I was really excited by my first church awayday to discuss the church’s mission. After years of being part of churches that seemed to be drifting aimlessly, I thought this would be a way for the church to sharpen its vision and gain some direction.
The day itself (now over 20 years ago) went well. We talked about how we saw the church, what we felt it ought to be doing and put together ideas for an underlying vision for the future. We even had suggestions about what might change.
But in reality nothing changed. It was as if the day was complete in itself. I can’t remember ever revisiting the things we talked about, not after the first few months anyway.
I’ve been part of several awaydays/working groups/vision meetings since then and the same problem is always there. The discussion is great… but things don’t change. The energy dissipates into the sand.
I remember one occasion in particular where we seemed to go about this backwards. We had several meetings and ended by writing a vision statement together. We decided to revisit it at every PCC meeting, one strand at a time. In practice this meant that we picked a strand and then considered how what we were doing already fitted into it.
“We want to be a church that serves our community,” said the vicar at one PCC meeting, reading from our vision statement.
There was a pause while we all thought about this.
“What about our monthly Coffee and Chat sessions?” suggested someone.
“Yes, absolutely,” we all agreed.
We ticked the box and moved on to discussing the new cupboard for the hymnbooks.
How do you turn vision into a practical reality?
For a long time I saw this as an impossibility.
It wasn’t just the church, but all sorts of companies and organisations were having awaydays and writing vision statements that seemed to have no connection with what was actually happening. “Vision” and “Mission” became buzzwords, soon to be followed by the slogans and strap lines: “Walking together” “Being the best” “Waiting and seeing”.
It seemed a long way from my own “one step at a time across the marshes” way of doing things.
But now I’m beginning to wonder.
Perhaps if we are wholehearted about our vision God will give us opportunities to turn it into reality.
This might seem obvious but in practice it isn’t easy to recognise the opportunities. They may be unexpected, for God does not think in the same ways that we do.
The classic opportunity missing is the church that decides to have a ministry of welcome (and may even mention this in the intercessions) but then totally ignores the visitor at coffee time. (I have been that visitor!)
Although I’ve been aware of several missed opportunities recently, this scenario is imaginary.
Tom, the vicar, has just led an awayday for his leadership team – NSM, Readers, churchwardens, various lay leaders. There is a strong feeling that prayer needs to be central to all that the church is doing. Everyone is going to go away and think and pray about how this might happen.
The following Sunday, Tom is approached by Lucy who has two small children. Lucy explains that she and her friend Jan are really concerned about the local primary school. Ofsted is due, SATs are approaching, everyone’s stress levels are high. She and Jan would like to start a prayer group to pray for the school.
Tom hesitates. He doesn’t really know Lucy who is not on the leadership team or even on the junior church rota. He doesn’t know Jan at all as she goes to a different church. There might be issues of confidentiality. He has been told about one school prayer group where they spend an hour praying for the conversion of each staff member by name. None of the leadership team have children at the school. It isn’t how he envisaged a greater commitment to prayer – he was thinking more on the lines of prayer triplets each led by a member of the team. He’s not sure that this is the right way forward…
On the other hand, this might be God offering the church an opportunity to turn the vision into reality…
I don’t know the answer to the above scenario for it needs prayer and discernment in that specific context.
But I wonder if the reason so little changed as a result of our vision days is that we just weren’t expecting God to be part of it…
It seems to me that God is often presented (almost unconsciously) as passive rather than active. We are told what God is like and how we should respond to him. At times it appears as if we are looking for God’s approval rather than his involvement. This may not be what we think, but it can be how we act.
I am starting to recognise that it isn’t like this; that we have an active God, totally involved in creation, constantly offering us opportunities to turn the dream into reality.
I’d like to think I was getting better at recognising them but there is so much other stuff that gets in the way. It’s a relief to know that God doesn’t give up…