general picture.

In the Bible, the word vision is more often used as an encounter with God where he imparts special revelation, often intuitively, in dreams, or "in dark sayings." (Num. 12:6) Sometimes visions can be theophanies, where God speaks directly to the visionary (Numbers 12:8). We don't necessarily see a direct connection between visions and leadership explicitly taught in Scripture, but we do see a general correlation—most of the main leaders in biblical times were recipients of visions. Others received visions too, but were not leaders (like Isaiah and Jeremiah). But notice that Paul's qualifications for elders and deacons say nothing about needing to have visions.

Recently, Christian literature has been referring more than ever to vision as the key to effective leadership. However, these books appear to be drawing as much from the new fascination with vision found in secular business literature as from the Bible. I think Christians should read this literature, but must also carefully ask themselves how much of the material comes from the Bible, from common sense, from pragmatics, or from New Age concepts of imaging or visionizing. This last stream is based on the belief that because of the mind's latent power, merely picturing a result may cause it to become real.

If we combine the biblical notion of a vision with the common sense idea of leaders selling people on their directions, we can imagine a hybrid notion of leadership vision. That is, leadership vision is a picture of a better future for a group or individual, informed by the principles of Scripture, and possibly supplemented by direct communication from God. In other words, we can always know in general what God wants for the church because the Bible tells us God's will. On the other hand, God will often supply a special spin on that direction based on local conditions and personalities. Leaders seek out these supplemental insights during times of prayer and reflection.

While I would argue that vision is a useful tool for leaders, I do not see any warrant in Scripture for saying leaders have to be visionaries. We see that key leaders like Moses, Abraham, Paul, David, and Peter all received visions. However, as noted above, when Paul discusses the requirements for leaders, he includes no mention of visions, and focuses on character instead. Probably high-level leaders or pioneering leaders are usually visionaries, but others can lead as well. Non-visionary leaders often work together with visionary leaders. They lead by their example and by persuasion, usually in accord with someone else's vision, and this makes team leadership feasible. Interestingly, the emphasis on vision as the key to leadership in today's leadership literature often leads those same authors to reject the concept of team leadership in favor of the single leader. I think the ability to sell a vision (here in the simple sense of a picture of a possible future) is part of all leading, whether the vision is my own or another's.

How do Leaders Get Vision?

In my experience, leaders do not have direct control over whether they have vision. Notice that the Bible gives no guidance on how to receive a vision. Instead, visions from God appear to be gifts given at his discretion. A sense of vision for the future seems to come to leaders most often in the context of their Bible study, their prayer, and their reflection about a group or individual. It seems that God stimulates the leader's imagination at certain times to see a desirable future. This often happens during times of prayer, but also could happen, for instance, while listening to another person teach. Sometimes such pictures may come unexpectedly at strange times, and even during sleep.

Leaders should definitely ask God to give them a vision for any individual with whom they work, not to mention for their group. It may be that we already know where our group should head, but lack excitement about that goal. We could call this a lack of vision. Therefore, we are often seeking not just information, but a sense of urgency and passion about goals we already know are right. And this sense of excitement often results from imagining the future as it might develop if people follow God's will, or if they fail to do so. This suggests leaders need both a positive and a negative vision of the future.

To deliver this inner sense of excitement God can use a number of stimuli besides the Bible and prayer. As a leader, you may want to expose yourself to some of these, but always with a critical perspective.

Visiting other churches or ministries. These often have ideas that are new and may become part of your vision. At other times, being in the presence of another model of ministry will stimulate us to a sense of vision that has nothing to do with the way that group does things. In other words, the mere presence of different approaches seems to stimulate a creative part of our own mind, even though our conclusions may be antithetical to the conclusions reached by the group we are visiting. Indeed, seeing another group may serve to remind us why we do things the other way. Always beware of imitating other ministries. Take the time to discover whether their approach is compatible with your own, and remember that groups tend to recount their own ministries in ways that are idealized and stripped of ugliness.

Church History. Like other contemporary churches, church history is never authoritative. We may take parts and pieces from different movements in church history while deploring other parts. Many of the best ideas have been around at other times in history, and seeing how God has used such ideas can stir us with excitement and a thirst to try our own hand. Watch for author bias, left out material, and problems that accompanied various movements. Correlate independent sources in order to check on the accuracy of any account. Don't forget to include the New Testament church in your study, and try to assess other movements in light of the example God gave us in the Bible.

Christian or secular biographies. The stories of great men and women are known to fire our imagination and desire to emulate them or avoid their errors. These biographies (especially the ones about missionaries and Christian leaders) are often inaccurate and idealized. It is impossible, for instance, to know how much lust, anxiety, egotism, or bitterness was in the heart of a great missionary, so these parts are left out to one extent or another. Some biographies make it seem like these Christians never did anything but pray and witness. Nevertheless, these books are fun to read and stimulating. Be careful not to go too far in comparing yourself with the idealized biographical characters, becoming defeated as a result.

