Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Visionary Leadership

Being a "visionary leader" is all the vogue. From Washington to Wall Street to San Jose. Pastors are expected to be visionary leaders too. And that can lead to problems.

My second church was in the countryside of Canada. We had issues. Most of them were cultural. We didn't expect them, because these were Dutch immigrants and their children, and I am considered very Dutch (by Americans) and I even speak the language. But we all found out I was more New Yorker than Dutch. The streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant are not a good nursery for a Dutch personality.

I was out of sorts there. I was determined to love the landscape (a matter of principal for me) so I used to take long walks around the church. The land was flat and open, with straight dirt roads at half-mile sections, and all wide fields with the odd stretch of bog or bush. There were birds and foxes and deer, and you could hear coyotes at night. Parishioners would drive by, see me, and offer me a ride. They didn't get what I was about. Why should they?

We had a conflict raging during my third year there, and my wife and I went for some counseling to an Anglican priest who specialized in helping clergy. One week my assignment was to think about "my vision for my church."

As we were driving to our appointment I told my wife Melody that if she promised not to laugh, I would tell her my vision for our church. When I told her, she broke her promise. I said that, to be honest, if I really tell the truth about my vision, judging by my doodles in my study, my vision for our church was a big tall steeple with a bell in it that you could see and hear from all around the countryside.

Romantic, sentimental, or just plain foolish? If it was right for Groningen and Utrecht and Chartres and Salisbury and thousands of villages in Europe and New England and Quebec, why not our corner of Ontario?

When the guy said "vision," I responded with something visual. I am told that I am overly literal. I always got the color "aqua" wrong as a kid because I thought it should be the color of water and that was kind of brownish-green, like the East River at 67th Street, or at the Battery.

A decade later, in my fourth church, in Michigan--a great big thing with a proud congregation--we were spinning our wheels, and so one of my predecessors, Bud Ridder, whom I came to love, took me out for lunch and said, "Dan, what's your vision for this church?" Oh no, not that again.

I remember going home and thinking, "Vision shmision, they asked me to come here to be their pastor, and I came. What else do they want. I have no vision for this church. I have a scripture lesson every week to preach on and they have kids for us to catechize and troubles for us to help them through. They asked me to be their pastor. Here I am. Who said anything about a Vision?"

So I spent the next year working on my "vision." I attended seminars and confabs. Finally, one day, it hit me, in California. My buddy Orville and I were driving up to Big Sur. We had just attended a conference at the Crystal Cathedral and it was "vision" from morning to night.

Orville was driving, he was turning right at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and I said, "Orv, I have to go to Brooklyn." He asked why. "Because I suddenly see what my vision is, and if I tell my church they won't want it." He said, "You don't know that. You have to give them a chance."

I did. I presented it. They turned it down. Definitively. They said, "We like you, Daniel, as our pastor, but we don't like your vision, we don't want to go where you want to lead us."

Eventually I got to Brooklyn. I told the search committee the same things I had said in Grand Rapids, and they said yes.

And last week, a new person at our worship service told me that what she felt in our church was "room." I was moved and more than gratified to hear her say that because "room," a visual category, has been a key part of my vision for Old First. If she felt it, it means we are achieving it, and that suggests that I am, at least minimally, a visionary leader.

I guess it's a good thing we already have a big steeple. (It might be the tallest in Brooklyn.) Otherwise I'd be imagining that all day. And as I tramp around this landscape (which I have loved since my childhood), nobody stops to offer me a ride.

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