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"Problem-Casting Before Vision-Casting"
by Tom Goodman
February 8, 2007

In a recent article, Bill Donahue says there are three reasons why vision gets a little fuzzy, and he explains what leaders can do to adjust the focus.  Donahue serves with the Willow Creek Association.

It was one of those articles that made me review my own work of vision-casting across these four years at Hillcrest.  I haven’t been able to find the article online for you; but across the next three weeks of LeaderLines, I’ll try to summarize his points and my reactions to those points.

Here’s his first point: Vision can get fuzzy when leaders focus on "vision-casting" while neglecting "problem-casting."  Donahue pointed out that before Nehemiah ever cast the vision, the Old Testament leader outlined the problem – "Jerusalem lies in ruins; and its gates are burned with fire."  Leaders have to help people understand the problem before they can consider your vision as a relevant solution to that problem.

He pegged me on his second and third points, which I’ll share in the next two weeks.  But regarding this first point, we’ve done all right with the necessary work of "problem-casting."  In fact, one of the questions I often heard in the first couple of years here was, "What’s your vision?  Where are we 'going' as a church?"  Some may have regarded it a sign of leadership weakness that I wasn’t laying out a "vision," but that would have had no effect if there was not a common conviction of what problems needed to be addressed.

So, I walked into the Hillcrest job saying, "I'm new to Austin and I’ve been out of the States for 5 years.  Help me know this area so we can figure out what we need to do."  I kept pointing out that though we were great at sending missionaries to other lands and ministry teams to other socio-economic groups in Austin, what were we doing to be a mission point in our own community?  How was the church doing at "connecting" with unchurched seekers of northwest Austin?

It wasn’t until I was on the field a year that I outlined anything that someone would call a "vision."  On my first anniversary I announced that during my next five or six years we would be about the work of renovating our hearts, our program, and our look.  That work continues to this day.

During that first year of "problem-casting," one of the most meaningful things to me was the four-week online discussion of "Austin Al and Alice."  I asked our LeaderLines readers to introduce me to the characteristics of unchurched persons they thought surrounded our church.  You can find that 4-year-old project here, here, here, and here.

Another moment that was special to me happened a year ago.  I led three groups through a small-group study of John Burke’s book, No Perfect People Allowed.  John planted a church in Austin about 7-8 years ago (Gateway Community Church).  He’s been very successful in identifying the characteristics of Austin’s unchurched people and figuring out effective ways to reach them.

For a study through his book, I started with a small group of men in their 20s and 30s at my house.  That was really an amazing series of Thursday night discussions that went long into the night.  A number of those men are now deacons, by the way.

At the end of that study, that group actually broke into three groups that recruited and led more men to do the study again.  While they led their groups, I invited a group of men in their 40s and 50s to study the book with me.  I then led a co-ed group during our Hillcrest Institute semester.  These studies provided a huge breakthrough in our congregation’s understanding of our local mission field.

I have to admit that there have been several moments through these last four years where I wanted to short-cut the "problem-casting" phase and just jump into "vision-casting."  I’ve found that the hardest thing a new leader has to do is get people to see that there’s a problem that needs to be solved.  But Donahue is right:  Leaders have to help people understand the problem before they can consider the leader’s vision as a relevant solution to that problem.

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll point out some things I wish I had done differently after reading Donahue’s article.

I’m enjoying serving and teaching and sharing life at Hillcrest!  Thanks for being leadership-partners with me in the work!


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