This (edited to remove some awful, glaring typographical errors!) is the “Rector’s Reflection” I wrote for the May 2010 issue of St. Paul’s Epistle, the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
What Is A Vision?
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase version of Holy Scripture called The Message, he renders a portion of the Prophet Habakkuk’s prophecy this way:
And then God answered: “Write this. Write what you see. Write it out in big block letters so that it can be read on the run. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. It aches for the coming; it can hardly wait! And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It’s on its way. It will come right on time.” (Habakkuk 2:2-3)
The first half of Proverbs 29:18 in the Authorized version reminds us that “Where there is no vision, the people perish….”
In seven years time, April 2017, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, will be 200 years old. We will have much to look back over and to celebrate. Gwendolyn ______________ does a wonderful job of reminding us of our history, both long-ago and more recent. (In this issue of St. Paul’s Epistle, she relates the story of our Columbarium and Memory Garden.) We are very grateful to her for that ministry for it keeps us reminded of and connected to our foundation on the good works many.
That foundation provides us a good vantage point, not so much to look backward at our history as to look forward to our future. Sir Isaac Newton once wrote to a friend, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Sir Isaac, in turn, was quoting an aphorism of the early medieval scholar Bernard of Chartres. According to his student, John of Salisbury, “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
I believe we have not only the opportunity, but the duty to look forward, a duty to have a vision “pointing to what’s coming”, a vision that “aches for the coming,” that “can hardly wait!”
As one write has noted, “A Vision is an ideal and unique image of the future. It answers the question, ‘What should we become?’ How would you finish this question: ‘If anything is possible, if there no restraints whatsoever, our church ideally would be _______’? ”
A Vision is not a goal. Goals are good. We should have goals. Challenging goals help us to keep on doing what we have been doing, only more of it or getting better at it: win more games, get better grades, build nicer buildings, increase attendance at worship, broaden our musical horizons, serve more hungry people through Free Farmers’ Market.
A few years ago, a couple of business writers suggested that business organizations should have what they called “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” or “BHAGs”. They defined a BHAG this way: “A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.” (Collins and Porras, Building Your Company’s Vision, 1996)
Goals are great! BHAGs are super! And it is said that goals, even the biggest and hairiest of them should be SMART, which means that a goal is Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
But a Vision is something different. A Vision is something that speaks to us so powerfully that those who hold it can say with conviction, “If we could achieve that, my life would have the deepest meaning?”
Where a goal keeps us doing what we’ve been doing, a Vision propels us to a different place, to a future radically different from the past. It has been said that the difference between a goal and Vision is continuity – a goal is continuous is the past, which a vision is radically discontinuous, a Vision gives us a compelling picture of a new tomorrow.
The Next Hundred Years
A few days ago the Senior Warden and his wife, Ray and Vicki _____________, took Evelyn and me to dinner at a local oriental restaurant. Predictably, our very pleasant time together ended with Fortune Cookies. My fortune was this: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.”
Could there have been a clearer statement of the need for a Vision for one’s life or one’s business … or one’s church? I don’t think so! If we simply change the word “you” to “the church” in that fortune cookie aphorism, the result is compellingly stark:
IF THE CHURCH KEEPS DOING WHAT IT’S ALWAYS DONE, THE CHURCH WILL KEEP GETTING WHAT IT’S ALWAYS GOTTEN.
Back in 1988, the Bishops of the Anglican Communion and, with them, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, declared that the 1990s would be the “Decade of Evangelism.” To quote a recent politician, “How’d that go for ya?” Do you remember the church doing a lot of evangelism? Do you remember a lot of growth happening in the Episcopal Church during the 1990s? If you do, please tell the rest of us about it, because I sure don’t remember it! The Bishops and the Convention may have made a declaration, but the church kept doing what it had always done, and it kept getting what it had always gotten … at least what it had gotten since about 1965 – decreasing membership and increasing irrelevance to the lives of those around it.
Why wasn’t the Decade of Evangelism successful? Because it wasn’t compelled by a Vision. Recently, I wrote a note to a clergy friend with whom I was discussing our history of evangelistic success or lack thereof. This is what I wrote:
What I recall is “The Decade of Evangelism” being declared by the General Convention and then practically nobody, from “815” (i.e., our national headquarters) on down, actually doing anything about it. A few “progressive” parishes did some good work of evangelism and grew, and a few more “conservative” congregations did some good work of evangelism and grew, but for the most part the Episcopal Church just said, “We’re going to grow in this decade” and then sat back and assumed the rest of the world would invite itself to know Jesus.
What that experience proves, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether a particular parish is progressive or conservative. What matters is whether the people in that parish learn how to tell the story of their relationship with Jesus and share that story with others. If we can do that, we grow; if we don’t do that, we die. Whatever else we do isn’t all that important if we’re not doing that.
So how about this as a Vision for our future, as a Vision for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, in the next hundred years?
My Vision for our parish is to be a community of people who know Jesus Christ personally, who know Jesus Christ so well that they can and do tell their story of knowing him to others wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself, who know Jesus Christ so well that they recognize him in the neighbor who’s struggling with a broken marriage, in the homeless person on the street, in the hungry family whose monthly income has run out a week before the next paycheck and who have nothing to feed the kids!
My Vision for our parish is to be a community of disciples who follow Jesus so closely that we’re practically treading on his heels and who are so happy and joyful doing so that others, to whom we shout out invitations to join us, want to do exactly that because they can see that we’re on to something!
My Vision for our parish is to be a community of worshipers of every generation who know and tell all sorts of faith stories, who know and sing all sorts of music, who celebrate and share the Holy Eucharist as if it were (as it is!) the greatest party we’ve ever been to, who sometimes have to stand up during worship, not because the Prayer Book rubrics say to do so but because there are no seats left in the Nave!
My Vision for our parish is to be a community of Easter People who know the Real Presence of our Risen Lord among us and who share his presence with the world around us!
Alleluia! Christ Is Risen! The Lord Is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!