July 1, 1994
Richard W. Dortch has seen the good that vision can do. As a missionary, pastor, and district superintendent, he was widely regarded as a visionary Christian leader. But he has also seen the havoc wreaked by a misdirected vision, when he served as president of PTL. For that ministry's scandals, Dortch spent more than a year in prison and lost virtually everything, financially, in fines and legal fees.
Chastened by his experience, Dortch submitted to discipline from the Assemblies of God, and his ministerial credentials were restored in 1991. He has since founded Life Challenge, a ministry to professionals in crisis, based in Clearwater, Florida. He is author of Integrity and Fatal Conceit (both by New Leaf Press).
LEADERSHIP contributing editor Brian Larson asked Dortch about the necessary checks and balances for any church leader's vision.
What makes vision dangerous?
Pride. Vision appeals to our ego.
I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. My problem was not that I bought into someone else's vision; I bought into my own ego and what PTL was doing for me. I saw something big and great that could make me bigger and greater.
Once a vision is up and running, pride can lead a person to do whatever is necessary to maintain it, including "funny money" fund-raising and lying. It all feeds on itself. A leader compelled by pride will do whatever is necessary--even lie and cheat--to maintain that vision.
When did you realize vision could be destructive?
While in prison, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together. Let me read a brief section to you:
"He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter even though his personal intention may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
"God hates visionary dreaming. It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary idea of a community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands. He sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly . …
"He acts as if he is the center of the Christian community, and as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes first an accuser of his brother, then an accuser of God, and finally a despairing accuser of himself."
When I read that, I thought, That's exactly what happened to us. Now, in hindsight, Jim Bakker agrees: We followed a dream and lost our identity.
How can we guard ourselves from such deceptive pride?
Accountability, submission, and self-denial.
Accountability means pursuing the vision with such transparency that we gladly invite the world to look at our books. Pride can't get far when we work out the financing and operation of our vision with absolute integrity.
But accountability sometimes can be perfunctory and shallow. Submission goes a step further and says, "I'm willing to turn loose the control of the vision."
Self-denial goes even further and asks, "Is this vision for the greater good? Is the Lord already doing it through someone else and in a way that's more effective?"
A friend of mine had a vision to start a Bible college. I urged him to channel his vision and money into existing schools instead. Starting a Bible college, it seemed to me, would only duplicate what was already being done, and in a field where money is so hard to come by. But he went ahead with his dream and named the college after himself.
How can we tell if we have the deeper kind of accountability in our lives?
By how we feel about advice. In all circumstances we need not only to seek advice, but also to accept it. There's a big difference. Openness to input comes at three levels:
--we don't object to advice
--we want advice
--we seek advice.
Leaders in the third group tell others, "I need your help."
When I was a district superintendent in Illinois, I saw how much could be accomplished by Christian radio stations in Illinois. I sought the counsel of an older, wiser brother. "Do you think this would be of God?" I asked.
His response was positive, which encouraged me. Had he criticized the idea, I probably wouldn't have pursued it.
I submitted the vision to the entire board--thirteen strong-minded leaders. I hardly got it out of my mouth before the person who had been a board member the longest said emotionally, "Several weeks ago I sensed our superintendent was going to come to us with a vision to blanket this state with the gospel by radio." I had never discussed radio before.
That district now has seven radio stations doing the work of teaching, encouraging, and evangelizing.
When should we tell others about our visions B when they're still being formed, or when they're more developed?
Bring people into your vision early. As a district superintendent, if I began to lean in a certain direction or sense a nudge from the Holy Spirit, I told my executive committee. They needed to know as much about my vision as I did.
Sadly, at PTL I didn't follow the same principle. And when we did share our vision, I didn't listen to advice. People were trying to tell us, but sometimes we were unwilling to listen. Too often, when leaders open their eyes to a vision, they close their ears to people.
As we talk about vision with people who hold us accountable, what should they watch for?
One thing is the size, the scale, of what we're attempting. The Lord may give us a vision, but we can pursue it on a scale larger than he intended. One Sunday morning my wife thought she heard a well-known televangelist say God had told him he would anoint only him to win the world for Christ through television. She couldn't believe she had heard that, but a few months later his magazine reported the same thing.
