“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (
“Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (
During the days of my first pastoral appointment—when I was still a divinity school student at Duke University—I was being mentored by a crusty, old pastor named Jefferson Davis. Jeff was at once genuine, thoughtful and caring, while also portraying a brutally honest, rough-rider image that frequently left me scratching my head. Jeff was the kind of mentor a guy such as myself needed during those early days of pastoral work, when I was still cutting my teeth on hospital visits, budget spreadsheets and learning how to organize a worship service. When I did something well, Jeff praised me. When I lagged behind or offered words or ideas that were unhelpful, Jeff prodded me gently with questions and usually offered constructive criticism. In short, Jeff helped me immensely, due in large part because of his many gifts.
He also taught me the importance of pastoral vision—not necessarily vision in the broadest sense (the grand scheme of things, or God’s plan for creation)—but the importance of pastoral vision and clarity when it comes to understanding people, their motives or the reasons behind the decisions they make. Jeff held out a vision for people’s lives. When people had lost their ability to envision hope or promise in their families, their jobs or their communities, Jeff offered his pastoral vision, his understanding of God’s grace and good news.
This is the type of vision that is most often expressed in the gospels, a vision that has deep implications for pastoral leadership, especially as we attempt to pattern our ministries after the life and teaching of Jesus.
I saw this firsthand in the way Jeff handled many challenges and some very tough situations.
One memory, in particular, always has stayed with me.
Late one afternoon, as we were driving back from our hospital visitation, Jeff decided to drop by the church office to pick up his mail. We were both surprised to find several cars in the parking lot—an odd time of day for a meeting, we thought.
Entering the church, we quickly discovered the reason for the gathering. It seems several men of the church had taken it upon themselves to become a moral police, and they were focusing on one family in the community that had a bad reputation. Their ideas were startling, as some of the men seemed intent on keeping a close eye on the family to make sure they didn’t try to infiltrate the church. These men viewed this family as a threat, and their vision was based on fear rather than faith.
As an outsider in the community, I realized many of the issues they were discussing had long history, and there was more than bad blood between some of these men and certain members of the notorious family. I scarcely could have intervened or offered any helpful vision. However, I wasn’t Jeff Davis.
I watched and waited as Jeff sidled up to the men, listened to their conversation with honest interest, and then sighed. Eventually one of the men, who seemed to be serving as the godfather of the group, asked, “What do you think we ought to do about this family, Pastor?”
Jeff sat thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Fellas, I appreciate the concerns that brought you here. We’re all friends, and friends can talk honestly; but what you may not realize is that I know a lot more about this family than you might think. I know, as a matter of fact, that those boys who are causing so much trouble are loved by their momma. Yes, they are into some rough ways and do some bad things, but some day one of them is going to hit bottom; and when that happens, that family might just need our help rather than our condemnation. I don’t think keeping that family at a distance is the answer. I think we should gather them in.”
No, it’s not vision on a grand cosmic scale, but it is pastoral vision at its best. I listened as Jeff summarized the gospel in a way those men could understand—a gospel for their time and situation. It was a tough moment for them—a day filled with fear and a call to action—but Jeff redirected those fears and actions to help them embrace a vision of Christ’s love for others.
I’ll always be grateful to him for showing me this wonderful pastoral skill and demonstrating that pastoral vision is often focused on individual needs and the good of the whole church.
A few days later, one of the brothers in the family died of an overdose of drugs, and Jeff performed the funeral service. He spoke simply, directly and effectively to the family about the dangers of drugs, about their need to turn their lives around. He offered a dose of tough love; but also offered up his help, his prayers and most of all the love of God to help this family in its grief. He promised to be there for the family members and to offer the comfort and direction of the church. He offered them Jesus. Indeed, in the days ahead, the church was able to embrace the family in a new way; and those men of the church were a part of the outreach.
Vision during the tough times…vision during days of dread and deep fear…vision that touches people where they live—this is the type of vision that pastors need to guide a people through the deep challenges whether they be economic, social, spiritual or relational. The vision we need involves seeing the new thing that God can do through someone, for someone or in spite of someone. The vision of the leader is the call that beckons others to follow when they don’t know the way or when the path has been lost amid an array of other roads that ultimately lead nowhere. The vision of the leader rarely offers a glittering path. Sometimes, the vision involves hard work, day-by-day plodding through uncertainty or hope in the midst of hopelessness.
During tough times, the most common experience is fear. In fact, people more often are driven by their fears than faith. Even in the church—and maybe especially in the church—it is common to find people complaining, murmuring or focusing on the negative rather than on hope.
