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Is There a Lack of Visionary Leaders Today? (And if so, Why?)

YWAM is a movement founded on a vision, from God, to Loren Cunningham.  One of our foundational values is to be Be Visionary (no.5).  So when posed with this question, surely most people would say no, in YWAM there is no lack, in fact, perhaps the assumption is that we maybe have too many visionaries?

Let me start with my own quick answer to this;  Yes, I believe there is a lack, and if this is the case then there are some serious implications.  This isn’t limited to YWAM, we can see it in organisations and in the church at large.

Firstly, it might be prudent to try to define the word ‘visionary’ so we can all be on the same page.  To be visionary is to think out of the box and dream about ‘what could be’ as opposed to ‘what is’.  These are people who dream big dreams and spend large amounts of time in the future (in their minds).  They are ‘change’ agents and find it impossible to settle, or live with the status quo in any given context.  They are often leaders and can paint pictures of a better, more hopeful future.  They like to do new things in new ways, constantly innovating, developing structures, creating culture, and enabling free thinking within the organisation.  They live and breath multiplication strategies for whom ever they are working for, the organisation, church or in YWAM.

If you look at personality graphs within any given society, or tests such as Myers Briggs, there seems to be a lower percentage of ‘natural’ visionaries in society, and for good reason!  Can you imagine if one in every three people was a visionary?  We would all be overwhelmed with vision.

These ‘visionary’ types do exist today in normal numbers, but my concern is they are not finding their way into YWAM anymore, or the church.  In YWAM’s early days it was a highly visionary organisation, encouraging risk taking and thinking out of the box, based on hearing God’s voice.  Pioneers came, dreamers, entrepreneurs, explorers and apostolic leaders.   It was one aspect that helped form our DNA in those first 20 years and it is why people refer to YWAM as being a visionary organisation today.  Vision submitted to God for his timing and leading led many of us to do new things in new ways, pioneer into new locations and to grow in faith to see God transform nations and peoples. 

To be visionary in the early years of YWAM was encouraged, welcomed, valued and celebrated.  My concern is that we no longer value this in the same way.  In my own experience as a visionary leader I have observed that visionaries are both loved and feared. Everyone knows we kind of need these people to help things grow or move forward, to lay out a hopeful future, a way forward; but most people don’t actually like the disruption and change that comes with this, so they find themselves in a catch 22. The idea of change sounds good initially, but when the implications of change affect people personally, disrupt or make them feel out of control, the cost can feel too great and the status quo suddenly seems not so bad.

In YWAM’s case I think there has been a back lash to a culture that was perhaps ‘too’ visionary.  Too uncomfortable, too much uncertainty, with unknown variables and sometimes poor planning.   Administrative people might have felt abused, over worked or even undervalued.  (These are valid feelings by the way).  When caution and uncertainty towards visionaries becomes a culture within any given community or local ministry expression, it is palpable.  As a visionary type, I can walk into a community or team and after a few discussions or well placed questions I can discern whether my input will be welcome.  When there is resistance to change or new ideas, for a visionary, this will always create a tension. For a visionary to try to stay and persevere amidst such resistance, at perhaps considerable cost to their mental health, it is no surprise they would inevitably move on to a place of more openness and freedom.

The other reason for lack of visionaries that I have observed is that sometimes us older leaders find it harder to make room for younger visionaries to speak up.  If a leader has held their position for a long time it can be harder to be open to new ideas or fresh perspective. Therefore any new vision that might be articulated might be difficult to hear, or could be perceived as either competition or a devaluing of what has gone before.

Sometimes people just cannot perceive new vision, or grasp its potential.  The worst opponents of change need to see that something can work in practice before they can change their minds about something.  Visionaries can struggle sometimes to fully articulate what, to them, is very clear indeed.  In their heads it all makes sense, but finding the right words to convince others of a different future takes a communication skills that include the art of persuasion.  Again, not all visionaries possess this gift which can be frustrating for all.

Visionaries are change agents.  Let’s face it, change, even if desired is not an easy process.  It means letting go of certain things.  It means re-embracing risk and doing new things in new ways (again), which means a large amount of trust is needed.  A culture which allows a freedom to fail goes along with this, without the need to point out what you think will and won’t work for every new idea.  Change, when it is led well, is all about growth and realignment with vision from God himself, seeking Gods own visionary voice.  It is about improving things, developing ideas, growing unity, empowering others into new ministries and more.  We might draw distinction here between a visionary, and someone who is ‘apostolic’.  They are not always found in the same person by the way!  Visionary people are future orientated, have lots of ideas and see possibility and opportunity everywhere.  They are not always proactive or possessing the gifting to make their visions a reality. Sometimes this can be a maturity issue, or maybe they are yet to realise that ‘team’ is the best way to move forward.  Apostolic types however, can usually see the vision, and they know how to get there as well.  The right steps needed to take tomorrow morning, if you like.  To be apostolic is similar to spiritual entrepreneurialism if that makes sense?  Instead of making money, it is more about growing (God’s) Kingdom economies on earth.

