Part of a pastor's role is to cast vision, to lead the congregation to new places, and fearlessly speak on God's behalf.
But how can we really know what God wants? Of course, we know in general ways—he wants all people to be restored to him and he wants us, as his people and his church, to be part of that effort, making disciples of Jesus.
But what does he think of our new discipleship programming plans?
Or our hopes to build an orphanage in Guatemala, or renovate the fellowship hall?
Or our new initiative to encourage hospitality?
Early in my ministry, I had a moment of clarity. During a personal retreat, I was deep in Scripture and prayer and had a strong sense of where God was leading our church. It was such a beautiful vision and I took it back to the church, bubbling with confidence and energy. But my enthusiasm was met with blank stares and confusion. They needed explanation. So, in my urgency to see the vision fulfilled, I used language like "This is God's will for us!" That didn't help. People whose prayers and reflection didn't lead them to the same place felt manipulated by my "God talk." But I soldiered on, fueled by my own vision, making grand claims. Things didn't go the way I'd promised.
The next time I needed direction on a big ministry decision, I decided to leave God out of it. I'd made him look bad by abusing his name to get my way. I'd made promises of specific outcomes that must not have been from him, since they never materialized. Who are we to say God will provide for us to renovate our facility or add a new staff member when there are obviously people in the world who pray every day for basic needs and don't get them? So instead of seeking him, I switched into problem-solver mode. I took my very carefully reasoned plan to the leadership and we dissected it, shaped it, and put it into place. It met or exceeded our goals and I got some pats on the back. But it felt small and Godless.
In Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning tells a story that resonates with me:
"When the brilliant ethicist, John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at 'the house of the dying' in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, 'And what can I do for you?' Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.
"'What do you want me to pray for?' she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States. 'Pray that I have clarity.'
"She said firmly, 'No, I will not do that.' When he asked her why, she said 'Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.' When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, 'I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.'"
Asking and receiving
When we seek God's leadership on big decisions, what are we hoping he will provide? A five-year strategy? A clear picture of the finish line? Is it enough for him to just reveal the next step?
When we step up in front of the eldership or the congregation to invite them into a new vision—maybe one we feel is directly from God himself—how do we do it? On the one hand, we want to dream big, not to let our lack of faith limit what God wants us to do. But will we look dumb if the plan we come up with doesn't go as we promised? Will we make God look bad if we misspoke about where he was leading? Will we doubt his goodness (and cause others to doubt him) if the things we promised on his behalf didn't materialize? Or will we make bold claims in his name and risk manipulating those who don't get the vision?