Write the Vision and Make it Plain (a “how to” post)

By Ken Howard

Write the vision; make it plain… so that a runner may read it.
Habakkuk 2:2

What is a Vision Statement?

The first step in strategic missional planning is to define your congregation’s (or judicatory’s) vision and mission in a vision statement and a mission statement. Most people have a fairly good idea of what a mission statement is that being the “What” of your congregation (what it is that you are called to do). But what a vision statement is? Not so much…

So, let’s start to define what a vision statement is not:

  • It is not mission statement “lite” (a shorter, summary of your mission), though they are related, and it is brief.
  • It is not a theological statement, per se, though it can provide a theological grounding.
  • It is not a warm and fuzzy statement of what your congregation wants to be when it grows up, though it does speak to what your congregation’s “to be.”

So, what is a vision statement?

  • It describes the WHY of your congregation, stating in a few words WHY your congregation exists.
  • It describes what God is calling your congregation TO BE described in WE ARE terms (as though it was already in existence).
  • It is the foundation of your congregation’s mission and the motivation that drives your congregation to carry it out.

I have sometimes described as the congregation’s Minimum Viable Belief, a seminal belief or value that is so deep, so shared, so core to the community that it is the source of all other beliefs, values, and actions of the organization. It is the core source of meaning and purpose to the community and its members. Simply put, it is your congregation’s “Why of Whys” – a vision that is so clear and plain that it creates and sustains an enduring organizational culture that can guide a faith community throughout its life, even when the community encounters turbulent times.

How does a congregation create a vision statement? 

A congregation does create its vision so much as discern it. In fact, it is an ongoing process of discovery, articulation, and communication.

Seven steps in discerning your congregation’s vision:

  1. Naming
  2. Calling
  3. Clarifying
  4. Seeing
  5. Dreaming
  6. Visioning
  7. Proclaiming

Let’s walk through this 7-step vision-discernment process together, along with examples from an actual startup congregation that discerned their vision in this way after a first attempt to start one failed.


Step 1.  Naming (shared concerns)

Identify a critical and shared issue, problem, or challenge. 


The vicar of the new congregation began by gathering together a startup team: a core group of people who felt called to help start a new community where the previous one had died. Some of them had been members of the closed congregation. Some of them were familiar with the conflict that brought about its downfall. All of them felt called to be part of this effort to start a new congregation. They began by reflecting on the actions and positions that had led to the closure: naming, owning, and telling the truth of what transpired. It was painful both to speak and to hear the story, almost as painful as it was for the original members to experience the reality of it. In fact, it was so painful that all present named a common desire to find a different way of being church, with a sense of unity so strong that no issue could divide them ever again.


Step 2 – Calling (widening the circle)

Calling together a community of people who share a common interest in the issue, problem, or challenge identified in step 1.


The startup team then began to think about (and reaching out to) other people they knew who might share their common interest in developing a schism-resistant faith community, then reaching out to them. Some were friends, others were neighbors, and still others were people from surrounding congregations. Together, these people formed the startup community.


Step 3 – Clarifying (shared values)

Identify the community’s shared values as they relate to the issue, problem, or challenge discussed in steps 1 and 2.


The startup team designed what they called their “Vision Quest”: a daylong visioning workshop for the startup community called together in step 2. The team invited participants to express the personal values that drove their longing to be part of a place where people with different beliefs and practices could coexist openly and respectfully. They identified a common thread that connected them all: their sense of being loved by Christ.


Step 4 – Seeing (reality as it is)

Describe the current context in which the community exists.




At the same “Vision Quest” the team asked participants to share what they knew about the community in which they lived. They described the larger community as having two salient qualities, which almost seemed contradictory. On the one hand, they realized that, at least on the surface, society’s thinking about unity ran counter to their own: holding that unity required uniformity. On the other hand, they sensed in the people they knew an underlying yearning for a different way, in which conformity was not the price of admission to a faith community.


Step 5 – Dreaming (reality as it could be)

Consider what possible futures might be in store for the gathered community.


Example: In the next segment of their Vision Quest, the startup team invited participants to brainstorm what they imagined their future congregation would look like fully realized in their community.

They recorded all of these ideas and circulated them to all they knew who they thought might be interested in their prospective faith community, even those who could not attend.


Step 6 – Visioning (write the vision)

Envision the WHY that transcends the success of the organization: a WHY to which faithfulness is more important than success… or even survival.


Next, they invited participants in the Vision Quest to look for common themes among the futures they imagined.

From these common themes they fashioned a five-sentence vision statement, which describes their vision as though it were achieved:

In grateful response to the grace and love of God in Christ:
We are a spiritual home, a safe haven,
grounded in Scripture and centered in life,
where we are nurtured and challenged in our journey of faith.
We welcome all people to join us in worship and prayer,
and in joyful service to the community around us.
We believe that the only sufficient basis for Christian community
is Christ’s love for us.
We experience that the power of Christ’s love
can hold us together in the midst of great diversity.


Step 7 – Proclaiming (make it plain)

Refine the transcendent WHY into a short, simple, and pithy phrase that people will remember, understand, and repeat.




Finally, the team invited participants boil down the longer vision statement into a short, memorable, repeatable, inspiring phrase. In response, they came up with this eight-word credo:

A Place to Belong!
A Place to Become!


In Summary

The congregation’s Vision Statement – its “Why of Whys” or Minimum Viable Belief that the only thing powerful enough to hold a faith community together is “Christ’s love for us” – has proved very durable, requiring few changes over the now 28 years of its existence. It enabled them to weather storms that would have sunk many congregations… and that should have sunk them. Indeed, over that same period, they have watched as thousands of congregations across America – congregations that based their unity on uniformity – split or left their denominations in disagreements over doctrines and practices.

Six years ago, this congregation passed yet another important test: the departure of the founding vicar and first rector, and the calling of its second rector.

Failed plans should not be interpreted as a failed vision.
Visions don’t change, they are only refined.
Plans rarely stay the same,
and are scrapped or adjusted as needed.

Be stubborn about the vision,
but flexible with your plan.
John C. Maxwell (American Clergyperson, b. 1947)
“Business Plans: The Roadmap To Procrastination,” Forbes (9/22/15)