Visionaries impact culture, and they can create it also. 

To bring change and growth, the community, or work culture needs to change first in order to embrace new ideas fully.  Visionaries will sometimes make strong (prickly) statements, critique the old ways, asking too many questions and may be perceived as annoying. They do this on purpose (most of the time 🙂 ) to stimulate discussion, to sharpen our sense of purpose and desired outcomes, to be catalytic.  Quite often they need to do this in order to rock the boat, shocking us out of a status quo mediocrity.  If this is done right it helps others to view reality around them in different and fresh ways.  I think it is best framed in this great quote;  ‘The best way to critique the old, is to fashion the new.’ (unknown)

Let’s return to the initial essay question.  Is there a lack of visionaries today…….and if so, why?

I have tried to touch on some of the kinds of obstacles that can hinder a visionary environment.  These are obstacles that push visionaries away, or scare them aware, or damage them irreparably.  These obstacles might provide reasons why we might be seeing less visionaries in our communities these days, or keeping hold of them.

Here are some statements these visionary types might have heard spoken that have led to them moving on;

‘There’s nothing wrong with how things are right now?  Why rock it?  We prefer our environment to be safe and knowable thanks.’

‘Taking risks like that will upset our unity, our harmony, or peace in this place.’

‘If you critique how things are done here, we (I) take that personally.  Or find it offensive.  You are critiquing my history when you say that’

‘We have tried that before and it didn’t work.  We are not doing it again’

‘We haven’t heard God say that, maybe you haven’t got the word of the Lord on this?’

‘You haven’t prayed enough, you are not ‘spiritual’ enough.  You need to wait on the Lord more in worship before acting so quickly.’

‘You are wrong in this, maybe due to inexperience?  We are older, wiser, have been around longer and we know best.’

A visionary might be called by God to your team or your community, but if they come up against these kinds of  statements (and they are said in a myriad of ways, both verbally, and non verbally). Eventually they will leave, or not feel welcome, untrusted, not embraced, disempowered, not authorised, having no space to breathe and utterly drowned by tradition. 

Or they will just get exhausted fighting endless battles, trying to convince everyone of the need for change.  Too much risk assessment in the end kills creativity and smothers the visionary spirit.

I know that younger  (and some older) visionaries will have all kinds of weaknesses in their skillset and character.  They often need coaching and training in a healthy way.  This kind of coaching is like shaping a challenging toddler who is full of zeal!  You help guide their path and shape their character, while trying not to crush their spirit in the process.  You allow for experimentation and new perspectives, even when it leads to failure. 

(Note:  Natural visionaries don’t have a problem with failure, it is just an opportunity to learn and try it again.  Then it is not viewed as failure at all!)

Visionaries need to be welcomed into a Godly ‘yes’ culture.  When they are trusted and allowed to be themselves with all the chaos and risk taking that ensues, they will also respond well to discipleship, be open to input and show humility.  If we want to be attracting fresh visionaries in our midst, it is more than welcoming them, we need to let them breathe, flex and act out their ideas.

I believe YWAM needs to discover its visionary, apostolic culture afresh.  And so does the church.  Without it we cannot move into the future that God has for us.  History shows that organisations that don’t make room for new wineskins, eventually crack and lose all the good wine stored up from previous generations. 

Another factor in considering this whole question is that ‘maybe’ visionary types are indeed decreasing!  Recent generations have grown up in much more risk averse cultures where it has become harder to step out of the boat.  With more and more of our lives being managed by policy, health and safety and being told what to believe and what you can and can’t do, this will surely have an affect.  Coupled with that, I wonder if there is an increase in younger people fearing failure more than ever before, it is hard to take risks if fear of something not working out has power over you to act.  Who knows, perhaps this is affecting the way our minds approach creativity, divergent thinking and innovation after all?  More research needed here! 

N.B. I have deliberately not commented on the prophetic in this paper.  It would make the essay too long and really that was not the question posed.  In my opinion we have a lack of those types also.  It is possibly an equal concern and these two anointing ideally should work together, holding hands.  They need each other in fact.  But that is for another paper 🙂

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