In conversation over lunch one day, Gordon Cosby of the Servant
Leadership School at Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. asked Dallas, "Why
do churches and ministries so often lose the essence of their founding vision,
to the point that the resulting institution, years later, is quite unlike the original dream? What happens along the way?" This essay is Dallas' response to that question.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there will my
servant be also. Whoever serves
me, the Father will honor."
Jesus (John 12:26)
When you go to Assisi, you will find many people who talk a
great deal about St. Francis, many monuments to him, and many businesses
thriving by selling memorabilia of him. But you will not find anyone who carries
in himself the fire that Francis carried. No doubt many fine folks are there,
but they do not have the character of Francis, nor do they do the deeds of
Francis, nor have his effects.
What is true in this case is not peculiar to it. Rather, this is
simply one of the more obvious illustrations of a general tendency of human life
—and of the spiritual life as well. It happens in the professional world, the
world of business, of government, education, and the arts: A person of some
great inspiration and ability emerges, and rises far above his or her origins
and surroundings. Perhaps it is a King David of Israel, a Socrates, a St.
Anthony or St. Francis, a Martin Luther or a George Fox or a John Wesley. In
each of these people there is a ... well, a certain 'something'.
They really are different, and that difference explains why
these individuals have such great effect, and why movements and institutions
grow up around them. It is as if they stand in another world, and from there
they have extraordinary effects in this world —as God acts with them.
Organization of their activities takes place, and other organizations spin off
from them as numbers of talented individuals are drawn to them and make their
lives in their wake. But these other individuals —usually, but not always,
very well-intending —do not carry the "fire," the "certain
something," within them. The mission or missions that have been set afoot
begin a subtle divergence from the vision that gripped the founder, and before
too long the institution and its mission has become the vision.
This happens in "secular" settings as well. Arthur
Andersen was a man of rock-solid integrity, with a crystal-clear vision of
Accounting as a profession. He built a magnificent accounting firm on strong
moral principles. But eventually the people who ran the firm became obsessed
with money-making and success, and then with helping clients make money and be
successful. Just that, instead of holding those clients responsible
("account-able") to the public goods they all professed to serve.
These people —who acted in the good name of Arthur Andersen, but without his
vision —brought disaster upon themselves and upon thousands of unsuspecting
people who depended upon them. Had the moral fire burned in them that burned in
Arthur Andersen, that would not have happened. But a false fire of greed and
ambition burned in its place. The cuckold of 'success' laid its eggs in the nest
of service-to-the-public-good, and a monster was hatched that destroyed the nest
and all in it.
St. Francis and Arthur Andersen are among the more glamorous and
notorious illustrations of a hard reality. In most cases, when the original fire
dies out, the associated institutions and individuals carry on for a while,
increasingly concerned about success and survival, and then they either find
another basis to stand upon, or they simply disappear. (Consider the case of
Charles Finney and Oberlin college, which he founded, or any number of other
originally Christian colleges and universities.)
While the process seen here is not restricted to religious
movements, it is especially obvious and painful to behold in their case. There
is a real point to saying that in religious matters nothing fails like success.
These types of movements touch the human heart very deeply and serve profound
human needs. Because of this, they soon attract many who do not even want the
fire of the founder —they do not really understand it. But they do need and
like the light and the warmth it provides. Eventually, however, and without
consciously intending to do so, they extinguish the very fire that provides the
light and warmth, or it simply dies out from lack of being tended. Then an
operation may continue under the name, trading in memorabilia. But it isn't the
same operation on the inside, and truthfully its effects are not the same.
Thus 'apostasy' ("standing away from") is in fact a
natural and fairly normal process in life. It is what should be expected, not
something to be surprised about. It would be remarkable and abnormal if it did
not happen. It is never, primarily, a failure of belief or correct doctrine, or
a conscious decision. It is a subtle shifting of vision, of feeling and will —of
how people see things and feel about things, especially about themselves and
what they are doing. The shifts in belief and the conscious decisions are only
the epicenter of the "soulquake." They lie at the surface of life. The
center lies miles deep in the soul of the individuals involved.
