I came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book Life Together. I’m not sure what motivated me to pick it up. Maybe it was its deceptively small size. Whatever my reason for starting the book, I was entirely unprepared for four words on page 27: “God hates visionary dreaming.”
It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, 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 brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
I’m not sure Bonhoeffer could have written anything about leadership more fundamentally opposed to what I had learned and imagined practicing in ministry. Bonhoeffer’s words collapsed the scaffolding on which I had erected my ideal vision of a church and my role as its pastor. His words exposed something shameful. I had traded a real congregation for a dream one, blind to the work God was doing right in front of me.
Bonhoeffer saw how pastoral imagination, captured by dreams of potential churches, pulls pastors out of their humble calling and toward pride and pretense. The vision becomes the ground for our frustrated demands of others, our desperate petitions to God, and our crushing self-doubts. Everything is judged by the vision. Everything is evaluated by its success. Our work becomes the obsessive desire to actualize what we have envisioned. Our actual congregants are often sacrificed in our pursuit of better ones. I often hear pastors describe the church members and friends they had to sacrifice to fulfill the church’s vision. It’s sad.
When it “works”—when a pastor possesses the right mix of charisma, discipline, and communication expertise—the uniting energy of a visionary idea can inspire people into incredible acts of commitment. But when a church fails to live up to its vision, which seems to be far more common, the consequences can be devastating. When our vision fails to materialize, our first instinct is to blame the people. It’s their lack of buy-in. It’s their unwillingness to embrace change. Our frustrations spill out into our prayers: God, why haven’t you blessed us? Why didn’t you work a miracle in my church? Why did you call me to such difficult people?
Eventually, we come to an inevitable conclusion: We have failed as leaders. Everything rises and falls on leadership, we’re told. And when it falls, the dream that once inspired our best energy becomes our curse—mocking, humiliating, and paralyzing us. Bonhoeffer believed our visionary dreaming leads to despair. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” Our vision can cost us our congregation.
Abandoning the Dream
Thankfully, Bonhoeffer offered a better way: gratitude. “Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship … we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.”
The pastor’s first call is not to envision a church but to receive one. We lead by discerning how Christ is forming a community and by being one of the first to accept that fellowship with gratitude. The pastor is not an entrepreneur. We are called to a project already underway. So, I would like to offer a dramatically reinterpreted concept of pastoral vision: True visionary leadership is being first to recognize what God has already formed.
The starkness of Bonhoeffer’s warning opened my eyes to this new kind of pastoral vision. It forced me to finally see the congregation already in front of me. How had I missed it? While I was dreaming of some other place, God was planting a church in that basement, and he was calling me to pastor it. To my shame, most of our participants recognized it long before me.
Bonhoeffer convinced me to abandon dreaming. A church is never abstract. A congregation is never a demographic goal or an imaginary gathering. We are not called to a possibility, but to God’s work at a specific moment, in this place, with these people.
God is building his church; our gratitude comes from the joy of being in on it. The weight of forming and building a church is more than we can bear—the stories of pastors crushed beneath the work they’ve constructed are endless—but being called to a work God has initiated is a wonderful grace. Pastoral ministry is a gift, not an achievement. The moment we shift our eyes from God’s particular work to future abstractions, we are no longer pastors.
Embracing the Church in Front of Me
I’ve now pastored that basement congregation for seven years. Most of what developed from that original gathering I could never have imagined. The church is now about 60 people, and instead of meeting in a basement, we now rent space each week from a local crisis pregnancy center. Our rent contributes to their mission. The church pays me a part-time salary. I’ve dedicated children, conducted funerals, and found deep friendships. This church has become one of the greatest joys of my life. I cringe when I think about how close I came to missing it, even as I thought I was creating it.
Isn’t that how many great stories of faith worked? Abraham was called to a place he couldn’t fully know or imagine. Moses couldn’t have predicted that leading his people out of Egypt would come with ambiguities and 40 years of wandering. Even Bonhoeffer traded the clear vision of academic pursuits in America to return to the chaos of Nazi Germany. He stepped from comfort into uncertainty—and eventually death—to minister to the people God had prepared him to serve.
Each of these people struggled to recognize God in the dim light of their future. Each was tested not by the size of their dreams but in the ways they held on to what they had been given—usually only a promise. They believed God was leading them. Their calling, and ours, is to follow. God hates our dreaming because it costs us a clear vision of his involvement in the people and places of this moment.
As every pastor knows, it’s common for people to ask, “How big is your church?” I’ve answered that question countless times, but lately, I’ve noticed more people asking a different question: “What’s your vision for the church?” I used to try to articulate some coherent response. Now, I usually respond, “I don’t really have one.” I’m just trying to pay attention to God, pay attention to my people, and give voice to what I see.