A second thing to watch for is timing. We need to pursue our vision "in the fullness of time." My biggest mistakes in life have seldom occurred because I wasn't keeping up with God's plans for my life; my mistakes have come when I got ahead of God.
If pastors wait until everyone in a church supports the vision, little will ever be accomplished. How do you know when to stop and listen, and when to press ahead?
I would ask myself several questions before speeding through warning lights.
First, am I pursuing this vision for the right reasons? Are my motives pure? In forty-two years of ministry, I cannot remember any pastor saying, "God told me to build, and I didn't do it." But I've heard plenty say, "I question whether God actually told me to build this. I wish I had never seen this building."
Second, is the need obvious? If 500 people attend your church every week, yet the building seats only 300, obviously you have to do something. You can't be dissuaded by detractors; you have to meet the need.
Third, for a time, can we carry out the vision on a smaller scale? Can we learn more about the vision and get some assurance this is of God before we bury people with debt? Pursuing a vision on a smaller scale helps people understand how we can do it on a larger scale.
Can you be cautious about vision but not squelch faith?
I don't think God will give his people a vision that won't require some measure of faith. If we must have the answers to everything before we move forward, we may not be moving in the realm of faith.
But faith must be reasonable. For me to say God has called me personally to win all of New York City for Christ is not reasonable. God uses others, not just me, to do the job.
I fear leaders who hear only from God. I also fear leaders who hear only from people. That's the other side of the balance.
Whatever we do, nothing in a truly inspired vision will excuse us from following Scripture.
If we sense God has inspired our vision, how can we say that without manipulating others?
If a leader says God told him to do something, he or she isn't necessarily being super-spiritual, pompous, or manipulative. The Holy Spirit may indeed have prompted the vision. Still, we need to acknowledge that we're not always right, that our perception of God's voice is not 100-percent accurate. Otherwise, we take advantage of others.
The people we lead are good people who want to do what's right. They generally don't want to miss an opportunity or disobey what the Lord is saying. But followers can't disagree with leaders who demand that others get in step with their vision because "God told me."
One way to talk about God's leading is to say, "I sense that God is directing us to do such-and-such. But we won't move ahead unless that sense is affirmed by others." That puts the discussion at a different level.
When leaders recognize a blind spot in their vision, what should they do?
The only way we can maintain our integrity is to admit, "I was wrong. This vision wasn't what I expected." If we are honest with our followers, there's hope for us.
A large church in the Midwest determined they needed a new building for education and recreation. The pastor wanted to construct it on the side of the parking lot, but the architects, building committee, and church board felt the building belonged on another side of the property. They disagreed strongly, to the point where I, the district superintendent, was called in.
Against all counsel, the pastor determined to do it his way. He had big dreams, and he felt putting the building where he wanted would better enable them to grow for the future.
Out of respect for the pastor, the church leaders finally relented. Six months after completing the building, the pastor called me and said, "I have been doing some deep soul searching, and I think I was wrong. The building never should have been built where it is."
"Here's what I think you should do," I said. "Next Sunday morning, stand before the congregation and say, 'I did a stupid thing, and I'm sorry.' The people will identify with that. Every one of them has done stupid things."
"I could never do that," he replied.
In a few months, he left the church. His unwillingness to listen to others got him in trouble, and then his unwillingness to admit it continued the problem. At either point he could have saved himself, but he refused to do it.
Based on your experience at PTL, what should leaders know about keeping vision in perspective?
We must never stop checking our motives. We may begin a vision consumed with doing something for needy people and for God, but as time goes on, the line becomes so thin between doing something for ourselves and doing something for Christ. The line is so thin!
If we do become the focus, and we accomplish our vision, the Lord just may say, "You built it for your glory. Now you can have it!"
In the end, all the buildings and programs will vanish. They will mean little to us. What will count is not what we have done for people, but what relationship we have with them. What will count is not what we have done for Christ, but what relationship we have with him.
Perhaps the ultimate question leaders can ask themselves is this: If I could not carry out this vision, would my relationship to Christ be any different?
Copyright (c) 1994 Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP Journal
Copyright © 1994 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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