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What is the place of visionary leadership in church ministry?

How can thinking about the future be assessed and developed?

Prayerful consideration of the future can enrich dialogue, foster creativity and deepen a sense of partnership with God in mission.
In my study of Clergy Review, I identified two key features of the conversation as Formation, the growth that shapes awareness of God, ourselves, and other, and Collaboration, where pastors and elders work together in dynamic, participative governance.

Imagination is another feature of clergy work that can fruitfully be assessed in a review.

This construct relates to the minister’s role in leading collaborative planning and a commitment to mission in the local church. The word connects with innovation, inspiration, vision and dreams and is used to describe leadership that is both relevant and transformational. Pastors I interviewed clearly understood vision, strategy and change management to be spiritual exercises, and had found that reflecting prayerfully on God’s purposes with others can foster the imagination and deepen a sense of partnership. They spoke of receiving God’s wisdom and grace, and of applying Biblical traditions of story, song and poetry in preaching, teaching and dreaming of a preferred future. They understood that as leaders they are custodians of the faith community's deepest values, charged with articulating, interpreting and implementing them in the church and the world. The Presbyterian and Baptist review tools assessed both vision and change-management, and assumed that goal-setting was part of the exercise.

Business would call this strategic planning, and ministers often used that term. However, strategic dynamics are not confined to formal action plans or the ministry budget; strategy is embedded in all the important choices churches make. In business, needed wisdom and important knowledge is known to be dispersed throughout the organisation (1). Baptists and Presbyterians describe that knowledge in valuing the “priesthood of all believers” that leverages the strengths of many, and unites us around a common purpose.

Issues of imagination in this study related to:
• the need for a wider congregational review, as churches wrestle with social change
• the ways that people experience God when dreaming and planning.
• the leader’s role in shaping vision, by challenging mental models, and retelling the Biblical story.

Evaluation of the individual pastor is important, but ministers were concerned that review also be undertaken on a congregational level, setting ministry objectives, and perhaps led by an outside facilitator. Presbyterians do have a timetabled congregational review structure and Baptists too have congregational conversations, but they are often ad hoc. One Baptist team tries to think laterally, asking courageous questions like “What’s the biggest issue we’re not facing right now?” In both denominations the parish review has clarified values, encouraged innovation and at times generated major change.

I also asked about God being at work in the review experience, and the Presbyterians clearly expected that; one said ‘the review completed the picture and we felt the spirit was operating.” However most Baptists did not expect God’s direction or challenge to be identified through a review. One participant, reporting colleagues’ bad reviews, said they didn’t see them as God speaking, just as “someone crabby with them”. This surprised me in light of the Baptist polity that God speaks through people. An extract from that interview:

I guess I expected to hear from God in other ways ...the review was just what people might say.... It’s interesting to think about it...Because the Baptist thing is that we hear from God through the people.
Very human people. That’s the crunch, isn’t it?
Yeah. It is the crunch.

blue skyWhat is the leader’s role in planning? Pastors are called to clarify and communicate God’s vision for the congregation based on the “missio Dei”. This means making time for “blue sky thinking” or guiding discussion of specific issues like children in worship or meeting the needs of non-English speakers. One pastor dramatised the future in a story that became an ongoing vision. Change leadership skills are vital for pastors as cultural shifts require churches to adopt new mental models. Assumptions that mission is located in buildings need to give a way to a vital awareness that God is already at work, in the neighbourhood. ‘Missional imagination’ - a twist on Brueggeman’s “prophetic imagination” – is needed, but deep shifts in mission philosophy and praxis are like moving from an orchestra, and conductor, to a jazz band improvising a new tune; different rules apply (2). Pastors can feel exhilarated by hope but intimidated by a real anxiety about congregational viability. They must offer a mix of leadership vision and management implementation, keeping a lookout on the far horizon as well as attending to current realities (3). Theological colleges equip ministers with factory settings for transformational leadership but some degree of maintenance is always needed to protect a congregation’s human and financial resources. I heard about some probationary ministers getting this horribly wrong; balancing care of existing members with reaching hurting outsiders is “dancing through minefields” between transactional and transformational leadership (4).

Pastors with time, training and imagination have privileged access to hearts and minds, and can use the richness of Christian literature, poetry and prayer to shape the congregation’s culture in powerful ways. Where there is energy and trust, they can confidently lead a move forward. One said “what we’ve managed to achieve here has been full of generosity and energy;” his review helped identify that climate of permission.

Clergy coach Mark Johnston notes:
“Leaders are those that recognise the place we are in and ask the right sort of questions. Leaders are those that get on the balcony every now and then and frame the challenge that they are facing in order not to become chaplains to an inadequate imagination. And then leaders are those that take the initiative to act ...under the leading of the Spirit.” (5)

To think about: How often do you get time to do some "blue sky thinking"? Do you need others with you for that? How does vision connect with prayer and spirituality for you?

Selected References:

1. Boxall, P., & Purcell, J. (2011). Strategy and Human Resource Management (3rd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.
2. Potter, P. (2014). A new kind of church. Paper presented at the 2014 Baptist Assembly Waitangi, NZ.
3. Galindo, I. (2004). The hidden lives of congregations: discerning church dynamics. Alban Institute.
4. Hudson, J. (2004). When better isn't enough: evaluation tools for the 21st-century church. Rowman and Littlefield. (p. 30)
5. Johnston, M. (2012). Uneasy rider? the challenge to a ministry of Word and Sacrament in a post-Christendom missional climate. Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin.(p. 12)

This article is part of a series introducing in more detail the findings of my 2015 Master of Business (AUT Auckland) where the thesis topic was performance management of clergy in NZ Presbyterian and Baptist churches. I looked at the changing business sector practices of Performance Management in knowledge work, examined the polity and processes of the nationally-mandated Presbyterian Ministry Development Reviews, and mined Baptist documents for evaluative practices applied in locally-governed congregations. Then I interviewed 15 senior ministers with a mixture of age, gender, ministry years and the two denominations, who had all experienced at least two reviews.
An introduction the thesis findings "Realistic and Hopeful" can be found at

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