By Ted Furlow
In my time as a pastoral planner watching various communities drafting vision statements, I learned that writing them can be complicated. Since everyone has an opinion, it can easily become an endless round of what should be included, what should be said, and how it should look.
The result can turn out to be a potpourri of concepts, opinions, and comments that struggle to capture the vision of the parish community, a “verbal fruit cake” of mixed ideas.
But regardless of its quality or clarity, the community vision statement can be a valuable tool for narrating the task of ministry and discerning the purpose of parish life. The vision exists as a compass to guide the community, it validates that they are being true to the “authentic values” which they claim drive and motivate them. So, the groups and individuals supported by a vision statement should be able to check their direction against the statement to see if they are on course. Since vision statements have this important value, it raises a very basic question. How well were the words, the driving and motivating forces of the vision, understood by those who wrote it and now are trying to live it?
For example, parish vision statements in our Diocese often share a common theme of “hope” in their language - and rightly so, since hope is a dominate theme in our Diocesan Vision Statement. But hope is not to be taken lightly, and requires more from us than simply writing it or speaking it. If hope is part of a community’s vision, it should be understood that it asks for something – positive action, clear definitions, and a demonstrated sense of purpose. Hope isn’t just a “sounds good” filler word, or a “vision babble” buzz phrase, instead it is a thickly layered, heavily textured, and multi-colored fabric. If your community chooses to wear it, you must understand it and be prepared to live it.
To view a thread from this garment of hope, look at that Diocesan Vision Statement. Neatly crafted, it spins three thoughts together that seem essential to understanding hope. First, it calls us to be a community that believes in Jesus Christ. Second, as believers it calls us to the prophetic challenge of “witness” through action. Third, it joins us to the values of the Gospel… and only then does it suggest that we may be agents of Hope.
The Diocesan Vision’s call to be a “prophetic witness” to hope is an echo from our Judeo origins of faith, and the prophets of the Old Testament. The prophets were guides sent to offer directions to God’s people to seek their freedom in the hope that comes from their relationship with Him and with one another. These prophets for the sake of hope, bore witness to God’s presence, testifying to what they saw, and standing up against whatever challenged their relationship with God.
In our Catholic origins, faith communities who believe in Jesus the Christ and choose to pronounce hope as a value are called to nothing less. M. Shawn Copeland, an American theologian, tells us that “prophetic communities” must witness to church and society in at least three areas. First, that God is their center of human hope. Second, that they must be a living sign of God’s investment in the history of his people. Third, that they must be committed to the demands of justice and ethical living for the sake of the Gospel. It is a powerful challenge, but hope is a powerful word; it is a part of who we are as a person. Hope is a capacity for us to “live in time” as we await our promised salvation. Hope is essential to us, we cannot live without it, or be human without it … nor shall we drink the promised wine with Jesus in the household of God without it. (Luke 22:18)
Words are powerful. This is what you are called to with hope in your vision, so choose your words carefully, with purpose, and with understanding.
Ted Furlow retired as Director of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino and continues in marriage preparation ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.