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How Pastors Can Cast a Compelling Church Vision

In the hyperdigital technocracy in which we live, innovation – the birthing of new products of the imagination – is the currency and pedigree of success.
To be successful, one has to consistently stay in the competitive race for the top, germinate ideas that supposedly dazzle and demonstrate the ability to produce “cutting edge” products in order to satisfy consumers with very short appetites and attention spans.

Such is the age in which we live.

To be a “visionary” is the fashionable nom de guerre (assumed name) of the leader in the postmodern world, and being an “entrepreneur” usually accompanies and completes this new cachet.

The tide of this new, secular leadership paradigm is powerful, even irrepressible, and has also found its way into the realm of pastoral leadership.

But, alas, the title – self-proclaimed or otherwise – takes an interesting turn when strained through the filter of a sober theology of pastoral ministry.

The phraseology, “vision caster,” is fairly new, and its premise is intriguing.

I love fishing, and “casting” a line or a net is necessary to fish. I hold the tackle and the reel, which holds the line. I am the “source” of what is cast.

So, a “vision caster” is logically the “source” of the vision. But is vision cast, or is it first received? If it is first “received,” then one must admit that it comes from a source outside of one’s self.

What does it mean for a pastor to be reminded of Elihu’s words to Job, when he said the God of the Bible speaks “in a dream, in a vision of the night … (Job 33:15)”? Or of the revelation of the divine self to Isaiah in unspeakable glory “high and lifted up,” whose voice “shakes the foundations of the thresholds” (Isaiah 6)?

Is that vision ours? How do we know when it’s ours and when it’s not?

My own pastoral journey has taught me that ministry, to be biblical, must first be incarnational and, therefore, participatory – always connected to the pain and the longing of its particular location.

To be, in Paul’s words, “in Christ,” means to be in resistance against the oppressions that continue to threaten the human individual and community that Jesus sought to build.

One of the ways Jesus described his ministry was as a shepherd – “I am the Good Shepherd,” he said (John 10:10).

The shepherd model, which Jesus employed, is commonly dismissed as a sign of weakness in the patriarchal, utilitarian mythos of our culture. But it is the personification of risk-oriented agape in the Bible.

By its very nature, the primary ethic of a shepherd is one of risk-taking – for others. In point of fact, the larger biblical picture portrays God’s call of mighty leaders as a call not for themselves or their self-edification, but rather as call for others.

God called Abraham not to make him an extraordinary, self-contained individual, but to make him “a father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4-5).

And so, the work of the pastor grows out of the ministry of the people of God. As the people of God arise from the ministry of Christ himself, so the pastor arises from the people of God.

Like a shepherd who deeply understands his or her flock, a pastor cannot lead a people if that pastor does not invest time to understand the strengths of the members of the church; and a pastor cannot understand the gifts and strengths of each member if the pastor does not make himself or herself familiar with the story of each person.

This can only come from humble listening and from an abiding appreciation of the beautiful complexity of the human person.

We know that Jesus’ wisdom came from God, but he must have learned a great deal growing up in a carpenter’s house and, through that, was able to see life through human eyes from that vantage point.

The “visionary” pastor is the pastor who sees the world through the eyes of her or his people.

As pastors, it does not matter how convinced we are that our vision is the right one for our people. If it is a vision that we only came up with all by ourselves in the isolation of our own office, it will be just our own vision, which will remain compelling and impressive only to ourselves.

Let us not forget that on the day of Pentecost, the flame of the Holy Spirit rested not only on the head of the apostles, but also on all who were present.

In a day and time suffused by the allure of many truth claims and self-claims, how do we know that what we do is of God?

I asked a friend and colleague this fairly recently, and he answered me with astonishing simplicity: “Does it look like Jesus?”

Elmo D. Familiaran is the associate regional pastor and area minister for the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey. A longer version of this column first appeared on the ABC-NJ website.