Pragmatic vs Visionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Epiphany 2, Year 2 (22 January 2016)

Genesis 12:1 ~ Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

I haven’t written one of these Daily Office Meditations for over a month – the last was in early Advent. There’s been no good reason for not doing so other than . . . well, there’s been no good reason.

Today, however, I have a lot of work to do. Sunday will be the 199th Annual Parish Meeting of the Episcopal Church congregation in which I serve and, as we approach our bicentennial there is a lot which I should say in my annual “state of the parish” remarks. Whenever I sit down to prepare this annual address I am torn between the need to simply report the state of the parish – the improvements in all the metrics of money and membership, number of services and outreach clients served, the financial stewardship and “average Sunday attendance – and the need to cast the vision, to “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” (Hab 2:2)

And as I struggle with that today I am noticing that, on Facebook (yes, I have wasted time following Facebook postings and debating American party politics and Anglican Communion politics with friends and colleagues), in regard to the Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, there is a great deal more heat as the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary loom large on the horizon. The heat is showing up in vehement assertions of the positive quality of one candidate as contrasted to what is cast as the negative quality of the other.

In truth, neither is necessarily a positive nor a negative. Clinton’s pragmatism is contrasted with Bernie’s vision. Some argue that a pragmatic president is what we need; others, that we need a visionary leader. We are told that Bernie’s single-payer health plan, for instance, can’t be done; it’s not pragmatic. We are told that Hillary’s comfortable (pragmatic) working relationship with Wall Street bankers hampers her ability to regulate them; she’s not visionary enough.

In this debate, I see the same contrast, the same conflict I have writing the annual parish report: pragmatism (the numbers and statistics and what can be done given the budget) vs vision (what ought to be done budget-be-damned).

Cards on the Table: I prefer visionary leadership. If I vote in the Democratic primary in my state, it will be for Sanders (at this point I am registered as an independent, although I do have a Bernie bumpersticker on my car). Here’s why . . . visionary leadership is what leads to radical change. Pragmatism produces incremental change, if it produces any change at all.

Abraham (Abram at the time of today’s reading) was a visionary. Had he been a pragmatist, he and Sarai would have stayed put in Ur. Only a visionary would take off across the desert in search of an unknown future in some “promised land.” It occurred to me earlier today that if Jesus had been a pragmatist, there would be no Christian church; much better to stay in Nazareth, earn a good living as a carpenter and just make things better in the local synagogue. If Buddha had been a pragmatist, he would have lived and ruled as prince and made incremental improvements in his local kingdom. If Mohammed had been a pragmatist, he’d never have gone to that cave on Jabal al-Nour where he encountered Gabriel.

There’s nothing wrong with pragmatism. We need pragmatists; they make great managers. But they don’t make very effective leaders of change. For that, we need visionaries.

In politics, visionaries from “one side of the aisle” challenge the pragmatists from the other side (as well as from their own side); they encourage (or sometimes force) the pragmatists to change. Pragmatists, on the other hand, have the important role of holding the visionaries back; that’s a good and necessary thing! Unchecked visionaries can cause more than change; they can do real damage! Fortunately, in national government, we have two huge bodies of pragmatists (one with 100 members; one with 438) which put a brake on visionary leadership at the top. In church governance, a few pragmatists on the vestry (or session or parish council or whatever) are a good thing; pragmatists make super parish treasurers!

Sometimes (though not very often) there is no need for major changes; in those times, pragmatic leadership at the top is fine. But when there is need for radical re-direction, pragmatic leadership becomes no leadership. Pragmatists of on one side of the political divide attempt to negotiate with pragmatists on the other side trading tit for tat, pushing here while holding back there, agreeing to incremental changes in one direction here in exchange for incremental changes in another direction there. The net result is very little change at all; the net result is very pragmatic stalemate. Sometimes we elect leadership we believe to be visionary and find we have a pragmatist on our hands . . . .

Clergy, I think, are called to be visionaries. I struggle with the pragmatism thing; probably most clergy do . . . . we know that when Habbakuk, speaking for God, tells religious leaders to “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it,” he’s talking directly to us. On the Meyers-Briggs, I am an INTJ, which means I tend to see the “big picture” and ignore details, so I may be a bit prejudiced in arguing that “big picture” visionary leadership is the clergy’s business. Nonetheless, I do think that’s our job and that’s probably why I am attracted to that sort of political leadership, as well.

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism; it is not a negative characteristic and it has its place in national politics and church governance. There is nothing wrong with vision; it is not a negative characteristic and it has its place in national politics and church governance. The question that we face in both church and politics is whether this is the time and place for one or the other. Is it time to get up and hit the road to the “promised land,” or is time to stay the course, remain in Ur, and maybe just make things a little bit better there?

One thing I do know . . . it’s time to get that annual “state of the parish” thing written!