Hanging around other visionaries. Known visionaries are an important resource to the church. We may not agree with them or want to go the same direction, but we may still find that just listening to them jogs our own mind and spirit in a positive way. Whether these are leaders of other churches, or other home churches, look for opportunities to hang around with a known visionary once in awhile. Again, be sure you aren't just aping a ministry approach that is not compatible with the foundation you have already laid with personnel in your group, or with conditions in your own field of ministry.

Doing a strength and weakness assessment or a force-field analysis of your own group. Doing the hard work of assessing our present state is often the occasion for God to stimulate a new vision for the future. We often suffer from a sense of confusion about where we are at the moment, and I find that such confusion effectively stifles new vision. Only when we are confident that we have a relatively good grip on the present, will we trust our impressions about the future. Strive for realism in this assessment, leaning against any personal tendencies you may have to be overly optimistic or negative. I like doing this in a small group of trusted colleagues.

For group vision, spend time with lost people in your field of ministry. As we hang around lost people, we are better able to empathize and imagine what they would find appealing or at least palatable. Some of our best ideas for fishing come while we are standing in the stream. Christian leaders who rarely hang out with non-Christians and in sinful situations often come up with corny visions that turn off the lost. While at a bar or rock concert, pray to God, "How can we reach these people?"

Go over a journal or other historical materials (including pictures) of your own ministry. I find that reviewing earlier periods in my ministry often causes me to "recapture" some aspect of vision that has slipped away. Pictures of former associates and groups can take you back to a spirit and tone you may have forgotten. Jesus calls on the Ephesians to "remember the former things and repent and do the deeds you did at first." (Revelation 2:5) Some authors warn against trying to relive the past, and we can see why that is never possible. But we can reacquire ethos and pathos from the past if we adapt our methods to present conditions.

After you begin to feel a sense of vision, the next step is to verify it. Spend time praying about it and reading supporting materials, including anything the Bible has to say on the subject. As you reflect over a period of time, God will tend to weaken or strengthen your conviction. Beware of thinking that others can tell you whether your vision is of God. By being a visionary, you are moving out ahead of others. They may resist change or risk, preferring the status quo. Of course a theological or ethical critique from others is perfectly valid to the extent it is based on solid biblical grounds.

How Does a Leader Propagate Vision?

I believe a "shock-wave" method is best when propagating vision. By shock wave, I mean that the leader begins by sharing her vision with her inner circle, usually by one-on-one communication. Only when your closest colleagues are convinced do you move to the next ring out—the committed believers in your ministry. Finally, more public appeals will be effective, now backed by a strong consensus among the opinion leaders in the group. Bruce Powers' Christian Leadership has excellent insight into this process.

This communication should include not only what you see, but why it is a logical outgrowth of biblical teaching, or at least compatible with biblical teaching. Another important component is why you think the vision applies to your own group, or the life of the individual with whom you are sharing. To argue that the vision applies to your group, you have to show how it relates to past realities in the group, and why it should be attainable. For instance, "We see x, y, and z in the New Testament church, and we realize we have the same Holy Spirit they did, etc." and at the same time, "We have seen something similar to this in our own ministry before and we are already seeing some parts of this successfully carried out." We need to show that we have always held values that accord with the vision.

Convincing our people that our vision is attainable may be the hardest part of the leadership process. As you share theology (the power of God) and experience (things you and they have seen before) you must point out why your vision is not too far-fetched. As you plead your case that, "We've already seen this, so there's no reason we wouldn't see that," your listeners should be saying to themselves, "He's got a point!"

Good visionary leading stretches people's credulity just the right amount. They should feel challenged by the immensity of your vision, without feeling hopeless about attaining it. We look for a point where two lines converge: the line between the banal and the amazing (or from commonplace to exceptional) and the line between people's confidence and skepticism.

Where these two imaginary lines intersect is the "buy-in" zone, where people mentally and emotionally buy into the vision. They must feel that your vision is both bold enough to be worthwhile—even inspiring, and yet probably, or at least possibly doable within the current situation. Some who doubt will hang around to see if it happens. Others must embrace the vision as fully doable and pitch in to accomplish it.

You will need to spend time customizing your vision to the different individuals with whom you lead. How will the new situation affect them? What would be the advantages? Why are they well-suited to the kind of role you are describing? Be ready to respond to possible dangers others may suggest. Why are the risks reasonable and manageable?

Also, good leaders spend time thinking about how to "frame" their vision. They are able to picture the fulfillment in terms that are appealing to others, and usually also juxtapose their positive vision with a negative vision, or antithesis, that will apply if they fail to attain the vision. This negative future would be odious to their people. Illustrations, metaphors, and powerfully emotionally evocative pictures help to create emotional arousal in connection with your vision. (See how Jesus gave antithetical metaphorical pictures of the future in his pictures of the houses built on sand or on the rock in Matthew 7:24-27, and many other examples).

Of course, all the rhetoric in the world won't make an unreliable person seem trustworthy. Christian leaders are able to persuade and excite others about their vision roughly in proportion to how much people perceive them as trustworthy. Trustworthiness in Christian leaders is related to their honesty, their consistency, their willingness to sacrifice self, and their humility. Christian leaders caught in the act of self-aggrandizement deserve to lose trust, while those who work hard at empowering others deserve confidence, according to Jesus (Mark 10:42-45).