Pondering a new vision

There is an all-too-popular belief about one of the qualifications for a leader coming into a new position.  Even though the new leader is entering a new position about which the leader knows very little, and may know even less about the context and demands of the new social/cultural setting, the new leader is expected to be able to project a detailed vision for the future.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to define that commonly held belief as heretical, I would venture to say this belief is a short-sighted approach to the mission of the Christian community. 

This past Saturday we had a day of missional visioning that both stimulated and challenged us.  About 70 to 80 of us gathered in the parish hall of St. Andrew’s, Newport News to be taken through a Fresh Expressions (FEx) visioning process that was entitled “Deep Roots, Wild Branches.”  Though most of us were members of our Episcopal Church “tribe,” also with us were Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists.  Our leaders were Dave Male of the Church of England and Michael Beck of the United Methodist Church.  One of my take-always was that in order to do visioning work, and “work” it is, at least two factors need to be present. 

The first is that there must be a symbiosis of relational trust between the leader and the people who will begin the process of visioning.  I am clearly aware that approximately 28 months ago when I returned to work with the lay and clergy leaders of this diocese that we could not have done the work that we did yesterday.  During the past 2+ years we developed the basic trust needed to work with one another and create an environment that is generally generally devoid of suspicion.

The second necessary factor is to have a critical mass of people who are convinced that the Holy Spirit of God is beckoning them to move in a new and perhaps even untried direction.  This critical mass of people must be able to envision that they are being called by God to move beyond where they are today into a mission field that not only have they not visited, but may previously may have not even previously known of its existence. 

I believe those two factors were present with us on Saturday at St. Andrew’s.  We listened as Dave and Michael challenged us, we engaged them in conversations, and then we began to ponder the emergent possibilities with one another. It is impossible to overstate just how much relational trust that is required in order to have that dialogue.

Agreeably, our visioning was confined to a somewhat defined set of parameters: reframing our Christian mission to move beyond the walls of our church buildings in order to build new congregational structures and engage people outside of our established faith community in conversations about belief in Jesus Christ.  We made significant progress toward building the foundation for what I believe we need in order to commence prayerful strategizing within our existing congregations. 

One of our FEx conversations on Saturday was about the development of FEx teams in our congregations as a way to begin our work of identifying Pioneers, surveying the bounds of our parish neighborhoods and identifying where God might be leading us to find people of peace who can bridge the way for us.  Whether you are a Pioneer or a Sustainer, whether you are ordained or lay, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ all of us have a critical role to play. 

I am clear, now clearer than ever before that my role as your bishop is to be the Permission Giver.  I want you to know that you have my permission to explore the possibilities and to actually engage in a “Wild Branches” project.  With your “Deep Roots” of Holy Baptism” you are fully capable of prayerfully trying out your best ideas.  Whether your new congregation is at a restaurant, a pub, a tattoo parlor, a laundromat, or a coffee shop, don’t be afraid to try.  As one of the participants so eloquently stated on Saturday, “We have to keep throwing the spaghetti up against the wall knowing that some of it won’t stick.”  Well said!

I want to leave my readers with one final thought.  I do not believe that the reason for doing what we are doing is a passing fad or just a momentary aberration in time.  Firmly I believe that the status quo manner in which we are living out our faith in Christ is due for a significant change. If we continue trying to be the church of the latest gimmick, we are going to be traveling a very lonely road.  Sisters and brothers, the possibilities for new life as a reconstituted Christian church are almost endless.  We are at a critical crossroads.  Prayerfully I am asking God to give us the courage to explore and embark upon a new way of being followers of Jesus. 

James B. Magness