History clearly demonstrates that God plants a vision for some effort or work God intends to accomplish. Sometimes a clergy leader is out front, casting the vision and inviting others to follow. On other occasions, it is a non-clergy visionary at work in a local congregation, with the pastoral leadership unable to see the future possibilities. Either way, God is at work among God’s people, but pastoral or lay leaders may be clueless about what the Spirit is doing in a faith community. Sometimes you need to let your Congregation catch up with the vision.
Write the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that the herald (whoever reads it) may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it lingers, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. – Habakkuk 2:2-3
One possible rule of thumb for leadership in times of vision casting involves giving time and space to allow a variety of persons and groups in a church system to catch up with God’s dream for them. For the pastoral or lay leader casting the vision, it is one of the most difficult acts of love shown to congregational members. The tendency is to push forward for what you see so clearly. The vision may require, however, a soft touch for a season of time, taking the foot off the accelerator and letting things coast for a while. Nothing good ever comes from manipulating, forcing, or dictating a decision before its time has arrived.
Such was the case in my church’s purchase of a 112-apartment, 10-acre complex in 2007 while I served as senior pastor for 38 years at Oakmont Baptist Church in Greenville, North Carolina. Oakmont Square Apartments surround our campus on two sides. The property houses 14 buildings with eight, 1000-square foot apartments per building, along with a 15th building providing an on-site manager’s office, community room, laundry facilities, and a swimming pool and playground area. The apartments were built in the early 1970s.
Church leaders and I made initial contacts with the family owning the apartment complex in early 2002 to acquire the property for possible future expansion, as well as for missional purposes in our community. The entire church and especially our Diaconate more seriously debated the merits of the property acquisition in spring of 2005. After several meetings in the fall of that year, our Diaconate took a “secret ballot straw vote” regarding recommending the purchase of the property to the church. While a majority favored the purchase, it was clear there was a divided house in the body. If there were conflicting feelings from a Deacon’s perspective, odds were that similar feelings would surface in a larger church conversation.
This difference of opinion in the Deacon body did not carry any mean-spirited, angry, or controlling tones. We had been praying as a church and dialoguing on this issue for over a year. These Deacons were sincere men and women working to make wise decisions in a healthy and responsible fashion. Part of their dilemma was that our church had just completed a new 1,000-capacity sanctuary in 2003 that, along with renovations to the old sanctuary that transformed it into a multipurpose room, carried a price tag of almost $6 million. The church, thankfully at that time, only owed $2.9 million on the new sanctuary and renovations. Taking on another $2 million in debt for the apartment purchase, even though it could be serviced through the rental income of the apartments, seemed overwhelming to many people.
I realized it would not be healthy or wise to bring anything other than a unanimous, Diaconate recommendation to the church to purchase the apartments. I suggested to the Diaconate that evening after the split, a straw vote that perhaps either our or God’s timing was not on target for the property’s purchase. After more discussion, the Diaconate declined to make an official recommendation to the church to purchase the apartment complex.
The family owning the apartments promised the church the first right of refusal on the property following our decision not to move forward with the purchase. But an email arrived shortly before the Christmas holidays in 2006, in which the family indicated that a buyer had made an offer on not just Oakmont Square Apartments, but also a second property they owned in Greenville. The church has the first right of refusal, but this time the church would have to purchase two sets of apartments in Greenville to get the one it wants.
I shared the owners’ email with our Deacons in their January 2007 meeting. You could have blown me over with a feather. I was stunned as I listened to those men and women on our Diaconate share how God had been working in their lives in the ensuing months since they declined in 2005 to make a recommendation to the church to purchase the apartments. Some individuals stated that they believed God was giving us a second chance. Other persons observed what they regarded as a significant deepening of our congregation’s spiritual maturity over the last year. The debt service on the sanctuary was declining at a rapid pace, so the financial health was strong, said another person. One individual mentioned that God was using the sermon series in which I was preaching on the characteristics of a missional church to speak to him about this issue. My jaw continued to bounce off the floor as I listened to deacons who, vehemently opposed to our purchasing the apartment complex 16 months earlier, now were affirming that God was working, and we needed to respond positively to this vision of missional engagement in our community.
After numerous Diaconate and congregational discussion and prayer meetings in the spring of 2007, Oakmont officially voted to purchase both properties on August 1, 2007. On that same day, the church sold the second apartment complex to another buyer.