The soulquake may be something that happens within the lifetime
of individuals, as in the cases of biblical kings such as Saul, Amaziah and
Uzziah —or many individuals that have come to public attention in recent
years. Or it may occur across a few generations —rarely more than a few —as
with the degeneration of the kingship in Israel from David, through Solomon, to
A well-known contemporary teacher of ministers has remarked that
few ministers finish well. This statement is even more true of
"ministries" than it is of ministers —who, I suspect, do better on
the whole than appears to be the case. Unfortunately, on the other hand, nearly
every denomination one could name vividly illustrates the process under
discussion here, as do many educational and charitable organizations.
But what is the fine texture of the underlying change that
reveals itself in the loss of the inward fire of vision to the outward
accretions of mission or ministry? The central point lies in a fact noted by
Henri Nouwen: Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ.
What a strange thing to say! Perhaps it is an overstatement. But it is true that
well meaning service to God has a very strong tendency to undermine the kind of
vision of God that fuels greatness for God in the human scene. With the possible
exception of David, who indeed "ended well," we see this constantly in
the kings of Judah and Israel.
Uzziah's case is especially instructive: "But when he
became strong, his heart was so lifted up that he acted corruptly, and he was
unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn
incense on the altar of incense." (I Chron. 26:16 NAS) Uzziah became strong
through his devotion to the Lord. For much of his life he focused upon knowing
God in a close relationship. "He did right in the sight of the Lord.... And
he continued to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding through
the vision of God; and as long as he sought the Lord, God prospered him."
But the works that were accomplished through Uzziah's
association with God in action distracted him from his original vision and
refocused him on himself and what he was doing. "His heart was lifted
up." This language of the Bible became a standard way of diagnosing the
failure of the kings of Judah and Israel. It always had the result that they
took more upon themselves than was warranted. In Uzziah's case it was his
decision to perform temple rituals which were not permitted to him. But in most
cases these kings formed human alliances or tried to establish practices that
overestimated what could be accomplished by human strength. They glorified
themselves and did not rely upon God.
Because they became wrongly focused, they could not live in the
lesson of the prophet Jahaziel: "Do not fear or be dismayed because of this
great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God's.... You need not fight in
this battle; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your
behalf.... Do not fear or be dismayed...for the Lord is with you." (II
What, then, is the general pattern? Intense devotion to God by
the individual or group brings substantial outward success. Outward success
brings a sense of accomplishment and a sense of responsibility for what has been
achieved —and for further achievement. For onlookers the outward success is
the whole thing. The sense of accomplishment and responsibility reorient vision
away from God to what 'we' are doing and are to do —usually to the applause
and support of sympathetic people. The mission increasingly becomes the vision.
It becomes what we are focused upon. The mission and ministry is what we spend
our thoughts, feelings and strength upon. Goals occupy the place of the vision
of God in the inward life, and we find ourselves caught up in a visionless
pursuit of various goals. Grinding it out.
This is the point at which service to Christ replaces love for
Christ. The inward reality of love for God, and absorption in what he is doing,
is no longer the center of the life, and may even become despised, or at is
least disregarded. "No time for that" becomes the governing attitude,
no matter what we may say. The fire of God in the human soul will always look
foolish to those who like its effects but do not understand where those effects
At this point a pervasive consciousness of one's rights and
"perks" may set in. Amaziah, who had been a fairly good king in Judah,
defeated the Edomites —and brought their gods to Jerusalem and worshipped
them! When rebuked by a prophet he said: "Have we appointed you a royal
counselor? Stop! Why should you be struck down?" (II Chron. 25:16)
Very often it is not the founders, but those who gather about
them, who insist on the perks and rights. Often they see that as a way of
serving the one they admire, and perhaps they are convinced that the founder is
not an ordinary human being. David, when thirsty on the field of battle, made an
off-hand remark about wanting a drink from the deep well by the gate in
Bethlehem. Three of his "mighty men" overheard his remark and broke
through enemy lines to bring him the water. But he would not drink it. He
"poured it out to the Lord," because their devotion had made it too
precious for him to drink. (II Sam. 23:16) This is a most illuminating insight
into the good and humble heart of David, seen on many other occasions in his
life. It shows how he saw himself in God's world.
St. Francis also provides many illustrations of this type of
enduring humility. But in his case it proved too much for his "order"
to follow, and within a few years he was in a struggle with his followers
because the regulations he proposed for them (the "rule") was to lowly
for them. He lost. He even became an object of derision among some of his
earliest associates because of the fire that burned within him.
