67. The Challenges of “Visioning”: Church Board Chairs Beware.

One of the most frustrating aspects of chairing a church board revolves around the development of the congregational vision. Jesus gave his church a clear mission (Matthew 28:19-20), but the contextualization of that mission into a clear statement of vision is another matter. What is the great dream that God desires your congregation to have so that it will make a kingdom impact over the next decade in your community and other places in this world? Who leads this process? How do you arbitrate among competing visions? Once you decide on the vision, who discerns. develops, and implements the strategic ministries that will enable the vision to become a reality? How will you measure progress and track accountability for specific outcomes? Significant books and web-based resources are available that can help you pray, think, and plan your way through this as a board chair. Your lead pastor or denominational office would be able to help you discern which of these might be most beneficial.

Once your church leadership (which must include both board members and pastoral staff)  has defined a vision that the congregation will own and support, implementation becomes the challenge. Potential exists at this stag to void all of the hard ework done to define the vision. As church board chair you will be able to exercise considerable influence to help the board recognize and deal with these “vision-killers.” It is the board that has to ensure the vision’s goals have an effective, influential life.

Challenge # 1: Key goals get submerged under the weight of normal ministry operations.

Keeping key priorities at the centre a church board’s agenda, and thus a board’s attention, is a battle for any chair. Too many things keep coming in to detract the board’s energies. The chair has to help the board and the pastoral staff exercise careful discipline so that only those decisions which require board approval are in fact brought to the board. If this struggle is not waged in the shaping of the agenda for each meeting, soon the board’s focus will shift or default to the mundane, rather than the significant. A chair’s monthly meeting with the lead pastor becomes a key opportunity to work through what needs the church board’s attention and what does not. If as chair you find the board’s agenda being overwhelmed with decisions that could be made by the administration, then you need to take action.

Remedy:  An annual agenda and clear boundary policies.

When the board meets for its annual strategy session, when it reviews the vision and evaluates progress, the chair should be facilitating a process by which the board members discern the “big rocks” that will define the annual agenda. When these are clearly defined and embraced by the board, then the chair has the mandate to keep these at the top of the board’s agendas throughout the year.

Additionally, as chair you might review the policies that state what decisions the board must make and which it is prepared to delegate and under what conditions. If nothing of this nature exists, then the board agendas will continuously be filled with every kind of issue because the board has not defined who else can make decisions. Let’s be clear — while the church board cannot delegate its responsibility to govern, it can delegate many things so long as there is clear monitoring and accountability.

Challenge # 2: Key leaders get impatient and want to start a new visioning process before the current one is implemented effectively.

Implementing a vision requires discipline over a sustained period of time. The period between conceiving ideas, designing strategies, implementing strategies and evaluating their effectiveness can extend over several years, particularly when it involves ministry. As well, a new, defined vision, usually will require some staff to change their way of working substantially and others at least partially. Adjusting personal patterns always requires time, patience, perseverance, and accountability. Sometimes it will involve some new training or re-training to develop new skills and eliminate habits of work or leadership that are not beneficial. Vision deals with change and we know how resistant human beings are to change, especially when it is personal.

There is another dimension to this. Sometimes leaders responsible to nurture a new vision discover that they are unable for any number of reasons to move it forward. One strategy they might adopt is to become negative towards the current vision, claiming it was flawed, or that circumstances have changed, and so a new vision is required. If this becomes a pattern then it jeopardizes the entire vision process because board members and key congregational leaders will become cynical about the benefit of “vision.” It is better to take the time initially to ensure that the vision is in fact capturing the heartbeat of the congregation.

Remedy:  Requiring ministry plans by staff that advance the vision in specific ways.

Once a vision is adopted and key plans are discerned to support its implementation, then each staff person will have to develop new ministry plans that will enable the vision to go forward. These plans should have specific timelines, identify necessary resources required, and define measurable outcomes so that the supervisor will know whether the staff person is on track with implementation. If the strategic plan does not affect staff in this way, then it is quite likely that the vision will remain a nice statement but have no real impact upon the life and ministry of the congregation.

