Articulating a Vision


“Vision without action is merely a dream.  Action without vision just passes the time.  Vision with action can change the world.”  That’s Joel A. Barker.

The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie said, “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.”

And Jonathan Swift said that “Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.”

What is a vision statement?  Why is it important?  What makes it different than a mission statement?  Is it necessary to have one?  Is it important to have one?  How can it make a difference?  What’s it for, anyway?

Unitarian Universalists ask a lot of questions.  These are pretty good ones.  If you want to start with the Bible, I guess the best place is in Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  (Proverbs: 29:18)  If that’s not a sufficient reason to care about a vision statement, I can’t imagine what is.

But, is it true?  We might modify it a bit– we might go to Seneca, the Greek philosopher: “To the person who does not know where he wants to go, there is no favorable wind.”  Plenty of wind maybe, but in what direction?  If you do not have a destination in mind, how do you know when you get there?  Will you ever get there?

I had lunch with a fellow minister in town recently.  Towards the end of our time together, I put to him (or her, let’s keep it anonymous), the question “What is the purpose of church?”  This is a big question to spring on someone at a somewhat leisurely lunch, I suppose, and this minister was not quite prepared to answer it.  I’m not sure I could have answered such a question put on the spot like that, myself.

Just then we were joined by a newly retired minister, the Reverend John Wesley, formerly of First Christian Church.  So, we put the question to him.  He thought for a few moments; I saw his eyes look to a place where his speculation could focus most intensely, and he said “To be the body of the spirit of Christ in the world.”

I told him that I thought that that was a perfect answer– from a Christian perspective.  If you believe in the work of Christ as he performed it in the world in his human form (and as we are given to understand it in the only sources we have), then it’s reasonable enough to believe that there was a certain spirit that animated that work.  Once the body has departed from the world, the believers, if their belief guides their lives, will want to embody the spirit of that work, to be the body of the spirit of Christ in the world.

Now, this was not a definition that John had formulated in advance– I certainly don’t think it was, anyway.  It came from his ruminations on what he had studied and how he had lived his life for the many years leading up to that moment.  It is his sense of what the mission of the church should be.

A mission statement, more than a vision statement, but it would not take too much tweaking to transform it to a vision statement, defining the “optimal desired future state–the mental picture–of what an organization wants to achieve over time,” as “Jennell Evans says in an article in her “Psychology Today” blog.

A vision statement may be important for the reason stated in Proverbs, in order merely to survive.  What is the point of living if you are not living towards something?  Certainly, a vision statement is important for the reason stated by Seneca– there is no wind that you can take advantage of if you don’t know where you aim to go.

Those, I think, are the most basic reasons for a church or any organization to formulate a meaningful vision statement.  You must have a vision in order to articulate it in a statement.

Impressive as it was, that John Wesley could articulate a statement in such a short time, it must be admitted that the Christian church has the advantage over the Unitarian Universalist in having a central text with a (mostly) consistent central message.

Each UU church must formulate its own vision because it comes from the people.  The people may be steeped in their UU faith over time or they may be fairly new to it.  A further challenge is that it’s a statement that should be pretty durable, lasting past the time when just those who are members today will be here.  And, it should be looked at with fresh eyes and listened to with fresh ears every few years to see if it still rings true.

We are fortunate (because we have been responsible enough to craft one) to have a solid statement in our bond of covenant, and our saying it together each Sunday serves to keep it fresh in our minds and hearts.  And, I think our mission statement is solid, too.  It helps us to remind ourselves who we strive to be as a spiritual community.  A vision statement is important, too, because it reminds us who we are striving to become.

If you were to look at the vision statements of other Unitarian Universalist churches, you would find words such as “respect, caring, compassion, fellowship, community, growth, freedom, religious principles, resources, conservation, justice, generosity, reverence, connectedness, transformation, acceptance, welcoming, energetic, and questioning.”  And if that is not enough, you will also find words like “impact, exploration, inclusion, understanding,” and “inspiration.”  With so many qualities and worthwhile values, how do you even know where to begin?

In January this year, we gathered for a town meeting whose primary purpose was to clarify our values.  If you participated in it, you probably remember how challenging it was– first to come up with eight values that you think that the church should embody, then to partner with another church member (or friend– friends were also included) to come to agreement on eight shared values– not personal values, but values that you think that the church should embody. And then, an even greater challenge, to meet in groups of four to further argue the merits of the various values chosen.

In the end, you’ll remember that there was much laughter as well as challenge in the exercise– though we did not choose “humor” as one of our core values, more’s the pity.  But, we did come up with a list of ten values that came out in preponderance, though some on only three of the many lists that were posted.  Maybe that would be a good place to start when trying to formulate a vision statement for this church.

We would be choosing from a list of spiritual values that include respect and acceptance, integrity and compassion, spirituality and service, mindfulness and balance, communication and community.  (I’ve listed them that way to give a sense of balancing the terms with one another.)  We could use this list as a place to start, but I would caution against using it too rigidly, as qualities not listed may seem important to a vision statement.

Earlier, I congratulated us on being responsible enough to craft a suitable bond of covenant and mission statement.  I have a feeling that the word “responsibility” would make its way onto that list in the course of a congregational discussion.

A vision statement defines the optimal future state– the mental picture– of what an organization wants to achieve over time.  Jennell Evans, whom I quoted earlier, facilitates planning sessions for organizations on formulating their statements of vision and mission.  She further advises that a vision statement “provides guidance and inspiration as to what an organization is focused on achieving in five, ten, or more years.”