It was not until early 2011 that congregational leaders clarified the future vision for the apartments through a series of congregational coaching meetings. The church developed a vision of utilizing the apartments as a hub of ministry in our community, focusing on affordable housing and support to at-risk families and the working poor, senior adults, and college students, ministering to their spiritual, medical, educational, and vocational needs. By the end of 2011, the church would call a minister of the newly named Oakmont Community Center and partner with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) to initiate a collegiate ministry on the East Carolina University campus.
In the years that followed, Oakmont would offer a twice-monthly medical clinic staffed by Oakmont and community medical providers, nurses, and other volunteers, an Oakmont Christian Job Corp ministry directed toward empowering women educationally, vocationally, and spiritually, an expanded Tuesday evening ministry for homeless persons in our community, a clothing closet, a Celebrate Recovery program, a ramp building ministry, and an after-school literacy and tutoring for elementary, middle school, and high school students.
What are the seven lessons we learned as a congregation from this experience? What’s the payoff for letting a congregation catch up with God’s vision for its future?
1. We experience God’s impeccable timing.
God’s larger vision sometimes takes longer to materialize than our patience dictates or permits. Sometimes it is wise to hit the brakes and let the dust settle for a time. It may well be that God has other things in mind beyond what we can see at the moment. God has a knack of working things out in a way that yields God’s best for our lives and the life of our churches when we wait patiently for his timing to occur.
2. We allow others the time and space to see what God has shown us.
Wise pastoral and lay leaders will always recognize those moments when other congregational members, who have not been living with the dream for as long as they have, need some time and space to catch up to the vision. They take their foot off the gas pedal and gently apply the brakes. They are even willing to put the vehicle in reverse and travel backward if needed for a season of time.
3. We experience a new depth of spiritual formation based on prayer and discernment.
You can pull a rope, but have you ever attempted to push one? Most positive forward movements are swept up in the pull, and not the push, of God’s Spirit. If the spiritual formation foundation of prayer, meditation, reflection, discernment, worship, silence and solitude, and biblical study has been laid in the congregational system, then the Spirit can reveal what Ephesians 3:20 affirms: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” Willing and open hearts can see the wisdom of a course of action and respond accordingly with faith and implementation.
4. We avoid unnecessary congregational discord and conflict.
The seedbed of many church conflicts is planted and nurtured when pastoral and lay leaders fail to let a vision catch up with where the people are. We fail to create a congregational environment built on love, accountability, trust, and goodwill. Any effort to call for a final decision on an initiative before the time is right only leads to conflict, failure, and distrust.
5. We create the climate for change and transition based on a present and future story that impacts lives.
Most changes and transitions do not occur due to fear, facts, or force. Fear and anxiety, offering sufficient facts or information, or forcing some new initiative on a community of faith do not positively shift individual perspectives. Nothing good comes from pushing, ramrodding, cajoling, or dictating a decision before its time has come. Sharing stories about how lives have been shifted, touched, healed, and changed both in the present, as well as an expectancy for the future, is the real soil of change and transition that shifts human hearts.
6. We create the optimal conditions for congregational buy-in and vision ownership.
Slowing down the process allows God to work in each of our hearts, preparing us in an even fuller and deeper way to take on the opportunities for the missional impact God places before us. Occasionally congregational leaders must slow down and even pause for a season of time, allowing a larger number of people to catch up with the vision. Ultimately, slowing down often allows the pace to quicken eventually as once-doubting congregational members buy-in with an even fuller and deeper conviction to own the vision God sets before us.
7. We create the conditions where future installments of God’s vision can occur.
Sometimes slowing down and allowing the vision to be seen by a greater number of people creates an environment where future installments of that same vision can be heard, seen, and embraced by a congregation. Who would have guessed that six years later, after the apartment acquisition, our congregation would have purchased a former United Methodist Church property that is now being used as a permanent location for a free medical clinic, as well as the home of the church’s youth ministry and the location of a new church start?
What endeavor currently needs the brakes applied in your ministry setting? What persons or groups need more time and space for storytelling, prayer, or processing? How might that slow-down allow your congregation to catch up to the vision God has given to you and your church?
Some of the challenges and opportunities The Center Healthy Churches can help with include:
A renewed sense of mission and purpose
Clarity and discernment regarding future opportunities
Church staff alignment, structure, and teamwork
Leadership team clarity: Deacons, Elders, Session, etc.
Designing healthy congregational structures and processes
Healthy communication strategies
Effective discipleship and spiritual formation strategies
A wide variety of congregational transitions