Vision Statements Re-visited: Getting from “me” to “we.”

Apart from Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4, have you ever been truly inspired by a Vision Statement that you’ve seen in an organisation or church? Your answer probably depends on how much you were involved in helping craft the statement and how much of your own passion you see reflected in it.

In my experience, rather than inspiring people to action, most Vision Statements tend to leave people vaguely amused but cold. This is because it is almost always the expression of the vision of one person (at best the leadership team).

Click me and I’ll tell you more!

To me, this is out of step with the biblical principle in Joel 2:28 where God says that He will pour out His Spirit on all people. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”.  If we take this to be true, surely we need to design visioning processes that take account of the whole body.

‘Vision Statements’ embody assumptions about the nature of leadership, which can be examined and placed within its underlying theoretical contexts. In this sense, they serve as ‘windows’ on the worldview of the people who crafted them.

Even organisation researchers have begun to acknowledge that Mission or Vision Statements are “centrally produced and managed information system”, which are obvious attempts by management to “impose general rules about the organisation”.  This research showed that “lower grade staff” regarded the authors of these Statements as elite groups imposing their values on everyone else. Rather than feeling inspired, they feel marginalised because the Statements feel like a closing down of conversations by a “monologic discourse”.  This also applies to church members.

In the community we call ‘Church’, what would happen if vision statements avoided imposing a unitary grand narrative and used approaches that genuinely reflect and celebrated diversity? The sheer numbers of people that make up church makes its “polyphonic” or multi-voiced. While in theory we say that we value diversity, in practice most evangelical churches have tended to the take the line that “we can only work together we agree on everything first”. (Don’t get me wrong, we have a grand narrative (story) to tell to the nations… but how we go about doing this in our local context needs to be in conversation with everyone who serves in that context, not just the leader/s.)

If we do have to have Vision Statements, we would do better by designing a process where everyone can speak with their own unique voice and experience, making their own agendas explicit. In such a process, the role of leaders is to facilitate a visioning process that connects different voices with common ground for action; and creates common sense of how to go on. This is done by helping people to genuinely listen to each other; to appreciate diversity; and to use the multiplicity of views as a resource and strength to meet this challenge.

In one organisation I worked for, we deliberately designed a ‘community visioning exercise’ and called the document we co-created at the end, our Statement of Visions. 10 years later, the actions we agreed on are still being enacted passionately by the people who were there. Why? Simply, because the outcomes were co-created; linked to what we were passionate about; and, consequently, genuinely shared and owned. The relational processes involved in getting from ‘me’ to ‘we’ was hard and sometimes painful but boy did it bear fruit!

I couldn’t express this better than Philip Larkin (1959):

Thinking in terms of one

Is easily done –

One room, one bed, one chair

One person there,

Makes perfect sense;

One set of wishes can be met,

One coffin filled.

But counting up to two

Is harder to do;

For one must be denied

Before it is tried

3 thoughts on “Vision Statements Re-visited: Getting from “me” to “we.”

  1. So, the problem is not the “vision” but the “statement.” How about living with a “Vision Question” (which does not need to be answered); or a Vision Dialogue or Vision Drama instead?!

  2. According to (Anderson and Burney, 1996), we need to re-frame ‘visioning’ from a “hierarchical and interventionist relationship between expert and non expert, to a collaborative and mutual endeavour by people with different type of expertise”. I would add different types of experience, skills, gifts, talents, perspectives, etc.

  3. Thank you Patrick for this. I agree with the basic premise about vision/mission statements.

    I don’t think it seems utopian if the community already has some sense of common purpose which they can then helpfully work on and articulate together – or at least a common desire to look ahead and act. What bothers me is if lots of folk simply are happy to stay where they are: what then? To put it another way, where is the role of leadership in challenging, not just facilitating? (I take it as read that the leadership’s role in such a situation is not simply to impose a vision statement!).

    I would love to know more about what the community that tried it did because it sounds great: how did they did do it and what’s happening as a result?

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