“Christian ministry has faced two major challenges recently: bullying and burnout. The reasons for both are no doubt complex and too difficult to dissect in a simple article. Yet I wonder if our visionary attitudes contribute to these problems.”
“If we continue to feed our people overly aspirational visions in the hope that it might excite them into action, they will eventually grow cynical and bitter. Our visions must be cast according to the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of man.”
I wonder if your church had a 2020 Vision. I think ours did. I think everyone’s did. The wordplay was too tempting to ignore. But, in hindsight, perhaps 2020 wasn’t the best target year for fulfilling our visions.
I doubt anyone included in their church’s vision: “Lockdown”, “Social-Distancing”, or “Zoom Services”? This virus has turned our world upside down. No one saw it coming, and still no one really knows what will happen next. In the past year, we have gone from five-year-plans to taking things one day at a time. All of our visions and goals have been thrown out the window.
Visions and vision-casting have become a staple of ministry-practice. Visions normally begin with the pastor or leadership team. They are often formed after prayer, Bible study and consultation with the church. Having crafted a unique vision for the ministry, the pastor then preaches on this vision, perhaps through a particular sermon series. Slogans are created, statistics are given, and stories are shared – all to help motivate the congregation to get ‘on board’ with the vision.
And these visions are seen as key to ministry success. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. People respond to vision. People give to vision. If you want to motivate your congregation, if you want to focus your ministry, and if you want to make a difference for God’s Kingdom – you need vision. Or so we are told.
And yet, this global pandemic has reminded me that our vision is not 20-20. Of course, God has been telling us this all along. The Proverbs teach us that “many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov 19:21). And James warns us not to boast in arrogant schemes, for we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow (Jas 4:13-16). God is in control. We are not. Yet have we really allowed this truth to shape our ministry? Perhaps our experience of this past year should give us pause before we cast our next vision.
The Danger of Visionaries
Bonhoeffer wasn’t big on visionaries. He argued that if you love your dream more than you love God’s people, you will destroy God’s people. Even if your intentions are earnest and sacrificial. Bonhoeffer knew all too well that dreamers can become tyrants. He wrote,
God hates visionary dreaming: it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself…. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So, he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Christian ministry has faced two major challenges recently: bullying and burnout. The reasons for both are no doubt complex and too difficult to dissect in a simple article. Yet I wonder if our visionary attitudes contribute to these problems. Visionaries can become bullies. We can be so fixated on achieving our vision that we begin using our flock instead of loving them. Those that are ‘useful’ for achieving our vision are seen as “good-value”. Those that aren’t are pushed to the fringe and ignored. We can bully and bulldoze, manipulating and pressuring people to conform to our program. And it may all be for a noble end – such as a godly community that loves God and one another. But in trying to realise our vision, we lose sight of God’s call to love our flock.
Similarly, an over-attachment to vision can lead to burnout. Instead of taking setbacks and failures out on other people, we internalise them. Each poor turnout on Sunday or failed evangelistic event becomes a personal failure. We see McMega church next door growing exponentially and feel as though we haven’t achieved anything. This inevitably leads us to do more, for longer hours, in the misguided belief that if we simply worked harder, our vision would be within reach. We become frenetic, tired and despondent. And then we burn out.
As Bonhoeffer said: visionaries can become first accusers of their brethren (and God), and then despairing accusers of themselves.
God’s vision and our plans
But visions themselves are not an evil thing. God is a visionary. And he includes us in realising his vision.
The LORD declares, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ (Isa 46:10). God has determined an end, and all of history is working towards this end. And nothing will stop it. He will establish his Kingdom forever (Dan 7:14) and install his Son as Lord and Christ (Psa 2:6). He will judge his enemies (Isa 56:16) and establish a new covenant with his forgiven and recreated people (Jer 31:33). All of this is to glorify himself and vindicate his name (Ezek 36:23). And this vision is fulfilled in Christ (Eph 1:9-10). God is a visionary and he will realise his vision.
Amazingly, God has also involved us in realising this vision. We are not mere bystanders to God’s great plans, but rather active agents. God asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Here I am. Send me” (Isa 6:8). Similarly, Paul asks, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15). We are called to take part in God’s great project – to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).
And doing this will require planning. Perhaps even vision. As much as the Proverbs caution us about the plans of man, they also speak about the wisdom of planning: “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Prov 21:5). Jesus urges us to count the cost of following him, just as surely as we should count the cost of building a tower or going to war (Luke 14:28-33). Paul clearly had ministry plans, even if they rarely turned out the way that he had planned (2 Cor 1:12-17).
Planning is not a bad thing. It’s entirely essential. Budgets must be set. Food needs to be bought for the church BBQ. And people need to practice for the upcoming carols event. We play a part in God’s vision, and part of that involves planning. Nor is casting our own vision bad, in as much as it is an application of God’s vision to our situation. The problem is not with vision itself. It’s with our attitude: an over-commitment to realising my vision my way. That doesn’t work because we are not God. We need to change the way we think about our vision.
Holding our visions loosely
We know that God will bring about his vision. What we can’t know is how he will do it, or how he will use us in doing it. We need to keep this in mind if we want to have a God-centred mindset about visions.
