Hopeful Church

What Good Is a Vision without a Path?

You can’t tell a congregation where to go if you don’t tell then how to get there

by Graham Standish

In the King James Version of the Bible, there’s a lovely phrase that’s been quoted often by those teaching church leadership: “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” (Proverbs 29:18). Putting aside the possibility that the translation’s not quite right… okay, I can’t quite do that. I know that a more accurate translation is in the NRSV: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint…” whatever that means.

Okay, putting aside that “prophecy” and “vision” aren’t the same thing, the KJV does offer a better insight to healthy leadership, even if it’s off a bit. If a church is to grow, there needs to be a compelling vision. And it’s up to the pastor to provide that vision, whether we like that idea or not. The reality is that congregations look to pastors to provide it.

I believe in a need for vision. In my years leading a church I definitely had a clear vision. I knew where I wanted to take the church. Now, as the executive director of a counseling, spiritual direction, coaching and consulting organization, I know what my vision is. But I’m still stuck with a reality the KJV proverb doesn’t address: what good is a vision if there is no path?

In my work with pastors, I hear most proclaim a vision. Some visions are pretty good. Others are a bit idealistic and unrealistic. Still, if they haven’t given enough thought to the path their vision will never be anything more than a dream. It’s the failure of the path that ends up keeping their vision from becoming a reality.

As a kid I spent many summers at a camp in New Hampshire hiking most of the White Mountains. These wonderful mountains offer incredible vistas at the top. Our counselors often told us the reason to hike them was these incredible views, but that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was everything about the hike—the preparation, the mapping out of a plan, the hike, the breaks, the scrambling over rocks, the struggles along the way and the summit. The vision was to reach the top. The path was the way to the top. There’s no way to get to the top without a path that leads you there.

Many pastors are good at crafting a vision of where they want the church to go. They fail to get there when they fail to create a clear path. They tell the church where they want it to go—to be more missional, to reach the unchurched, to be a compassionate community, to stand up for the rights of the disadvantaged, to grow numerically, to be more spiritual, and on and on and on. But how do you get there? What are the steps? What happens when a bridge is out, when the way is foggy, when the hikers grumble and groan, when someone gets hurt, when everyone gets lost? How do we keep people going? What happens when the hikers are inexperienced, overweight and slow, or just plain reluctant? How do we get them to go to the top? We have to make the path clear, and when they have trouble following it, we have to make it easier, whether that means slowing the pace, taking more breaks, or camping out along the way till their ready to move.

Our leadership vision is like seeing the mountain in the distance and saying, “That’s where we’re going, and it’s incredible up there!” The path is the way there. The pastors who really achieve that vision are good at both vision and path. They know how to point to the distance and help people dream, but they are also good at saying, “And this is how we’ll get there, and when we face obstacles I’ll be there to help us find the way.” The really great leaders point out the way, and then focus on the concrete steps to get there.

I had a clear vision for where we were going in my first year at Calvin Presbyterian Church. I wanted the church to reach out to the spiritual but not religious by emphasizing prayer and discernment. So what was one of my first steps?

I had the church do an all-church clean-up where we got rid of 30 years of collected junk. What’s so spiritual about that? Shouldn’t I have started with teaching them centering prayer? No, because they weren’t ready for that. I had been to the summit of my vision, but I had to start them out at the beginning. They needed to first become a welcoming place for the people I hoped to attract. The first step was to clean the place so people wouldn’t be turned off by our mess. We filled a tractor-trailer dumpster to overflowing. And we did the exact same thing the next year.

I knew what the vision was, but I also knew what the steps were. I never got ahead of the process, and I didn’t sit around complaining that they were resisting. When they grumbled, I made things simpler and slowed things down.

Whenever I hear pastors complain, “They said they wanted to change, but they really didn’t,” I’m likely hearing a pastor with a vision who hasn’t thought through the path. They’re not resisting the vision. They’re resisting a path that requires more preparation. They need us to slow down, to be clearer, gentler, and to do a better job of showing the way.

It’s great to have vision, but without a path the mountain will always stay in the distance.

The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish is the executive director of Samaritan Counseling•Guidance•Consulting, where he works with primarily with clergy.  He served 22 years in  a continually growing congregation, and has written seven books on spirituality, congregational transformation and leadership.