The official looking letter said that the conference president wanted to meet with me at a certain date/time. The local church I pastored in the late 1970s had been involved in some new ministry initiatives and I thought that certainly must be the catalyst for such a rare invitation.
After I drove two-and-half-hours, the president’s secretary ushered me in to what we pastors called the “Inner Sanctum.” Our tall, silver-haired, grandfatherly leader came out from behind his large oak desk to greet me.
“Well, hi Kim, great to see you,” he began. “You must be wondering why I called you in. I wanted to confirm with you personally something that I heard from others. Is it correct that you are holding Sabbath School classes that don’t use the General Conference Quarterly?”
Somewhat taken aback, my mind quickly groped for a cogent reply. Was this really the main topic? Images of our recent Sabbath School initiative flashed through my mind.
Our church had invited the conference evangelist to hold a series of meetings that were to begin in six months. Wondering how to maximize the number of people we reached with the gospel, I recalled Ellen White’s stirring analysis,
If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one. —Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume 9, p. 189, emphasis supplied.
“That’s it!” I thought. The best preparation would be to help the church become more caring.
I strategized a way forward. I recalled Douglas Cooper’s recently released book, Living God’s Love and envisioned the impact if we could study that book together for one quarter in Sabbath School. I brought the idea to the Church Board with the caveat that one class would still study the Quarterly for those who wanted it. To my delight, they supported the idea unanimously.
After only three weeks, the results were amazing. People shared from their heart. Relationships took center stage. Many individuals spoke to me about how helpful the experience was for them personally.
After the eighth week, I received the president’s letter.
“Yes,” I told the president warily, “we have made a temporary change. Lives are being...”
He leaned forward and interrupted. “But the Quarterlies are vital. They are like a religious diet. The General Conference knows what we need to get balanced spiritual meals. One quarter is the peas, another is the potatoes, and then the entrée, etc. If you omit one of those quarters the people won’t be getting all the spiritual nutrients they need.”
Too unnerved to reply, I just sat there and stared into his narrowing eyes. Could missing one quarter’s worth of the Quarterly really be so disruptive to the cosmic religious scheme of things? It felt like means and ends had somehow gotten terribly confused.
I soon returned to my car and my eyes welled up with tears. As I drove home, something within me shriveled. Some small part of my visionary heart had been callously chipped away. Other similarly disappointing incidents would follow over the ensuing years and decades.
For most of my life I have been what I would call a big picture guy. I am also an inveterate dreamer and possibility thinker. The future can seem as real to me as current reality itself. Through many emotional highs and brutal lows, I have picked up a few ideas of how visionaries like me can survive, especially within what might be a rigid, change resistant, hierarchical church environment.
1. Understand people’s roles.
It has helped me immensely to realize that the world is made up of three types of people: 1) Visionaries, 2) Planners, and 3) Doers. They are expressions of the Spiritual Gifts, in order, of Faith, Administration, and Helps.
Unless individuals within an organization understand these roles and appreciate each other’s perspective and contribution, things can go south in a hurry. If you put a Doer on a Visionary committee, it won’t take long before they say, “All you guys ever do is TALK and never DO anything!” On the other hand, if you put a Visionary on a Doer committee, they’ll say, “You guys are very busy but you don’t have a clue where you’re going!”
Ideally, leaders would be primarily Visionaries and Planners. The tendency, however, within many organizations is to promote Doers because they look so productive. The problem, of course, is that Doers are not equipped to think in broad terms. It’s simply not who they are. If they recognize their leadership limitations, they will humbly surround themselves with a team that balances out the need for Visionaries and Planners. If they do not, then they are at risk of falling into the category portrayed in the venerable saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” They’ll tend to major in minors and pursue simplistic answers to multi-faceted issues. Doer leaders ignore the organizational GPS, the institutional radar, that visionaries provide at their own peril.
Visionaries, Planners, and Doers see the world very differently. People are not often purely one or the other, but we do have distinct tendencies. Understanding these differences helps me to not take rejection or opposition too personally.
2. Find other visionaries for support.
In my humble opinion, there are far fewer Visionaries in life than Planners. And there are fewer Planners than Doers. That can make it hard for Visionaries to find each other. When I used to teach seminars on visioning and strategic planning, I’d tell anyone who self-identified as a visionary to find others like them by watching people’s eyes. I said, “When you share the vision, watch to see if the other person’s eyes light up or if they kinda dull over. That says it all.”
3. Manage your expectations.
Don’t think in terms of “all or nothing.” Divide the vision into bite-sized pieces that others can swallow. Work with the willing rather than resenting the naysayers. Start with a small group of the most interested and expand out slowly from there. Even just one sympathetic partner can make an important difference. Rejoice in small steps. Remind yourself that it is far better to go one step in the right direction than a hundred miles in wrong direction.
4. Take time to nurture your calling and validate your purpose.
For me this happens best through quiet reflection and reading authors who resonate with my deepest longings. For instance, the following quote from Eric Stetson helps feed my visionary soul:
For whatever reason, I have always felt compelled to be a visionary…Right now, I guess I’m just trying to accept it for what it is: the way I am — and the way a small percentage of humans need to be in any generation, so that bold dreams of a better tomorrow always have a place in the human consciousness and enough advocates unwilling to relegate them to the realm of “only dreams.” —Stetsonius Redivius, downloaded 12-6-17.
Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com. He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
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