First, we must remember that we can’t choose how God will bring about his vision. Church visions are inherently aspirational. They are positive statements of where we hope to be, not necessarily where we will be. No one has ever heard of a vision statement that included the phrase, “We want to see half our congregation abandon us in the next five years.” That’s fair enough. Yet, we must be careful as we cast our vision to remember that the ways of God are not the same as the ways of man (Isa 55:8-9). God’s plans always appear foolish and weak to the world (1 Cor 1:20-25). When Jesus cast his vision of a cruciform ministry, Peter refused to accept it. He had in mind the concerns of man instead of the concerns of God (Mark 8:33). We often share the same problem. How many vision statements paint a picture of weakness, shame, hunger and rags – a vision of being the refuse of the world (1 Cor 4:11-14)? How many include words like “hard-pressed”, “perplexed”, “persecuted” or “struck down” (2 Cor 4:8-9)? Instead, we forecast success. Strength. And most of all: Growth! That can be dangerous. The reality of ministry is cross-shaped. It rarely meets the rose-coloured vision we paint. It will rarely appear successful in the world’s eyes. And we need to prepare our congregation for this. They need to understand that suffering and setbacks will be the norm of their ministry. If we continue to feed our people overly aspirational visions in the hope that it might excite them into action, they will eventually grow cynical and bitter. Our visions must be cast according to the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of man.
Second, we must remember that we can’t choose how God will use us to bring about his vision. Whilst God has called us to be part of his plans, he doesn’t need us to achieve them. God is not Dagon, needing to be propped up every time he falls over. The ark can return to Israel all by itself (1 Sam 5-6). We are to wait upon the Lord and watch to see how he will bring about his purposes (Psa 27:14). And yet, in a culture that calls everyone to be a world-changing history maker, waiting upon the Lord seems rather uninspiring. Instead, our visions imagine that it will be me who will have a global impact, shaping the culture and making great advances for God’s kingdom. Maybe? But maybe not. We don’t know what role each of us will play in God’s plan. God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden (Rom 9:18). This does not absolve us from the responsibility to pray, preach, and even plan, but it does mean that we cannot predict the outcome of our ministry. We don’t know if we are to be a willing Isaiah preaching to hardened hearts, or a reluctant Jonah sparking revival. This should give us caution before we cast grand visions for our ministry.
Given the times, the Apostle Paul teaches us to hold loosely to the things of this world. Perhaps we ought to have the same attitude to our visions. Be ready to share in Christ’s suffering and shame. Be ready to be an Isaiah, as much as a Jonah. Be ready for your visions to fail. And get your congregation ready for that too. Have visions if you want. But hold on to them loosely.
Don’t worry about tomorrow
How can we do this? Jesus seems to offer the answer when he declares,
Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt 6:34)
That’s not to say that we don’t need to plan for tomorrow. We do. We just shouldn’t worry so much about it. In the context of teaching us that we have a sovereign Father who cares deeply for us, Jesus tells us not to get too hung up on what will happen tomorrow. Focus on today.
In the past few years, there has been a big push towards developing systems rather than goals. Whereas a goal offers a measurable outcome that you want to achieve in the future, a system offers a repeatable set of actions that you do regularly. A goal might be to write the great American novel. A system is to write 500 words a day. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes,
Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.
In other words – focus more on what you are doing today in your ministry than where you want to see your church in five years. We can get so focused on building mega churches in the sky that we are paralysed from doing anything of value today. Instead, we should focus on today. Pray for five members of your congregation each morning. Go doorknocking every afternoon for half an hour. Invite a family from church over for dinner each Saturday night. These are systems. You often can’t tell exactly what these things might achieve, but you know that doing them regularly is good for you and your people.
This seems to fit the biblical model of ministry. Preaching the word and prayer are the two regular tasks that God has promised he will work through. This was Jesus’ focus (Mark 1:35-39); the apostles’ priority (Acts 6:4); Paul’s example (Col 1:9, 28); and Timothy’s charge (1 Tim 2:1; 2 Tim 4:2). The focus for God’s servant seems to be more about completing this task than achieving particular results. The parable of the sower highlights this emphasis. Our task is to sow the seed, but the outcomes are completely out of our hands. From a human perspective, the outcome is dependent on the sort of soil we are sowing into – whether those we teach have “ears to hear” (Mark 4:9). From a divine perspective, the outcome is dependent on whether God has chosen to soften or harden their hearts (Mark 4:12). Either way, our job is simply to sow the seed. After that, the plant will grow whether we sleep or get up (Mark 4:26-29). The parable of the sower reminds us that our focus is on the task of preaching the word and praying for God to soften hearts.
This pandemic has reminded me that my vision is not 20-20. In light of this, I think we should focus more on the tasks that God has set us than the visions we have cast. Put another way: favour systems over goals. Focus on what God calls me to do today, over what I want to achieve tomorrow. No doubt we still need plans. Perhaps even visions. But don’t be too worried about them. Things probably won’t come to pass the way you had hoped they would. And that’s OK. God is still in control. He will fulfill his purposes. And with Paul we can declare,
…my only aim is to finish the race and
complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to
the good news of God’s grace (Acts 20:24).
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 16
 One of the first proponents of this was Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons. See Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (2013). See also James Clear, Atomic Habits (2018).
 This example was given by Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012). Burkeman also argues for a focus on processes rather than outcomes.