John Ed Mathison: Vision from the leader and the whole

Having a “Joel Committee” is one way to make sure the leader is listening and the people are helping create the organization's vision.

In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba, may I have a word?' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which John Ed Mathison replies is here.

Dear Tom Arthur,

Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and insightful questions.

I have always focused my ministry on a model that brings together a group of about twenty lay persons representing leadership positions in different age and interest groupings within the congregation. I refer to this as a Joel Committee, referring to the prophet Joel, who instructs the young to dream dreams and the old to see visions (Joel 2:28).

These Joel committees had a short-term task force function and met about four or five times. They did homework between sessions. They had a deadline to finish and a report to make to the Board of Stewards. That report reflected the vision for the church for the next few years. The Board of Stewards has always adopted it enthusiastically. Then it was given to the congregation so that everyone was on board with the vision. That process took place about every five years.

I believe that the pastor must give leadership in setting the vision, but I feel much more comfortable when the lay people are on board in creating that vision. If they are not a part of the creation of it, they have no ownership and often do not want to participate in carrying out the vision. While the first function of leadership is vision, it is necessary to organize and motivate the laity to be a part of carrying out the vision.

A vision is of no importance unless it is acted upon. A vision has to carry with it explicit expectations of implementation. Unless some prayerful thought is given to a time line and goals for the vision, it simply is a static entity that people will discuss rather than being a passion around which people can commit themselves.

In some denominations where the pastor is the sole authority, churches can get things done quickly by following the pastor’s vision. The pastor does not have to have other people take ownership. The huge danger here is that a corrupt pastor can put people on a terrible path that might include immorality, mismanagement of funds, etc. When the pastor is a person of integrity and operates from pure motives, that model works well. Recent history has demonstrated how many high level leaders have turned out to have false motives and lifestyles.

People ask me about Joel Committees, “Do you dictate the direction in setting the vision or do you really listen to the lay people and their interests?” That is a good question and something that I have to analyze every time I participate or serve as the leader of a Joel Committee. Many facets of the church’s vision over the years have come strictly from the laity. That is one the reason the vision has been good and clear and the people have acted on it as responsible stewards.

You had some interesting questions about the United Methodist denomination. I have been frustrated at the lack of vision and the vision changes of our denomination every few years. I have felt that my first responsibility is to give leadership in my local church. That is my first and foremost responsibility. I have been active in District and Conference and General Conference affairs, but questioned how much leadership we really have at the denominational level.

I am strong on accountability. Having lay people being a part of setting the vision has the intrinsic value of a group of folks who are also going to hold the pastor and each other accountable.

Another reason for letting the congregation be a part of the vision setting is the itinerant system of the United Methodist Church. If the vision belongs only to the pastor, when that pastor moves, the vision moves too. If the laity have input in setting the vision, if the pastor moves the congregation continues to carry out the vision.

For the Cause of causes,

John Ed Mathison

John Ed Mathison is pastor emeritus of Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and now leads John Ed Mathison Leadership Ministries, one of whose priorities is training young leaders.