It functions as our “north star”– what we all understand our daily work to be moving towards in a longer term.  And “it’s written succinctly in an inspirational manner that makes it easy” for any of us to repeat at any given time.  That’s quite a recipe, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

Our leaders will change– we’ll have an election at the end of the month to choose four new members for our Board of Directors.  A vision statement presents a guide for them and for the next group elected to know what it is that they need to work for in order to lead this congregation into a future that is bright and meaningful.  There is a quote from the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi that may be applicable: “Looking up gives light, although at first it makes you dizzy.”

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairhaven, Connecticut, has a lengthy vision statement– too lengthy for anyone to manageably memorize, but its opening is worth hearing: “The people of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven envision an energetic, compassionate community committed to living with deep respect and caring for each other and the world.”

I’m not sure how the folks in Fairhaven arrived at their vision statement, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was by availing themselves of the resources available at the UUA.  In their document “Creating the Vision,” they offer a variety of ways for a congregation to create its vision statement.

In order to do so, though, congregations have to get by some typical obstacles.  These are some of those listed by Jennell Evans:

  • “It will take too much time to develop (it);”
  • “We will never reach consensus;”
  • “Everyone… here already knows what we do, so what is the benefit of writing a statement about it?”
  • “We have our goals.  Who needs a Vision or Mission?”
  • “Actually defining our vision and mission will mean changes in the organization– who has time to deal with more resistance to change?”

The (maybe not-so-) obvious question is “If a church can’t define where it’s going, how can it align its resources and services towards a successful future?” (paraphrasing Ms. Evans).

Here are some of the suggestions from the UUA for an envisioning process: “Some congregations do it as part of a congregational retreat, while others do it as part of a single-day program or one that takes place over several weeks.  Some congregations create a vision statement as part of worship, while others use lifespan religious development religious education as a vehicle for creating the shared vision.”  Caution is given not to rush through the process; advice is given as to how to get past periods where the process stalls.

For a one-day workshop, “Guided Imagery for a Group” is one suggestion.

Here, participants are invited to relax and use their imaginations to dream of a compelling but practical future for (the) congregation in five or ten years.  People jot down… images, thoughts, feelings, and words that occur to them during the exercise.

In your imagination, approach a compelling but practical vision of our congregation five or ten years from now.  What is the feeling of anticipation that you experience in yourself as you do this?  Imagine yourself approaching the neighborhood or the community where our congregation is located.  What do you notice about this surrounding neighborhood…?  Who are the people who live here?  What are their needs and desires?

Approach now in your imagination the actual location where our congregation meets.  What does the landscape look like– how does the facility appear on the outside?  What does it say about the congregation?

Now open the doors to the meeting place.  What do you notice?  Who is gathered there?  In what activities are these people engaged?  Who is missing from the picture?  What is the atmosphere like?  How does it feel to be there?  What are the aesthetics of the place?  Tour the building(s) and visit the various activities that are occurring in the building(s).

The exercise goes on from there.

Another suggestion is to gather in groups of three, each person taking five minutes to share his or her vision for the church.  You listen for the common themes that emerge, and you list them on a piece of newsprint that is prominently displayed.

Another option is to invite individuals to meditate on their vision for the future of the church by themselves, taking as long as a month if necessary before meeting as a group to share insights, dreams and vision.  Each option on the site includes in-depth suggestions for follow-through.  One suggestion is for folks to place colored dots beside the individual insights they feel best represent their vision.

One important thing is that the exercise be done within a structure that is clearly defined and feels somewhat comfortable for the congregation as a whole, knowing that individual preferences will vary.  Another important thing, as you’ve heard, is that the project be taken on by the congregation as a whole– if you have helped craft the vision, you will be more likely to commit to it.

What else is important in crafting a vision statement?  Again, the UUA site has some suggestions:

  • It should be faithful to the congregation’s best understanding of its religious heritage.
  • It should be appropriate to this particular congregation.  Keep in mind our history, our culture, our size, our resources, our capacities, what we deeply care about.
  • It should be realistic.
  • It should contain “both judgment and promise.”
  • It should be “specific enough to provide direction for the congregation’s life, but broad enough to include multiple but complementary visions important to groups within the congregation.”

For a congregation that is starting both an Earth-based small ministry group and a creative arts expression group at the same time, that kind of consideration is worth keeping in mind.

Until we have a shared vision for the church, I expect that we will continue to be guided by our mission and our own individual vision of what the church should grow into.  Trouble is, if we have a few dozen visions, we’re liable to keep running into each other in unproductive ways.

I’ll share with you now my operating vision for the church, the vision I follow as I attempt to help lead us into our future.  My vision is that we will be a model to the community of sustainable ecological practices, that we will inspire our members to work for justice in our society, and that we will grow in wisdom and dedication towards fulfilling our mission as a church.

Today, I charge this congregation to create a vision statement for the future of this church.  Your Board of Directors is a resource for guiding this process.  Your Committee on Ministry is composed of dedicated members who have shown commitment and vision.  Your minister is certainly a resource.  We are planning a church caucus for June.  We might want to think of that a starting point for planning our vision for the future.

In the words of Alvin Toffler, “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”


  • : “Vision and mission: What’s the difference and why does it matter?” by Jennell Evans; April 24, 2010
  • “Leading Thoughts: Building a Community of Leaders”
  • “Vision, Mission, and Covenant: Creating a Future Together”


 Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY

on May 3, 2015

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