In the gospels, we see this confidence in God’s strength is clearly at the center of the good news. When Christ was born, the angel proclaimed, “Fear not!” to Mary (
During the tough times, it is this vision that should stand most squarely at the heart of our proclamation. God will not fail us. There is hope. Christ is still the Redeemer. He will save us.
The pastor is one who, in the midst of great travail, proclaims the good news: “Come, follow Christ. He is near. Fear not!”
Our tough times breed fear. In fact, we live in a fearful age. These fears are most often what drive the decisions, attitudes and ideas that people cling to—even the decisions that people in high places and positions of authority proffer as hope. Pastoral vision counters fear by offering a better way: God’s way.
The vision provided by leadership remains the same. As the church, we know that God is in control and that our vision involves trust and hope in the creator when the foundations of the world seem to be crumbling.
We live in such times.
Not long ago I attended a support group for the unemployed. The support group was designed to be helpful—a forum through which tips and resources would be offered to help people who were writing resumes or seeking job interviews. At the beginning of the evening, I noted the group was focused on these practical concerns; but as the evening wore on, the discussion quickly turned to other matters: namely, nagging fears about the American economy. Early in the discussion, I decided not to participate but to be a silent observer. I watched people’s expressions, listened to their tone and observed their mannerisms. I was not surprised when the discussion quickly became personal. Soon, each person in the group began sharing his or her own woeful stories. Some felt compelled to relate how much value their 401K or pension had dropped in the past six months. Others related stories of downsizing, unemployment or depression. Eventually people became more agitated in their tone. By the time the session ended, the group as a whole seemed to be draped in a curtain of despair.
Of course, these were real experiences and feelings, and I don’t make light of them. Perhaps some of the expressions were therapeutic, and I realize these same fears have griped most everyone at one time or another. I realized from that group session that economic fears especially can have a strong hold on us. Fears about money—or the lack of it—can often seize our minds, hearts and attitudes. Even a small glitch in our financial picture can summon up dread, despair or unbridled cynicism.
Not long after this group session, I had lunch with a church member who recently had been fired from his job. However, unlike the people who had been sitting in the support group, this friend seemed almost relieved to be searching for a new job. As we lunched, he became increasingly animated as he described the new possibilities he could see for his life. He was not lamenting the loss of his job; he was celebrating the possibilities that lay before him. He wasn’t draped in fear; he was cloaked in optimism.
I asked him how he could be so chipper in the midst of this sudden loss.
“There are lots of reasons,” he told me. “Last week, my wife and I sat down with the kids and told them about my job. Of course, our youngest didn’t really understand all of the implications. She just smiled. But my 10-year-old son was obviously worried. He’d heard us talking about the job loss, and he was old enough to understand what losing a job meant. He wanted to know if we were going to have to move out of the house, if he was going to have to say goodbye to his bedroom and his television, if we were going to be living on the street.”
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“Actually, it was my son who said something to me,” my friend continued. “After a few minutes of worrying, my son said, ‘Dad, you are always working in the garage, tinkering with things, making stuff. You’re an inventor; and you can invent your life, too.'”
“He was right, of course,” my friend continued. “I sat down that night and started composing a list of all the things I have wanted to do with my life. I drew up a list of my dream jobs. Some of these jobs I can interview for now. Some of them will require additional education, but all of them are attainable. I just have to reinvent myself for a new day.”
I was astounded. Some days before I had sat in a group of defeated people, listening to tale after despairing tale. Now I was hearing good news, but what was the difference?
Vision, it seemed to me: the ability to see the possibilities that life holds. The possibilities that can be embraced with God’s help.
This is the type of vision that pastors can offer to people in troubled times.
Pastors have many opportunities to share this type of vision with people who are hurting, looking for wisdom or searching for a path. We don’t have to offer platitudes or proverbs to be helpful. Often our friendship can be a key thing. Sometimes a gentle word or a helpful tip is enough. Yes, there are times when offering advice or support can become the vision that someone needs.
Among the many biblical personalities we can look to as example, perhaps Joseph offers us a top-tier glimpse of a visionary leader. Joseph wasn’t just a visionary, of course; he was also a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. It is noteworthy that Joseph’s vision was deeply personal and that he lived during a most difficult time in Egypt, when a famine had ravished the world.
Joseph’s vision wasn’t always easy, however; and though Joseph wasn’t a pastor, he was certainly an archetype for pastoral leadership. There’s much we can learn from the stories of Joseph in Genesis.