As we have just noted, such a departure from "the
founder" may be accompanied by assumptions to the effect that he or she was
in some sense not "normal," not "flesh and blood" —whereas
in fact it is their very "normalcy," and their acute awareness of it,
that led them to adopt the measures they did to keep themselves centered on God
—to keep the vision right and bright. They, and not their 'followers',
understood the inward battle that has to be fought. Their followers often rely
upon the assumption that the leader is "unusual" or "abnormally
gifted" to relieve themselves of the burden of genuinely being like him or
her. This is usually firmed up by a total lack of understanding of how the
leaders came to have the vision of God they do —and sometime the leaders are
not clear about this either.
So we can summarize the process by which the mission and its
goals replaces the original vision as the ultimate point of reference for the
people involved. — Vision of God and of oneself in God inspires a combination
of humility and great aspiration for God. This combination leads to remarkable
efforts in dependence upon God. Great effects are achieved because God acts with
efforts made in dependence upon him and for his sake. The effects take on a life
of their own. Surrounding people see nothing but the effects, which indeed are
very remarkable and worthy of support. Sometimes the human support may also be
of God. But the effects of all this have to be carefully watched, to prevent
them from corrupting the heart away from an appropriate vision of God and the
humble valor flowing therefrom.
King Solomon began well. He knew about God, at least, from his
association with his father David, and he understood he could not carry out his
work by himself. He prayed for wisdom and knowledge. God gave it to him. He
became very great. (II Chron. 9) But to strengthen his position he formed
alliances through marriage with royalty of many nations, and his seven hundred
wives turned his heart away from Jehovah to worship their gods. (I Kings 11:1-6)
By the time he died, he had evolved a government that was bitterly oppressive,
with the people ready to rebel, and he had a son to rule after him who was a
fool. It is not unreasonable to think that what really happened to Solomon was a
But does this have to happen? Is it simply unavoidable? The
answer is, in general, "No." Some individuals manage to avoid it,
though many do not. And some groups or organization have long postponed it. The
early Christians hold the record for sustaining the inward fire of vision in the
"founders." For two or three centuries, it seems, the vision of Jesus
Christ as Lord burned brightly in their hearts. The tremendous successes of the
movement only very slowly generated an outward "vessel" that replaced
the treasure of Christ as the center of attention and devotion in their lives.
The earliest generations of Christians were remarkably
successful in passing the sacred vision that positioned and guarded them in life
on to the next generation. It was not an entirely new phenomenon. In the Old
Testament, Joshua (Ex. 33:11) and Elisha (II Kings 2:9) were two cases where the
disciple sought the Lord as did their masters (Moses and Elijah), and as a
result carried on through their lives in the same spirit.
In later Christian history we find clear examples of the
trans-generational sharing of the original fire in the Jesuits, the Quakers, the
Moravian Brethren and the Methodists. No doubt there are many other cases not so
well known. So it can be done. And there are many cases of individuals in each
generation who have "finished well." What is essentially involved?
The answer is simple in concept, but obviously it is not easy in
execution —and especially for the trans-generational case. It is a matter of
identifying and sustaining the sense or vision of God, self and world that
pervaded and animated the originators. One cannot write a recipe for this, for
it is a highly personal matter, permitting of much individual variation and
freedom. It also is dependent upon grace —that is, upon God acting in our
lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own.
All of this acknowledged, there are things any person can do —and
must do —to receive and sustain the inner spiritual fire that keeps mission
and ministry in its proper place, preventing them from becoming the limiting
vision that obsesses us and eventually strangles us.
The first thing is to heartily acknowledge the practical
inevitability of the loss of vision. The acknowledgement must be something that
is explicit and regular. One need not become paranoid about it, just honest. One
must find ways of keeping it before oneself and one's associates without
becoming a bore. Creativity and good taste are to be used.
Secondly, we must identify, understand and adhere to the
founding vision. This is not easy. Even the 'founders' themselves may not be
clear about exactly what moved them and how they came to be the persons they
are. Often a commendable modesty and humility prevents them from inquiring very
deeply into their own lives, and certainly from 'imposing' what they find there
upon others. But, while this attitude is commendable, it has the built in
handicap of making it very difficult to sustain the vision, in oneself and in
others. So one must be honest, thorough, and explicit about what the vision was
—and what it must now be. The focus must be on the vision, not upon the
individuals who have it, even though it must be the individuals who bear the
vision and carry out the mission.
