Over the years, we’ve been a part of a few church ministry teams that have worked hard to define and articulate their vision and mission. Many times, we would slave over the wording of mission statements and vision documents, and then try to figure out the best way to communicate it to the rest of the church. There was one "vision night" in particular, when we were a part of student ministries staff where we emphasized, "We are a ministry of students, not to students."
Through song, video and a lengthy message, we shared our vision for the next year, and tried to generate excitement around the various programs that would support it. We challenged the students that this was their ministry and called them to a deeper commitment to it.
In the following months, though, students weren’t responding like we had hoped they would. It became clear to us the effectiveness of our approach was limited.
Looking back, this approach was ineffective partly because it communicated the opposite of what we intended. By the staff creating the plans, activities, language and direction for the ministry, and then presenting it to the students, it wasn’t their ministry. And they knew it. We said it was their ministry, but the form it took and the way we communicated our vision said it was the staff’s ministry.
We dreamed of a ministry where students saw themselves as full participants, but wrestled with how to approach it. How do you balance the tension of creating ownership amongst all of the people with the reality that those in leadership may also bring a necessary level of clarity, strategic thinking and focus to the ministry? Here are a few of the ways we’ve tried to address this tension.
Emphasize the importance of collaboration and equal voice
Rather than a specific idea, this was more of an overall emphasis. As we discussed our core beliefs, we discovered we truly thought God speaks through all of the members of our community. We believed everyone’s ideas were equal and needed, but the forms of our gatherings and our language sometimes contradicted this belief. We had to work to create opportunities for everyone’s voice to be heard.
This required a re-culturing of sorts because things had been such a top-down activity for so long. The students were “programmed” to expect us to tell them what to do and when to do it. When we first asked them to participate in shaping things, they almost didn’t know how or were slow to believe that’s what we were asking for. It took consistent reminders that it’s not just the pastors or staff members God gives visionary thoughts to—it’s something He gives everyone in our community.
It also required our leadership team to release some of the control. It was more complicated and less polished than what our team would’ve come up with, but we decided what we created with the students would be a much deeper experience.
Invite the community into your story and throughout the process
We invited the students into conversations, not presentations. They were informal discussions about what our thought process had been—being careful to emphasize we were defining what we were going to be about, and we needed them to help. These discussions included letting them in on the internal struggles, conversations and initial thoughts of how we sensed God was moving and leading. We made sure a large percentage of the time included us praying together and allowing them to process, share and dream of new ideas. They were now a part of the process—refining, contributing and clarifying with the unique gifts God had given them.
With this approach, the task of communicating vision became an entirely different effort. It was about encouraging and empowering students to articulate their ideas and passion for the shared vision. Because we worked together to develop it, we naturally found shared language for it. The ownership of what we did was completely different.
Focus on the bigger story
One of the most valuable things we’ve tried to do is help our community see the vision and mission of the church in the context of a much larger story. We spent time reading and talking about how this beautiful, overarching story of God is His plan for restoration and reconciliation of the world that continues with us today.
As we challenged students to think about how God was writing new chapters of this story with them, it became more than just a static list of things that informed them of how to live. It was a story that was alive and changing and involved them. This changed the context of our conversations. We sought God together, looking and listening for how He was speaking to us about joining His redemptive work.
We worked hard to capture the ideas and dreams of our students and allow them to shape our various activities. With God’s story as the context, and with the community rooted in the belief that God can use each and every one of us to shape the vision for our ministry, we saw a level of engagement we hadn’t yet experienced.
Kelly Dolan and Mark Novelli lead IMAGO, which helps leaders rethink the way we gather, learn and worship.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Neue magazine.