As a boy, when Joseph shared his vision with his father and brothers, he was ridiculed and mocked. Eventually he was rejected—quite literally. Joseph’s early life reminds us that a leader’s vision isn’t naturally embraced. People—maybe even those closest to us—can reject the vision, even if the vision includes them.
Pastors often see the potential that exists inside people—even before they do. For example, how often have we asked someone to serve on a mission team, lead a small group or teach—because we noted the possibilities of that person’s life?
Eventually Joseph makes his way to power in Egypt, but his journey to leadership was not without pitfalls and setbacks. He was assigned a menial job. He was accused falsely. He was thrown into prison.
Although we don’t necessarily follow this same path, Joseph’s experiences can serve to teach pastors some great lessons. Nothing comes easy—not even in the community of faith. There are temptations (some of these might even involve taking easier roads or short cuts or feel-good paths) and trials (which may involve anything from difficult parishioners to crises of many varieties). The key to pastoral leadership is staying faithful to the call, following the vision God has laid upon our hearts for our own lives and well-being.
Finally, Joseph embraced his gift as a dream interpreter. He became a great leader in Egypt. He rose to a place of authority, but did not flaunt it. God remained his Boss.
Pastors know all too well the temptations that come with leadership and authority, but Joseph can serve as a guide. Pastors don’t need to have great power to demonstrate God’s power. We don’t have to rule over people in order for people to trust us.
In the end, of course, Joseph isn’t just a great leader. He is the one who united a family. He was a forgiver. Because of his vision, he offered a salvation far greater than any he could personally provide. Families were delivered. Lives were saved. People were loved. Community wa built and restored.
The implications for pastors are astounding. We don’t always see the outcome of our work, but we do impact families and communities. We often offer God’s forgiveness and reconciliation when people need it most. We have a vision that is greater than our own ministries and positions. It is not about us.
We need to be reminded of this call to pastoral vision from time to time. It is easy to lose sight of it. Especially in the tough times.
Personal vision is also essential. Having goals and a direction for our own lives is vital. Unless we know where we are going and have a personal grounding in faith and hope, it is difficult to share the vision with others.
Vision of the Heart
In their book, Resurrecting Excellence (Eerdmans, 2006), L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong relate a powerful story of pastoral vision.
In 1986, United Methodist bishop David Lawson traveled to Liberia on a mission to try to obtain the release of several United Methodist pastors who were imprisoned. During the final days of his visit, Bishop Lawson was escorted by a young man who took him on a drive into the countryside. The bishop was perplexed when, after some hours, his escort parked the car and beckoned the bishop to follow him to the top of a beautiful, green hill. There, at the top of the hill, was a small concrete box. There was no name on the box, no markings of any kind. The escort began to weep.
Bishop Lawson asked about the significance of this concrete box, and his escort told the story.
Some years before, a young missionary couple, Mr. and Mrs. Fadley, had arrived in Liberia. Mr. Fadley was an agriculturalist and taught the people how to plant and harvest crops. Mrs. Fadley was a teacher. She also established most of the schools in the area. They loved the people of Liberia, and the people had fallen in love with them.
Eventually, however, Mrs. Fadley became gravely ill. However, instead of returning to the United States where she could receive medical treatment, she chose to remain in Liberia. Near the end of her life, Mrs. Fadley gave instructions to her husband. “We’ve loved the people here,” she said. “And, while I know you will take my body back to the United States for burial, I want my heart to remain here, in Liberia. This is where I’ve given my heart and my life!”
At that moment, Bishop Lawson understood what was inside the concrete box, but he also realized he was standing on holy ground and had encountered a holy moment in his own life. He wondered: “What people and work have captured my heart? Is there any work, place or people that have been so important to me that I would want to bury my heart among them?” (Resurrecting Excellence, pages 75-176).
This is the kind of vision that will sustain us through tough times. As pastors embrace the vision God has set before them—a vision of their own influence, work and passion for the people of God—they will discover vision is the work of the heart. Our passion for the church often will be the vision that will sustain people through difficulties and travails. Burying our hearts and lives inside the deep needs of our congregations and communities is the work and the vision that God has set before us.
Todd Outcalt is the lead pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg, Ind., a large growing congregation on the west side of Indianapolis. Calvary has been profiled at FoundationForEvangelism.org and GrowMyChurch.com. He is the author of 22 books in six languages including TheUltimate Christian Living and The Healing Touch. His most recent book (with Michelle Knight) is He Said, She Said: Biblical Stories from a Male and Female Perspective (Chalice, 2012). He lives in Brownsburg with his wife and two children.