Thirdly, steps must be taken to live in the central content of
the vision. The wisdom of Proverbs tells us: "Trust in the Lord with all
your heart, and don't place your faith in your own understanding. Acknowledge
God in all you do, and he will smooth your pathway. Don't think you have got it
figured out." (3:5-7) And again: "Watch over your heart with all
diligence, for what is in your heart will determine what your life amounts
At the center of care for the heart is the love of God. This
must be the joyful aim of our life. That is why Jesus, underlining the deep
understanding of life worked out through the Jewish experience, stated that the
first commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and
with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."
(Mark 12:30) This is a command. It is something we are to do, and something we
can do it. We will learn how to do it if we intend to do it. God will help us,
and we will find a way.
The love of God, and only the love of God, secures the vision of
God: keeps God constantly before our mind. Thomas Watson tells us that "The
first fruit of love is the musing of the mind upon God. He who is in love, his
thoughts are ever upon the object. He who loves God is ravished and transported
with the contemplation of God.... God is the treasure, and where the treasure
is, there is the heart." King David gives us the secret of his life:
"I have set the Lord continually before me; because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken." (Ps. 16:8)
Vision of God secures humility. Seeing God for who he is enables
us to see ourselves for who we are. This makes us bold, for we see clearly what
great good and evil are at issue, and we see that it is not up to us to
accomplish it, but up to God —who is more than able. We are delivered from
pretending, being presumptuous about ourselves, and from pushing as if the
outcome depended on us. We persist without frustration, and we practice calm and
joyful non-compliance with evil of any kind.
God looks to those who are humble and contrite of spirit, and
who tremble when he speaks. (Isa. 66:2) He resists the proud, but gives grace to
the humble. (I Peter 5:5) Remember, "grace" means that he is acting in
So the humble are dependent upon God, not on themselves. They
humble themselves "under the mighty hand of God." (I Peter 5:6) That
is, by depending upon God to act. They abandon outcomes entirely to him. They
"cast all their anxieties upon him, because he cares for them." (vs.
7) The result is assurance that the mission and the ministry will be
accomplished, in God's time and in God's way. They don't need to be the vision,
and the goals we set for them are God's business, not ours. We do the very best
we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially. But we do not carry the
load, and our ego is not involved in any way with the mission and the ministry.
In our love of Jesus and his Father, we truly have abandoned our life to him.
Our life is not an object of deep concern.
In order to sustain and develop such a life of loving
abandonment to God, a overall plan of life is required, incorporating special
practices that care for the inner person. These are the familiar disciplines for
spiritual life. We cannot discuss these here, but the next step forward for the
person who has decided that they will love God with all their heart, soul, mind
and strength, is to put in places those regular practices that will make it
possible. This will take some time, and it will require study, experimentation
and guidance by the Holy Spirit. But it can be done; and when it is done, life
becomes incalculably easier, sweeter and stronger. Mission and ministry are no
longer burdensome, though they may be quite challenging and strenuous. His yoke
is, nonetheless, easy, and his burden is light, and there is rest in the soul.
For those who have known this in the past, the call is to return
to the first love and do the first works, and then learn how do develop that
"first" position into the life we are now living. For those who have
never known it, the call is to focus on the love of God to us until our heart,
soul, mind and strength overflow with love in return. "We love him because
he first loved us." (I John 4:19)
And for those who, standing in the love of God, are concerned
about the next generation around them, and about their entry into the full
vision of the God of love, the call is to make these matters a subject of
serious and prolonged discussion and prayer with those who will lead into the
future. Talk openly, regularly, honestly and lovingly.
Eventually judgments must be made as to who will be entrusted
with the future of the organization. These must be made lovingly but firmly, and
"under the mighty hand of God." They cannot be avoided. What we can do
is prepare for them by intelligent, biblical and constant teaching and practice,
by word and by example. And in this matter too, we have to rely upon the action
of God in our midst (grace)—God, whom we love, and whose love we constantly
commend to others.
Everything comes down to actually loving God with all our heart,
soul, mind and strength, and to making foremost in our plans those activities
that will meet the active grace of God to let that love be our life.
Living in the Vision of God is also available in booklet form for $3.00 from Tell The Word, a publishing venture of The Church of the Saviour's Festival Center and Servant Leadership School.
For reprint permission or to purchase a booklet, please contact Tell The Word at (202) 387-9300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.