08 Mar 2023: From Vision to Vocation: Reframing the Leadership Metaphor
From Vision to Vocation:
Reframing the Leadership Metaphor
Kurtley E. Knight, DMin
Assistant Professor of Spiritual Formation
If a pastor were to take a DMin class on leadership that included a segment on vision, they would likely learn the various ways ministry leaders should form, cast, and develop approaches towards its implementation.
In one sense, there is nothing inherently wrong with such training. When students learn how to formulate and cast vision, such training can enable them to lead their churches with clear direction, measurable goals, and much-needed energy.These are things all organizations require from time to time. Even more, competent Christian leadership should always be aware of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead and the various ways congregations can meet them.
The problem, however, is that contemporary models of vision formation possess an anthropocentric orientation that is primarily focused on “a preferred vision of the future.” In secular leadership literature, for example, vision is defined as “an idealized future goal” or “a set of beliefs about how people should act, and interact, to make manifest some idealized future state.”
Popular Christian literature defines vision no differently. According to George Barna, vision is “a picture held in your mind’s eye of the way things could or should be in the days ahead…It concentrates on the future [and] focuses on thinking ahead.” For Andy Stanley, “visions are born in the soul of a man or woman who is consumed with the tension between what is and what could be [emphasis added].” Vision, in both secular and Christian contexts, is primarily centered around the dream of the leader and the preferred future that she visualizes.
Once more, this definition of vision—seeing a preferred future—is generally presumed, meaning that instructors do not even realize that they are teaching a particular model of vision. In one sense, this should come as no surprise as the presumed concept of vision is an Archetype or central mental model that grounds most conversations about the topic. Whereas mental models are the main narratives and assumptions that guide our understanding of the world, archetypes are the most important of those mental models. Archetypes are such strong narratives that they act like precedents etched in stone as ideal and universal for all people and all time. In sum, leadership educators and practitioners presume a particular model because we have not challenged the definition or perspective of vision itself.
This anthropocentric orientation in vision formation is a problem in Christian leadership for two reasons. First, fixating on a preferred vision of the future distracts pastors from focusing on the work of God in the present. In today’s disoriented and fabricated world, many congregants are experiencing disillusion and hopelessness for several reasons. In this space, the role of the Christian leader is to help her congregation to grow in awareness of God’s immanent presence by cultivating spiritual meaning in everyday life.
Second, in attempting to make a planned future a reality, a leader can often become blind to the human affinity to remain in control. As beings who are made in God’s image, humans have been created with free will or agency. This is inherently a good quality that allows us to act in the world with intention and determination. The temptation towards control, however, happens when leaders become driven by anxiety and attached to their preferred futures. While this kind of attachment can lead to manipulating behaviors, it may also be an attempt to replace God, with one’s self, as the sole person who sees and shapes the future.
To be clear, it is not that teaching students about vision—as a preferred vision of the future—cannot be somewhat helpful. The drawback, however, is that such a focus can prohibit a relinquishing of the future into the hands of the triune God, whom we trust, by faith, already has a preferred future for his people.
Since the above definition of vision is primarily presumed, how can DMin educators help their students understand vision from a theocentric instead of an anthropocentric perspective? Missional theologians and practitioners can help provide an answer.
Redirecting Vision: The Missional Church
The definition of vision among missional theologians and practitioners fundamentally differs from those above that stress a preferred future. Dave Daubert, for example, encourages leaders to have a definition of vision that is “immediate, as being at hand, and as appearing on the scene as it unfolds.” Greg Van Gelder notes that congregations “look to their context to discern their vision.” “Vision,” he continues, “in a congregation is a Spirit-led discernment process of coming to a shared understanding of what God is doing and what God intends to do in its particular context.” Darrell Guder echoes a similar sentiment when he says, “ “The closing images of Revelation are a vision of what God is doing in the present and will bring to completion in the future: a redeemed creation characterized by a new people in a new city where God dwells in their midst. Missional leaders are to form a people shaped by this vision.” In contrast to the definitions above, which stress a preferred vision of the future, vision, from a missional perspective or missional vision, emphasizes the Christian community’s shared understanding of God’s present calling.
