When God casts vision into the heart of a leader, sometimes the leader is the only person who initially “gets it.” The Bible tells how Noah “got” the ark even though people around him didn’t catch the vision. The definition of a visionary is a leader who can portray something just beyond the horizon that the rest of us haven’t glimpsed yet.
As a congregation hears its leaders describe new ministries, new buildings, a broader mission field, the people can believe without the benefit of sight. We trust the working of God through our leaders, accepting the vision we don’t yet see.
However, when architects hear those same leaders explain new things, the architects are listening with a different set of ears. It’s not that they’re not men and women of faith – or even of vision – it’s that they’re listening for concepts that can be delineated on paper.
Articulating vision can be difficult because the same word can mean different things to different people. And as an architect begins to sketch what she thinks she is hearing, collisions occur: collisions between what the leader thinks he wants and what he is really describing; collisions between what is imagined and what is doable; collisions between the breadth of a vision and the capability of the architect.
The best collisions occur between visionary leaders and visionary architects who both want to create something that responds to:
• the imagination of God,
• the needs of the people, and
• the call of the mission field.
An example of this “best collision” comes from an ongoing project – I have the privilege of working with a visionary leader guiding an extraordinary group of people: Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village in Houston, and the Kingdom Builders’ Community Center (KBCC).
Pastor Caldwell is one of the most visionary leaders I have ever known. He believes in the vastness of God’s resources as well as the vastness of God’s calling, which results in actions that transform communities. As an architect invited to be a co-visionary with him, I have enjoyed the tremendous excitement of seeing plans come to fruition that are far greater than what was originally conceived.
As Pastor Caldwell and his team have worked with our team at Morris Architects, we have entered into the exciting visions they are casting before us. We have experienced group “a-ha!” moments that were simultaneous, and discoveries that took much longer.
Earlier, I said that articulating vision could be difficult simply because the same word could mean different things to different people. A perfect example comes from the interaction between our architects and Pastor Caldwell’s visionary leaders.
During a planning session, there was much discussion over the entrance of the KBCC and what that experience should feel like for the user. Many ideas were brought forward by all parties, including one idea which was to create arches at the entrance. As an architect, I know that arches historically have a traditional place and function in a building. And while this is a perfectly acceptable concept, what was more important, is why do you want arches? As the brainstorming and discussion continued, what emerged was priceless – the church leadership didn’t want arches per se, they wanted to soften the proposed entrance and create the warm and welcoming atmosphere they associated with arches. As this simple word was taken off the table, we were all able to see the design possibilities differently – moving away from a concrete thing and replace it with an emotional and spiritual “look and feel.”
The next round of renderings nailed it. “The clients said, “Wow, this is what we envisioned.” And the architects said, “We caught your vision.”
The process, of course, didn’t stop with arches (or non-arches). It progressed through the meaning and nature of a 24-hour prayer center, and a high-tech yet intimate worship center. How do you seat 7,000 people and provide speaker arrays for a concert, and yet also ensure that the Pastor’s whispered prayer is heard and felt by each person? How do you design innovative lighting and the use of multi-media, and also keep a room simple enough that you can see the Pastor’s face and know the Spirit is talking to you?
How do you get to this terrific place where your architect understands and delivers your vision? Part of it is choosing the right architect as your partner. Part of it is having the patience to persevere – the Rev. Caldwell continually drew us into the vision-casting sessions of what this project would do in the community, what it would mean, how it would function, who would be involved. And a lot of it is having the courage to not only embrace questions and challenges, but also to change when change is needed.
Wise leaders feature a complex blend of perseverance and flexibility. Noah had to persevere against many challenges in order to see the ark built – he also had to be patient and flexible.
Here is a brief list of some of the qualities we’ve noticed about visionary leaders and projects.
• First and foremost, the vision must come from God. That may seem like an elementary statement, but the truth is, sometimes we confuse building our kingdom with building God’s kingdom.
• One reliable marker of God-given vision is that we can’t accomplish it in our frail human power. Transforming leaders bank on the fact that God’s visions are God-sized and can only be accomplished by Him.
• Once vision is articulated clearly, people will have the opportunities to understand it, share it, change it, and fund it. Funding almost always follows vision; it rarely precedes vision.
• Vision is always accomplished in community. The next chapter in the story about the ark is that Noah couldn’t and didn’t build the ark by himself.
• God’s vision lasts longer than we do. Sometimes, one leader receives the vision and another leader fulfills it.
• Clarity and focus come before action.
Part of what a good architect will do is help with this last point. Architects are best as your partners during the visioning process, long before blueprints are drawn or anything is put on paper.
Following are some of our suggestions for your first interactions with an architect.
• Know your purpose – what will this project do? What mission(s) will it fulfill?
• Try to translate your vision and mission into a series of goals and objectives and a timeline.
• Have an idea about your budget.
• Trust your architect with all of this information, and ask for honest feedback.
• If you have any land or existing structures, have you done due diligence on them?
• Have already assembled a building committee to make basic recommendations – we need nursery space, we need parking, we need to employ conservation principles.
• Assemble or be ready to assemble an effective building committee. Typically, this has a senior pastor, an administrator, ministry leaders and a cross-section of the congregation in terms of age, their maturity in faith, race, education, missional activities, etc. The building committee should represent all the constituencies of the congregation.
• But the architect you hire first should be a planner. Expertise in all the building types should be considered. Too many times churches hire an architect who has never undertaken the planning or the types of buildings required.
• Choose a final project architect based on what you are building – a sanctuary, an educational center, housing?
• You should only be interviewing project architects with that kind of expertise unless you’re envisioning a multiple-phase / multiple-benefit project.
And here is something not to do – don’t present an architect with a fully formed plan. Bring the needs and desires to the master planning architect and let him help you form the plan. This is a crucial act of trust for a visionary leader – to let a professional architect begin to “tinker” with the vision. And it’s an important act of trust – a good architect isn’t going to say to you “don’t feed the poor or help the homeless;” a good architect is going to say: “here’s how your new building can be best designed to help you feed the homeless.” Or host a school; or tape a television ministry.
A final thought for you and your team.
As you embark on the vision God has for you, you’re going to change— you personally, your team, your congregation, your mission field. Ask your team to prayerfully consider how life is going to be different, and understand what those differences mean.
For example, going from a sanctuary that seats 300 to one that seats 900 might mean you:
• triple your volunteers,
• triple your church ministries,
• triple your visiting ministry,
• modify your meeting times,
• change your technology,
• and these are just a few of the changes that may be ahead for you.
The example of going from 300 to 900 is almost more shocking than going from 3,000 to 9,000. Pastor Caldwell knows this well. His congregation went from 25 people to 300 people, then to 1,000. Now it is 15,000. At some point, says Pastor Caldwell, the economies of scale result in human systems that are better able to support continual growth. But the need – and indeed calling – for simple human interaction and intimacy remain. Pastor Caldwell was clear in casting that vision for his architects: design a worship center that enables the congregation to continue to grow, while maintaining personal interaction and intimacy.
Because he shared his vision with us, we were able to catch it and deliver something – with or without arches – that enables his congregation to step into the future God is designing.