As chair you should keep in close touch with the board’s personnel committee to evaluate whether these changes are occurring. As well, your conversations with the lead pastor should always include some discussion about the implementation of the vision, evaluating what is going well and where some sticking points may be arising. This will enable you to discern where and in what ways the board may need to provide some encouragement.

Challenge # 3: Failure to update the vision and strategy in the light of new information and realities.

It does not take too long for a good vision statement to grow stale, unless it is being reviewed and updated with some degree of regularity (probably some kind of annual review). After expending so much time and energy to develop or revise a vision statement, a church board will be eager to get on to some issues that they have put on the shelf. The “vision thing” is done and so we can move on, may be the attitude of some. The danger is that “moving on” also means in their minds, “forgetting about it” because their experience suggests to them that  such processes rarely make much difference. As chair you have the influence to prevent this from happening.

Remedy:  Annual review of the vision and strategic plan. Education of the church board regarding trends.

One simple action that can meet this challenge is to put a review of the vision and evaluation of the implementation of strategic initiatives to achieve the vision on the schedule of the board’s annual retreat. Use this as the key process to assist the board discern “where” the congregation is in its health and development. Secondly, to stimulate the board in its review, either assign some reading or invite an external speaker, either of which would educate the board with respect to new trends, new ministry ideas, key developments in the surrounding community, and then invite the board to reflect on whether the vision needs to be revised in the light of this new information.

Challenge # 4: Failure to identify clear indicators of success.

An old leadership adage says if you cannot define your target, then you will never know when or if you have hit it. This applies to vision and its implementation within the church context. Probably the church board, in consultation with ministry staff, is the leadership cluster in the church best suited to identifying measurements that demonstrate the degree to which the vision is being realized. Some of these indicators will be quantitative (often the easiest to identify, e.g. number of conversions, e tc.), but some must be qualitative, i.e. are followers of Jesus in our congregation better equipped to study their Bibles or more motivated to pray? Without defining these key outcomes and their measurements, the vision remains words on paper and arguments about its realization remain very subjective.

Remedy:   Ensure that the board and lead pastor move beyond the statement of vision to a developed plan for accomplishing the vision.

Once the vision is defined, then plans must be created, designed and implemented. However, each part of this strategic design must contribute in some way to the achievement of the outcomes previously identified. If a ministry leader cannot demonstrate clearly how his or her ministry project will advance the vision, with specific, measurable outcomes determined, then it should not be supported. These outcomes will be critical when it comes to evaluate that leader’s performance at the annual review. If the board or lead pastor does not know how a staff person’s work results in achieving the vision, how will the lead pastor be able to affirm that employee for doing his or her job well? How will the lead pastor know how to advise that employee in terms of developing professional abilities to meet new outcomes? These things are connected to job satisfaction, vocational growth and the exercise of good stewardship.

Challenge # 5: Hold leadership accountable to the vision and the ministry strategies linked with it.

I think this is the biggest challenge. A church board has to insist, lovingly but firmly, that it will require an annual performance review for the lead pastor and through him, all other ministry staff. The church board has to give oversight to this. If the board has not built this expectation into the position description or employment manual, then do this as soon as possible.

Remedy: Build annual performance evaluation around accomplishment of strategic goals that advance the vision and require accountability for progress.

Without an annual review of the lead pastor and all staff, the board has no means to assess progress, to affirm the lead pastor in his work, and to work with him in his vocational development. The review  of the lead pastor should be delegated to the board’s personnel committee, or if the board does not have such a committee, to two of its members. A clear process should also be put in place so that the lead pastor knows how this operates and does not feel that he is vulnerable to one or two opinionated people or those who may be adversely critical of his ministry. The goal is to help the lead pastor be as effective in his ministry as possible. The lead pastor, in turn, should be the one who oversees the evaluations of all other ministry staff. Some report should be made to the church board at the completion of the process.

In the case of each of these challenges, the board chair, knowing what a church board needs to attend to, will be active in prompting the board members and even in some cases educating the board members as to their responsibilities in overseeing the implementation and achieving of the congregation’s vision. Every missional agency needs someone or some group to keep the vision’s momentum moving and a church board can fill that function to the benefit of the entire congregation and the glory of God. This will be worshipful work.

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