While not denying the aspect of sight in the metaphor vision, missional vision is more concerned with where the focus of that sight is directed. God is already in and has prepared a future for his people. Thus, missional thinkers advocate that the leader’s immediate attention be devoted to discerning the “vision now.” This nuanced perspective can help shift the leaders’ outlook. Instead of attempting to create a future, leaders can focus on discerning the presence of God, who promises to journey with His people into the future. Vision, then, becomes a process of seeing or discerning God’s invitations and immanent presence among his people within a given context.
A biblical example of this reoriented vision can be seen in Acts 1. In a post-resurrection scene, Luke records an anxious company of disciples conversing with the resurrected Jesus. Curious about the future, they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” To this question about a preferred future Jesus responds, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria. and to the ends of the earth.” In this saying, Jesus redirects the sight of his disciples away from the future so they can focus on bearing witness to what they see God doing in the people and places they visit. The invitation is not one of forecasting but of discernment.
But how does this practically play out in a pastoral leadership setting? If this shift of sight is in line with Jesus’ admonition, then how are leaders supposed to “lead?” In an attempt to answer these questions, missional thinkers suggest that pastors prioritize two essential leadership functions congruent with this redirected perspective.
First, the missional literature suggests that pastors learn to cultivate sacred space. The word cultivate is used intentionally. Rather than imagining themselves as a type of creator, pastors, in this imagination, are more like gardeners who tend the soil of the plants and flowers that have already been planted. Through practices such as listening, dialogue, and meditation on Scripture, these leaders nurture the ability of congregants to see what the Spirit is doing among, around, and through the people. This critical function of leadership aids in the process of bearing witness.
The second essential function identified is the pastoral ability to weave together spiritual meaning. Along with embracing the gardener metaphor, missional practitioners envision pastoral leaders as poets who help make meaning out of the events and situations of daily life. Building on the practices mentioned above, pastors are encouraged to come alongside their congregations to aid their people in weaving together, into one narrative from many, the story God is writing in their midst. This construction of a single corporate narrative fosters an environment for congregational identity and calling to emerge. Speaking about the importance of this function in pastoral leadership, Roxburgh says,
The pastor weaves together the people’s voices so that the story of who they are and what they actually experience is articulated, called forth, and owned. In this process the tapestry of their lives is made visible…Such poetry writing begins the process of calling out an alternative vision for God’s people…the poet writes so that the congregation hears their story as God’s pilgrim people.
In place of casting a preferred vision of the future, missional theologians and practitioners encourage pastors to lead their churches by casting a vision of the present through the cultivation of sacred space and the weaving together of spiritual meaning that helps to name the present work of God among the people now. In this pastoral imagination, leaders help their congregations discern whom they are called to be—their specific vocation or calling within their present context in response to God’s grace and immanence. In sum, missional vision redirects the definition of vision to vocational language.
Reframing the Vision Metaphor
DMin educators can learn from missional practitioners and help students understand a different model of vision formation by reframing the leadership metaphor from vision, as in a “preferred vision of the future,” to vocation, as in “vision now”—seeing and responding to whom God calls a congregation to be in the present. This shift goes beyond vocabulary preferences, carrying three critical implications for pastoral ministry and congregational life.
First, reframing the metaphor to vocation would help change the leadership posture from “creating a vision” to “receiving a calling.” With the future firmly in the hands of God, pastors could free their congregations from the pressure associated with striving for church “success” and re-imagine congregational life as a journey together in faith.
Second, utilizing the language of vocation in place of vision would help pastors prioritize congregational identity over congregational activity. Giving pastors new language would remind pastors navigating change that their plans of “doing” must be generated from their “being, as God’s people who are shaped by His story.
