Within the Christian tradition prophecy plays significant roles in various ways and at various times. This phenomenon not only expresses God’s word to people at a particular time, but also reveals something of God’s intentions going forward, whether promise or curse. In the New Testament Paul speaks about a “gift of prophecy” and significant debate continues as to what this might entail today. Whatever we might decide, Christians believe that God does continue to guide and direct his people today through his Holy Spirit. Again diverse segments within the people of God discern this direction in different ways.
However we may understand this, one thing is clear from the Scripture and that is that prophetic direction is associated with leadership. Church boards provide collective, strategic ministry leadership within congregations. So we might presume that part of their role and responsibility will be to discern direction, i.e. to understand how the life and work of their congregation advances God’s purposes.
At several points in a church board’s annual agenda significant time should be given to discerning direction. The scope of this discussion may be within a a twelve month frame, or a multi-year span of time. Sometimes the point of reference will be ten or twenty years in the future, particularly if the discussions surround investment in major buildings. A church board can only make good decisions today if it has a reasonable grasp upon where it believes God desires the congregation to be in five or ten years. Decisions made only within very short-term horizon will create an erratic and frequently dysfunctional pattern of leadership.
As a side note we might observe that the experience of church board’s with this discernment under the Holy Spirit forms one of the significant distinctions between church boards and other non-profit boards generally.
Three suggestions about process.
1. Prophetic direction in Scripture usually begins with a realistic, divine perspective on the current situation. The Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth about this reality if we allow him to do so. So before plunging into discussion about a preferred future, take time to analyse and evaluate well the state of your congregation and its environment. Tell yourself the truth. This will require good information and significant amounts of integrity on the part of your current pastoral staff.
2. Reaffirm what is important to you. The prophets usually remind God’s people of the covenant commitments they have made, as well as God himself. If we are not centred firmly in our mission and theological and other values, it is tough to remain on target and on task.
3. Do the best job you can to discern what the congregation’s internal and external context will be five years ahead, if things continue as they are. In other words do a projection forwards, factoring in the changes in your environment that you perceive. For example, what key leadership changes might you project (e.g. retirement of your lead pastor) or what key changes in facilities have to be considered (e.g. significant repairs, upgrades, expansions) or what significant changes in your community are projected (e.g. new residential centres, new transportation lines, new patterns in demographics)? There is a lot of information available that will help you define this picture with some clarity. Then you need to ask yourselves some questions. What adjustments will we have to make in order to grow and develop as the effective Kingdom community God wants us to be? What changes must we initiate in order to have a God-honouring impact upon our surrounding community? What new opportunities for ministry are emerging? What current ministries should we phase out?
In the midst of all of this work take time for prayer together and individually. At our recent church board retreat, we wrestled with discerning a new vision for the next five years. We discussed things for several hours Friday night, and not much consensus was developing. After breakfast on Saturday morning, again good discussion ensued for an hour and half — but no discernible direction we emerging. So our chairperson suggested that we all go out for a prayer walk for half an hour. When we returned, within thirty minutes we knew our direction and had crafted the vision! It was an amazing experience.
Discerning the future is hard work, it is a spiritual discipline, it is an essential part of a church board’s leadership, it expresses our firm conviction that God is collaborating with us. Make sure that communication and dialogue with the congregation is part of this process.