Monday, February 21, 2011

Vision Leadership: When Is It Too Big?

I have been working with Indian churches, agencies, colleges and seminaries for nearly 19 years. People in the states often ask me about this or that ministry on the sub-continent. I am guessing they want to know if the leader is ethical, honest and if the ministry is effective. This evaluation is specific for the Indian context, though it can certainly apply to other ministries in the other countries as well.


I asked this question recently to a board member of a significant ministry in Asia. He seemed to be genuinely surprised with the questions and answered with an emphatic “No.” The president of the organization is a gifted visionary leader and the ministry is extensive. While I celebrate visionary leadership, often, in my opinion, the vision is greater than it is able to sustain. Strength over used becomes a weakness. Vision without a means to make the vision a reality becomes a burden.

I speak from experience as I once worked for a visionary. This person is extremely gifted and his vision was insightful and even cutting edge. His foresight, however, was never able to translate into viable and efficient mission organization. I see this repeated numerous times in India. A vision of grandeur that is common here includes starting churches, training schools, colleges, orphanages (is there any India organization who doesn’t have an orphanage?), hospital, clinics and social programs to serve the poor. Any one of these things is good within themselves. The vision becomes a liability, however, as it is unsustainable. Great vision that is untenable are primarily for two reasons.

Peter Doesn’t Have Enough for Paul

The first reason for vision failure is the matter of finances. Unless the organization has a powerful fund raising system it will struggle to keep the many programs afloat. Sadly, a lot of vision ministries rob Peter to pay Paul, i.e. to keep the clinic functioning, money for the orphanage is short-changed. To pay for the school, the evangelists, who are on a stipend, don’t get paid. Several of the multifaceted operations I have seen are poorly run, with staff not being paid an adequate wage, buildings are in disrepair and even the food for students is poor. If the vision isn’t properly funded then it shouldn’t be in existence, at least, that’s my opinion.

The cynical part of me (which often dominates my thought processes) thinks that the vision for multiple programs is a scheme to draw funds from different streams. One hook catches one fish, many hooks will catch a mess, or so the theory goes. While potential donors may not be keen on supporting evangelists, they are all about “brick and mortar,” and willing to pay big bucks to donate to something they can see and touch and perhaps have a plague honoring their donation. In some cases Peter is the building project (church, or school), but Paul (the radio ministry) will survive, thanks to Peter’s windfall.

Only Chameleons Can See In Two Directions

The second problem I see of too great a vision is a divided focus. If you have too many hooks in the water (staying with my fishing metaphor), there is a tendency to look at the line that has a “nibble” while ignoring other lines in the water.

Some years back I was asked to teach in a particular college. After completing my assignment I told the principal I probably would not return to teach. Why? Because the president of the organization did not see the seminary as a priority. He certainly believes in higher education, but the many other ministries consumed his time. The result was the school was not well organized, the students were in a state of confusion and the staff grumbled about the lack of resources and bickered among themselves on who was in charge. And, since no decision of any consequence could be made without the presidents permission and he was engaged in other things, the whole campus had a feel there was no real importance in what they were doing; they were was just a part of the vision ministry and staff and students were there merely to do their job. A divided focus is a precursor of apathy.

On the positive side, I have been with organizations that had only one thrust -- church planting, training or education. Because these groups do one thing well, which is a vision within itself, the programs are effective and efficient. These ministries have their financial challenges, to be sure, but it does not have the feel that they are on the brink of disaster that I see in the programs that are trying to do everything under one grandiose vision.

The story is told of Cam Townsend, who was the founder of Wycliffe and whose vision was to do one thing well. Because of Townsend’s vision, SIL has translated the Scriptures into hundreds of languages. Personally, I am drawn to one vision done well than I am of a multifaceted vision that is done poorly.

In God’s sovereignty He can make even a sow’s ear into a silk purse, though He is unlikely to do so. It is true in multifaceted missions that orphans have come to Christ, churches have been planted and people do earn degrees in their colleges. However, I am concerned that the church in India, and indeed in many parts of the Christian world, that their divided focus in ministry makes it less likely that they will reach their nation with the message of Jesus Christ and His salvation. The vision that is a mile wide and an inch deep is not a strategic hope for a lost world.