My Two Biggest Vision Lessons

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, May 16, 2016

My Two Biggest Vision Lessons

Most of us know about the importance of vision for leadership and particularly, its importance in the life of the church. 

Our mission is the evangelization and transformation of culture through the centrality of the local church, and without vision, people perish.

Or, more literally, they “cast off restraint.” They have no sense of true north, no boundaries, no funneling of energy, no focus.

When you have a mission like ours and a culture like ours, you can’t afford the absence of vision.

So what are two of my biggest vision lessons as a leader?

1.  Vision Leaks
2.  Don’t Just Think Big, Act It

Here are the details, beginning with “vision leaks.”

Early on, I thought I just had to have one vision for the church deeply rooted in Scripture. Then, on special occasions, cast it. My working assumption was that once I cooked it up and served it, the job was done. 

In truth, all I had done was craft the message that I would be lifting up for the rest of my leadership life.

When I say “vision leaks” (and the phrase is certainly not unique to me), I mean that once people hear the vision, and even “get it,” they don’t tend to keep it. It burns bright for a season, if you are fortunate, but it tends to fade. It’s like a leaky bucket that constantly needs refilling. And not just the overarching vision. Even the values inherent in the vision need their own support, which is why an effective leader is constantly having to talk about such things as serving, giving, inviting and loving.

And the biggest part that needs constant refueling? 

The vision of the mission

One of the natural flows of the church is to turn inward; therefore, it takes a disproportionate amount of leadership energy to keep it turned outward. I don’t have to spend any energy helping people to get their felt needs met, to take a class of high value or interest for their spiritual life, or if new to the church, to try out a small group to meet new friends. 

But when it comes to dying to themselves for someone else – real inconvenience for the sake of reaching someone else – that’s an entirely different affair.

Then I have to vision cast.

And cast, and cast, and cast....

If I were to take my eye off of this ball, within 18 months we would have people complaining about the music being too loud, having to park far away or on gravel, that there’s too many people coming they don’t know, and that they can’t find a seat. 

This would soon be followed by phrases such as: “I’m not being ministered to,” “I’m not being fed,” and “I didn’t get anything out of it.”

In other words, the vision that clearly says “It’s not about you” would quickly become “It’s all about me.”

But it’s not just knowing that vision leaks, but the nature of how vision takes that’s important.

I don’t have to repeat things just so the bucket will stay full, but so that at some point in time, it initially takes hold so that I have a bucket to even fill! One of the lessons I have learned is that about the time I get so sick of saying something that I think I’m going to puke if I say it again – and my staff is mouthing the words for me before I even say them – right about that time, the average person sitting in the back risers gets it. 

I’ll talk about lost people mattering to God from Luke 15 (for the hundredth time) and someone who has been attending for years will come up and say, “You know, I think I finally get it!” Or a longtime attender will say, “You know, I needed to be reminded of that – it’s why I love our church so much.” 

So it’s not just giving ongoing infusions, but repetition – saying the same things over and over again. Being creative, of course, but not to the point of being afraid of saying what you know you’ve said before.

Now on to my second biggest vision lesson.

Tom Watson was the leader responsible for putting IBM on the map during its heyday. When asked why the company had become so successful, he said:

IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done.

The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act.

The third reason IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.

In other words, I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one.

One of the most important things you can do as a church leader is to establish a preferred vision of the future firmly in your mind and spirit. 

Then act on it. Make decisions based on it.

And most important of all, let people know your thinking.

In the early days at Meck, we used to say that we were: “A small church with a big church mentality.” We saw ourselves, from the beginning, as a church of thousands. 

Hear my heart, it wasn’t for bragging rights or size for its own sake. We cared about reaching lost people, and we were surrounded by so, so many. How could we not dream of reaching as many as possible? 

So we acted like a big church. When we were running less than a hundred people, we would prepare for each service as if hundreds would come in terms of quality, effort and attention to detail.

And that’s one of the reasons hundreds did. 

And then thousands.

It’s very easy for a church to act in accordance with its current status. To simply prepare a service for 250 because, well, that’s what you tend to have in attendance. So everything is done with that level of quality, but also that level of decorum. 

You “do” church for 250 people.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a church running 250 to become a church of 500, it has to begin to act like one long before it actually is one.

These two vision lessons I learned are what’s helped make Meck’s vision…

... reality.

James Emery White


The story of Tom Watson is found in Michael Gerber’s classic work, The E-Myth.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

My Two Biggest Vision Lessons