One of the most palatable tensions in any community of faith is between the past experiences of the community and the future vision for where the community “ought” to go.
The arc of the scriptural narrative reveals that although things are not as they were created to be. In Christ, God is making all things new. Theologians have attempted to capture this complex eschatological paradox with the very simple language of “already” and “not yet.”
The kingdom of God is both present and future.
As Paul S. Fiddes says, In the present tense Salvation “happens here and now. It is always in the present that God acts to heal and reconcile, entering into the disruption of human lives at great cost to himself, in order to share our predicament and release us from it.” In the future sense, the church continues to pray Maranatha! (‘Come, Lord!’).
This intersection of past, present and future is most acutely felt during times of new birth or new direction in communities of Jesus followers. These are the places and times where the visionaries, the dreamers, and the idealists shine. These are also the places and times we can make some major mistakes. What begins in many cases as well intended efforts in the ministry of reconciliation devolves into agitation and separation.
How do visionary leaders invite their communities into a new future without dishonoring the past or discrediting the present values and experiences?
If leaders charge ahead without fully appreciating where their community has been and the present experiences and circumstances of where the community is today, they will insult and estrange the very people they are called to love and serve. With a healthy dose of hospitality, shaped by compassion and self-awareness, most of these missteps can be avoided.
Three Mistakes Visionaries, Idealists and Optimists Make
Mistake #1 – Believing everything is wrong with everything
The more time we spend dreaming and praying about what ought to be in the future, the more brokenness and corruption we see in the present. If we are not careful, a downward spiral begins. Over time concern turns into disappointment, disappointment turns into disillusionment and disillusionment turns into disengagement.
People are broken, institutions are broken and systems are broken. We begin to believe that nothing can be trusted and every good intention is stained with self-interest. We hear the echo of the Apostle Paul agonizing over his own conflicted nature – “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
In one ministry context, I was exploring different ways to use fewer disposable paper and styrofoam products. We began to consider purchasing some affordable sets of plates, cups and silverware only to find ourselves in a new ethical crisis. Given the quantity we would need to support our ministry, the only dishes we could afford in bulk were manufactured by people on the other side of the world working in terrible conditions for little pay. In an effort to be good stewards of our planet, we would be perpetuating systems of human exploitation. We were trading one evil for another. We were stuck.
While it is true that every person, every institution and every system is broken, it is not true that everything is wrong with everything. When we become disillusioned to the point of disengaged, we have missed an opportunity to celebrate whatever good can be found amidst the brokenness and fail to explore new creative possibilities for healing.
Mistake #2 – Treating realists as pessimists in disguise
Every visionary needs a realist friend. Even though we don’t always appreciate their input and can sometimes feel discouraged by their seemingly constant voice of negativity, the realist reminds us of the practical questions that must be answered and the challenges that must be overcome.
Idealists often view them as pessimists in disguise. Even the term “devil’s advocate” can become a sly way of marginalizing their ideas.
There is a difference between taking the present realities into account and being negative for negativity’s sake. The mistake idealists make is thinking that someone who says “it can’t be done” or “people will never buy that” somehow lacks hope.
Remember, a visionary can be just as guilty of delusion as a realist can be of hopelessness. Rather than discrediting the voice of difference, invite that person into a deeper conversation about what immediate challenges they anticipate.
You can’t get from A to Z without steps B, C and D. The realist can help you with these next practical steps.
Mistake #3 – Thinking what is most important to me should be most important to you
As hard as we might try to be objective and inclusive in our leadership, dreams are always influenced by subjective forces like personal experiences and values. One mistake visionary leaders make is thinking that my future is the best future. This assumes a high degree of shared values and expectations amongst those in the community. This is, in most cases, not a safe assumption. The complexity of values and expectations for the community’s future will grow exponentially with the number of participating members.
When we find ourselves saying “if we could just change this one thing” then we are in risky territory. While that “one-thing” might help orient our vision towards other things, it is a mistake to assume everyone in the community agrees on which values, practices and experiences are most important. They don’t.
Rather than spending precious energy and relational capital to convince everyone else that our “one-thing” is the most important thing, listen to what they value.
It may be that there are other values that have to take priority for a season in order to position the community for growth in the areas the leader is most passionate about. If we are unwilling to listen to and honor the values and expectations of the communities we serve, even if we sometimes disagree, we will risk leading them to places they do not want to go. The community will lack enthusiasm and commitment and eventually trust will fade.
The antidote for these errors is generous hospitality.
The above mistakes are not avoided by simply conceding every time there is conflict. While this might provide a short term moment of calm, leaders who consistently cave on their convictions over time will lose the confidence of those they are called to serve.
Embodying a leadership life that is generously hospitable reminds the leader that living in community means that everyone must make sacrifices and everyone’s sacrifices are valued. Ultimately, every visionary leader is asking something of their community – “come with me.” This is not an easy ask – for leader or follower. Something must be sacrificed. What is known and familiar is left behind in order to embrace the unknown future. This costs something.
Preserving unity does not mean uniformity of convictions or opinions. Our model for visionary leadership is one who leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the one. As followers of Jesus, we must abandon our ninety-nine hopes and dreams to pursue one Jesus.
We pursue the one who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives and sight to the blind. One who proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. There were certainly many in his community who did not catch his vision. But our model for visionary leadership is also One who prayed to his father in heaven that his followers would be “one.”
Oneness comes not from conformity, but mutual love and appreciation for difference. These are held together by shared convictions and consistent compassion over time.When ideals are enfleshed and visions begin to materialize, real sacrifices must be made. As Christine D. Pohl writes in Making Room that “While we might imagine sacrifice in terms of one moment of heroic martyrdom, faithful hospitality usually involves laying our lives down in little pieces, in small acts of sacrificial love and service. Part of the mystery is that while such concrete acts of love are costly, they nourish and heal both giver and recipient.”
This is the slow, faithful journey each community takes towards God’s future: daily acts of hospitality, loving one another by “laying our lives down in little pieces.”
Start with these reflections:
- Where have you felt tension in your ministry between present realities and future possibilities?
- Were there times you had to slow down and step back in order to provide space and grace for differing opinions?
- Were there times you had to press on, seeing that the voices of dissent were ultimately unhealthy voices of destruction and division?
- How were you able to discern the difference?
- Who helps to keep you honest and objective as you explore new horizons for your ministry?
Photo Credit Josh Semans.