Finally, this type of reframing would also help pastors reimagine vision formation as a fundamentally shared, and not an individual, endeavor. All three of the Persons of the Trinity envisioned and created the universe. As the Body of Christ, the church comprises many members who contribute to her shared life. God is present not just to the clergy, but to all people. Thus, while the clergy are called to lead, all have a unique perspective about what God might be up to. The ability to recognize the shared nature of vision is also essential because of the emphasis contemporary culture places on participation and mutuality. These cultural values, on top of the numerous scandals surrounding the abuse of Christian leadership within the last several years, have left many sensitive and suspicious of models of Christian leadership that are not transparent, open to diverse voices, and shared. Teaching pastors how to communicate and lead in a way that subverts these realities could lead to greater pastoral and congregational health.
Vision, as a metaphor for seeing a preferred future, gives pastoral leaders a partial picture. While it is true that such a metaphor can harness energy and provide focus, it can also divert the leaders’ sight away from discerning God’s presence. This article, however, has suggested that DMin educators can help pastors redirect their sight by adopting the language of vocation or calling, in place of vision. This subtle, yet pivotal shift, would help turn the eye of leaders to see and respond to whom God is calling them and their congregations to be in the present.
Barna, George. The Power of Vision: How You Can Capture and Apply God’s Vision for Your Ministry. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992.
Branson, Mark Lau. Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004.
Conger, Jay A. “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership in Organizations.” The Leadership Quarterly10, no. 2 (1999): 145–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1048-9843(99)00012-0.
Cormode, Scott. “Cultivating Missional Leaders: Mental Models and the Ecology of Vocation.’” Essay. In The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, edited by Craig Van Gelder, 99–119. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009.
Daubert, Dave. “The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity.” Essay. In The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, edited by Craig Van Gelder, 147–72. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009.
Fiorenza Schüssler Elisabeth. Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984.
Gelder, Van Craig. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI, MI: Baker Books, 2009.
Hunsberger, George R. The Story That Chooses Us: A Tapestry of Missional Vision. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.
Knight, Kurtley E. “Spiritual Leadership in an Age of Disorientation.” Renovare: Christian Spiritual Formation. Renovare, 2022. https://renovare.org/articles/spiritual-leadership-in-an-age-of-disorientation.
Roxburgh, Alan J., and Fred Romanuk. Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006.
Roxburgh, Alan. “Pastoral Role in the Missionary Congregation.” Essay. In The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, 319–32. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996.
Senge, Peter M. Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990.
Stanley, Andy. Visioneering: God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Vision. Colorado Springs, CO.: Multnomah Books, 1999.
Strange, Jill M., and Michael D. Mumford. “The Origins of Vision: Effects of Reflection, Models, and Analysis.” The Leadership Quarterly 16, no. 1 (2005): 121–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2004.07.006.
 Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 45-49.
 Jay A Conger, “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership in Organizations,” The Leadership Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1999): pp. 145-179, https://doi.org/10.1016/s1048-9843(99)00012-0, 153.
 Jill M. Strange and Michael D. Mumford, “The Origins of Vision: Effects of Reflection, Models, and Analysis,” The Leadership Quarterly 16, no. 1 (2005): pp. 121-148, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2004.07.006, 122.
 George Barna, The Power of Vision: How You Can Capture and Apply God’s Vision for Your Ministry (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992), 29-30.
 Andy Stanley, Visioneering: God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Vision (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1999), 17.
 Peter M. Senge, Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990), 235.
 Scott Cormode, “Cultivating Missional Leaders: Mental Models and the Ecology of Vocation.,’” in The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 107.
 For more detail about Archetypes visit, Fiorenza Schüssler Elisabeth, Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984), 10.
 Kurtley E. Knight, “Spiritual Leadership in an Age of Disorientation,” Renovare: Christian Spiritual Formation (Renovare, 2022), https://renovare.org/articles/spiritual-leadership-in-an-age-of-disorientation. n
Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 145.
 Dave Daubert, “The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity,” in The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), pp. 147-172, 167.
 Ibid. 170.
 Van Craig Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 147.
 Daubert, “Vision Discernment vs. Vision Casting,” 160.
 Roxburgh and Romanuk, Missional Leader, 152-153.
 Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004).
 Alan Roxburgh, “Pastoral Role in the Missionary Congregation,” in The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, ed. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996), pp. 319-332, 330-331.
George R. Hunsberger, The Story That Chooses Us: A Tapestry of Missional Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 113.