Pastors as Visionary Leaders

Lovett Weems lists the phases of thriving and declining organizations: original vision, growth and building the organization, maintenance, decline, recognized decline, crises or death. I feel that in the United Methodist Church we are in the period of at last recognizing our decline. I hope this leads to a crisis that provokes change and growth.

Vision is not created, but it is discovered, or more truthfully discerned.

“The genius of visionary leadership is in recognizing those clues, putting them together with other clues, and then testing those clues with others to make sure that one is seeing and hearing correctly or that one is putting the different clues together in a manner that makes sense.” (p. 84).

The leader listens to everything in order to get clues and information, fact, opinion, and gossip are all helpful. The leader is willing to listen to negative clues, as well as positive clues. One must build a future on more than negative clues. One must foster enough stability within the congregation, stability that is beyond stagnation and rigid status quo, so that one can have a base from which to move creatively and experimentally. (p. 90).

Every church must have a mission–that is what God calls the church to do, the overall purpose of the church, its reason for being.

And derived from that must be a vision, that to which God has called the congregation to do in the near future to advance that mission. Vision is “What is God calling this church to do next?” We take identity, assessments of our internal context, as well as our external context, to move mission towards vision.

We must identify three to five key values that are essential part of the visionary work of the congregation. These must be defined in writing, with some definition of what these values mean to the life of the congregation. And then they are to be prioritized, because they have degrees of importance.

In order to take the next step, we must understand change.

“If the goal is to write a new chapter in the congregation’s story, that it is essential that the story be thoroughly understood and respected, and that the new chapter pick up and advance the plot.” (David Clewell p. 112).

Weems gives “seven unchangeable rules of change.” People do what they perceive to be in their best interest. The change must have positive meaning for them. People thrive with creative challenge, but wilt under negative stress. People are different, there is not one single key to all change. People believe what they see and previous deceptions can lead to present suspicions. The way to make effective long-term change is first to visualize where you want to go, and then go ahead and inhabit that vision till it comes true. Change is always an act of imagination. (p. 114).

All change is easier when people think it is their idea. Too much change within a short period of time can lead to explosion. Change is disturbing when it is done to us, but it is exhilarating when it is something done by us.

Great leaders are good storytellers. Most of what leaders do is to communicate–to preach, to tell stories, to keep reminding people of the best of their history, and not to worry about repeating themselves or being redundant. Good leaders must talk a vision, before their vision can be lived. Finally, good leaders must persevere. It takes time for a vision to become reality, and one of the most difficult times is the mid-point, right before the vision blossoms. Good leaders are those who persevere.

— Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

William H. Willimon

One thought on “Pastors as Visionary Leaders

  1. Will,I would definitely agree with you that finally we are recognizing our decline. After a couple of years at my current church (which was still in decline even though a merger had been affected 4 years before I arrived) in Falls Church, as people bewailed our losses as though they were a relatively new thing, I made the assertion that the decline was probably at least 25 years old. “Oh, no, not that long.” A little research through the Journals discovered that the decline (in each church before the merger) had actually begun in 1964-5, just after each congregation had reached their peak membership in numbers. We began to talk more seriously about what we are, what we are called to be, and how things that had not worked in the past probably still wouldn’t work today.We can’t be a “big box church” that offers everything to everybody. We need to be more of “Starbucks” were we focus on what we are (who we attract) and what we do best. We have developed a Discipleship Plan that focuses on those areas. For other emphases, we simply need to point (without guilt or anxiety) to other churches in the area that do those things well.One other thing that, we think, is beginning to make a difference is that without changing any physical structure in our sanctuary, we have reconfigured it to seat fewer people more comfortably, closer together, and centered around the Table. It has changed the feeling tone in the sanctuary tremendously. I know this is a long comment, but this discussion is vital. We are not interested simply in institutional survival. We are interested in being the followers of Christ making a difference in our part of the world.


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