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?

Scripture says, "Ask and you shall receive." That's pretty simple.

But not everyone in Scripture got what they asked for.

One of the best examples is Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane. This is a deeply disturbing scene but one that offers insight into how to have confidence without clarity. It is a great model for times of confusion and longing.

The prayer we see in Mark 14:36 can be broken down into three beautifully simple elements:

1. "Abba! Father! All things are possible for you!"

What a way to start a prayer! It begins with a reminder of whom we're addressing. We're not filling out paperwork to submit to some faceless bureaucrat. This is our Father. And what a Father he is! Nothing is beyond him. There is no question about whether God can do what we're about to ask.

2. "Remove this cup from me."

Here's where Jesus presents his heart's desire. He's not afraid to be honest and admit he wants something. Six simple syllables never had so much significance. When we pray according to this model, what heartfelt yearning will we insert here? God knows our heart, the ways we long to see restoration in our congregations and communities. So we might as well voice them. Even if doing so makes us feel vulnerable.

3. "Yet not what I will, but what you will."

This final statement perfectly balances the prayer, making it a very brief but satisfying prayer to pray. We've acknowledged who God is and what he can do. We've been honest about our desires. And now we end by giving God the final word. We trust the outcome to a well-meaning, all-powerful being who has heard us.

In all of the decisions we need to make as church leaders, this is a perfect prayer to pray. We begin with the reminder that our Father can do anything, add our heartfelt yearnings, and then finish with the confidence that in the end, it's in his hands. Years of praying this prayer have brought me to this simple statement which my congregation is probably tired of hearing (but I'll keep saying it anyway):

"I don't know what God will do, but I know what he can do."

It's not our job to know all the answers. We simply trust the One who knows them. It's our job to fearlessly lead our flock to follow him, even though we're not sure where he'll take us. As our people see our confidence, even without clarity, they'll find the same confidence. Not in us but in him.

Mandy Smith serves as lead pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy's latest book is, Making a Mess and Meeting God: Unruly Ideas and Everyday Experiments for Worship (Standard, 2010).