“…[Jacob] saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it…he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’” (Genesis 28: 12,16)
If the priest, who has received the prophetic calling, in the grace granted to him in the sacrament of holy ordination, with theological training and the task of servant leadership in a parish, does not envision the future of his community, then who will?
Yet, here the priest must tread very carefully to ensure that it is not a vision that is generated solely by his own imagination, instinctual needs, fear or pride. Rather, it must be a vision founded in the teaching, purpose, mission and life of the holy Orthodox faith specific to the mission of his parish. So synergia is required – God first, but then the priest playing a vital role.
What are impediments to envisioning?
The days and weeks of most priests are so filled with meetings, services, hospital visits, counseling, writing, preparing, teaching, conflict management and responding to the tyranny of the urgent task that little time or effort is devoted to the essential task of envisioning the future of the parish. This is called working, working, working “in” a parish, but never working “on” the parish.
Is it also possible that the burden of nationally state-sponsored churches or the opposite – of the restrictions placed upon the church through political suppression by Mongols, Muslims, Communists, etc., have formed a “maintenance mentality” that stifles envisioning? If charitable or educational work is forbidden or state sponsored, then why envision a hospice or a school?
Many of the relatively small percentage of priests who naturally engage in this process may not have the knowledge, skills or resources required to bring the dream into reality. The vision is there and the priest succeeds in articulating a compelling vision of the future of his parish but there is no real progress due to a lack of requisite skills. The result may then be that there is no striving forward into the Kingdom – only maintenance of present conditions – that gently sloping, sign-less and fatal road leading gently but inexorably downward and downward into darkness.
Some priests fear envisioning because if it is to be effected, then it usually requires significant internal and external changes within the community. They know that change, especially major change, is a difficult, challenging, painful and often conflicted process for a parish. Having unsuccessfully attempted major change before, they correctly assume that this will likely extract a high toll on their energy, time and emotional reserves and may make little difference. And who has time, energy and emotional reserves to spare? There is a temptation to cynicism, defeatism and do nothing rationalizations.
One essential process that forces envisioning is strategic planning because the essential question of all strategic planning is “What do we wish to become?” Strategic planning counterbalances the tyranny of the urgent task that leads only to working, working, working "in" the parish. Strategic planning and the exercise of envisioning a future leads to working "on" the parish. This is the epitome, sine qua non, of working smart.
Strategic planning is the place and the process where dreams and visions are tested, researched, delineated, formed, qualified, funded, critiqued, validated and embraced by the larger community. Strategic planning gives credible specificity to the plan for parish development and the fulfillment of its mission.
From the results of a strategic planning process, the priest together with lay leadership may now sound a trumpet, a compelling articulation of the future of the parish and issue an urgent call to action.
Six suggested preliminary questions for envisioning:
What do we wish to become?
What are we trying to achieve?
How does the vision affect key audiences?
How does the vision materially affect parish resources?
What if money was not a problem, what would we do?
What are the implications of the vision for me and for my family?