9.01.2006

On mission and vision

"Where there is no vision the people perish" -- Proverbs 29:18a, KJV
If people can't see what God is doing,
they stumble all over themselves;
But when they attend to what he reveals,
they are most blessed. -- Proverbs 29:18, The Message
Seeing is believing, according to the aphorism. And having a vision is life-giving to God's people, the proverb says. Conventional wisdom holds that our corporate life -- that of nations and conglomerates and soccer clubs and congregations -- also flourishes with the appropriate mission and vision "statements." But what is a vision?

In Scripture visions are foretastes of the feast to come -- sometimes dire warnings, sometimes descriptions of God's desire, but always pointers to the ultimate and true reality that underlies the world of the senses. Visions are given to a prophet or sage. But if they are to have any meaning at all, they must become the people's vision story, the lenses through which they view and interpret the world and God's action in it.

The NIV (and The Message) and the NRSV render "vision" as "revelation" and "prophesy." I like these less poetic renderings better, because they give the sense that the vision is not just an inspired idea but a gift from God, a window into the hidden workings of creation. Such a vision is inspiration, inspection and introspection. It invites me not just to share the vision but to engage it, wrestle with it, to have a relationship with it -- and the one who gives the vision. It calls up the reality Socrates addressed when he wrote that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I can stumble along blinded by the limits of my "vision," or I can allow that vision to be shaped by the story of God's revealed desires for the world, and us.

We spend a lot of time with mission and vision "statements" in organizations, including the church. Often it's hard to tell them apart, and for leaders to encourage organizations to have interrelated missions and visions. For many organizations, the unspoken question becomes: We have a mission, why on earth would we need a vision, too?

A mission statement is primarily a tool. On the journey of the organization's existence, the mission is the compass that leaders have to consult to determine if they are actually going in the right direction. Does this project/product/service really align with where we think we should go, or does it veer off at 90 degrees? Consider hiking in the woods or driving in an unfamiliar city. It is hard to determine that you're off course visually, often times, until you're already lost. But if you know you're supposed to be heading generally north from the airport to your destination, and the compass points to south, it's providing valuable input.

(Yes, today a traveler would switch on the GPS, but that's only because we know our physical world well enough to completely surround it with satellites. In the worlds our organizations live and move and have their being in, territory is still being discovered, and there are no reference signals to calibrate to.)

If a mission statement is a compass, a vision statement is the course charted on the map. It acknowledges not only the path we want to take but also the paths we have foresaken. Without a destination there is no way along the journey to know where you should be going, and thus no need for the compass. (As the old saw says, If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there.) The journey of a thousand miles may start with a single step, but if that step isn't heading toward the goal it's not a start; you've just re-defined the journey as one of a thousand miles and one step.

If a mission is a tool, then a vision is a dream, a picture of what the business gurus call a "preferred future." And isn't that what God gives people through Scriptural visions -- a picture of how God is in action behind the visible actions and motivations of the world, and a sense of how they can be part of (or work against) that action?

Mission statements can and sometimes do end up being recapitulations of the existing: We do x, y and z, so our mission is to do x, y and z (but better). And missions can be frustratingly vague. At one former employment, my boss used to joke that our mission was "the broad side of a barn" -- there was almost nothing we could do, short of trashing the organization's reputation or embezzling, that wouldn't further the mission. That's great if I want to justify what I'm doing, but not so helpful if I want to know if I'm going in the right direction (as opposed to going in any direction but reverse).

A vision, by definition, requires seeing something. It requires a picture of a heretofore unseen need that can be met, a niche to be filled, a way of being a community that does not presently exist. It is a dream that has the potential to unify and inspire people, and to demand their best. On a journey it is not the running congruence of direction to plan that excites people -- it is the possibilities that are unleashed by the destination.

There's always a tension between vision and mission, between the possible and the practical. And both are needed. It's great to want to go on your dream trip, but to do it you have to chart a course, decide whether to fly or drive, buy tickets or gas, and actually leave your driveway. But having a mission without a vision reduces that dream to driving around the block but never leaving your neighborhood.

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