Subject to Change – Part 11

Pastor, if you’ll listen to your people, you can gain important insights that will help you lead them in change. Here’s something you can learn…yours isn’t our first vision.

There’s something exciting about a fresh start with a new pastor. You can tell as you watch the Sunday attendance swell a bit on that first Sunday. Even some of those who had drifted away in recent months stop by again—people come to see.

What are they looking for? That’s a bit hard to be sure of. Some may have felt rejection from a previous leader and now look to see if there’s any single Sunday evidence that the new regime will be different. Some miss their old friends and see leadership change as the opportunity they need to reenter without having to answer a lot of questions. Some may be wondering who else had left after they did, since they figured theirs would be the first of many departures.

But most come to see what the new day will look like. They come to hear what new priorities will be undertaken. They come to feel the direction of an altered journey to determine if the church will now choose a destination that they’d like to find. In a word, they come for the vision.

Vision is a difficult word. It suffers from overuse, to the point that any clear sense of its intended meaning has been obscured by the dozen or so other meanings it has been known to carry. Vision can mean many different things to many different people, much like the idea of “love” and the specific manifestations of “flu.” You just can’t use such words without also explaining what you really mean.

In this instance, vision definition is in the eye of the beholder. What did that slightly enlarged crowd come looking for? What were they hoping to hear or to settle in their minds by darkening the door on our new pastor’s first Sunday? And what was it that they apparently didn’t hear or didn’t like since their Sunday attendance didn’t reproduce itself?

In such moments, vision means new direction and destination, and the strategies that will get us there. While that’s more than the word should really mean, a pastor’s sense of vision must produce it all. He must tell us where we are going, why we are going there, and how we will most likely get there. That’s what Moses brought down from the mountain and that’s what we’re looking for from the new Moses who just moved his family into our tiny parsonage. What’s God telling us to do, how is He telling us to do it, and what will things look like when we’ve done it?

That’s a lot of pressure on poor Moses, especially if he hasn’t been up the mountain yet.

Truth is, a new pastor can’t and shouldn’t have all those answers on his first Sunday. He just joined our carpool, and even if we decide to let him drive that first day, the only places he knows to find are the places he’s already been. He could try to superimpose the road map of his last church on us, but that’s probably not a journey that fits in the new place. So, how can he know where we’re going or have the beginnings of any idea of how to get there?

Vision is hard, and how to find it deserves its own book, but what we really need pastor to know is that we’ve been down this road before—more than once.

As I already mentioned, I was pastor number thirteen. From everything I could tell, those other twelve guys were pretty remarkable. Though many had died before I started to live, some of the names were quite familiar. There was the prominent missionary whose amazing stories among cannibals in Liberia were the stuff of legends. Little wonder, that the great missionaries to emerge from this historic congregation were launched during the late 1920s era, when his vision ruled the roost.

There were the denominational leaders, a few who had spent time amidst this congregation on their way to bigger things. The footprints of their excellence were still discernable in the hallway carpet and in the hearts of those they once led.

There was the guy whose evangelistic zeal had guided the days of the church’s greatest attendance. Busses in the 1960s had brought dozens of children and parents to the door, a strategy that swelled the black and white sanctuary photos of those days until it seemed the building would hold no more. (I finally got around to reading that history book.)

And there was my predecessor, the brave saint who led the church’s aggressive and under-resourced move to the suburbs. It wasn’t easy to abandon the deteriorating building his vision inherited for the temporary comforts of a shopping mall until the new campus could be ready. It wasn’t easy enduring the financial failings of a general contractor that left much of the finish work to his aging congregation. It wasn’t easy, but he did it—by vision.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, twelve pastors meant twelve visions. And, after you’ve rambled in the wilderness chasing after that many different oases, it’s hard not to lose your own way. Just like in your church, pastor. Once the people have been led to pursue a few different visions, their anticipation of the next one wanes a bit. If the last couple of chases have done little to quench their desperate thirst, don’t be shocked if your enthusiasm for a new journey is met with a bit of barely-veiled ambivalence.

We’ve been here before.

Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go with you or that we’ve all purchased subscriptions to “Better Homes and Deserts” and want to plant radishes in the sand. We want the new day you hope to bring, it’s just that we’ve been down a few roads already. That’s why those folks didn’t come back after they dipped their toes in the water on your first weekend. We want vision, we need vision, but after we’ve lived through several visions, vision just doesn’t rev our engines like it used to.

You’ve probably heard about that frog that once battled the limits of the jar that contained him. In his early days, he jumped a lot, banging his somewhat slimy green head on the underside of the lid until repeated bouts of dizziness taught him a new way. Now he doesn’t jump as often, and certainly not as high, so go ahead and use that lid on a jelly jar (just wash it first).

Frankly, church can be a place where we talk a great deal about what we’re going to do and why we should do what we’re going to do, but it’s not always a great place for doing it. Motivation without strategy has doomed many a vision, and left us with a keen awareness of the gap between where we are and where we could be. Add thoughts of God and His purposes to this mix and “could be” starts feeling like “should be.”

So, Pastor, don’t think we’re not interested in the new day you dream of. We truly are. But yours isn’t our first lap on the vision track and some of us still have sore muscles from the last time we tried to sprint. We’re a bit more cautious now, and we might need some pre-race stretching.

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