Last fall, the Rev. Donald Dunn led a group of his church's leaders on a walk around the congregation's 91-acre spiritual campus south of Lawrence near Haskell Avenue and County Road 458.
The purpose of the tour was to encourage the group to set its imagination free and come up with a vision of what that tract of land might look like 10 or 20 years down the road.
"I asked them, 'What do you see God doing through us on this property?'" said Dunn, senior pastor of First Church of the Nazarene.
The tour turned out to be a fruitful exercise.
"I got a whole page of answers from them," Dunn recalled.
The encounter between pastor and church leaders at First Nazarene's campus is a good example of something all congregations need to do: peer into the future.
Whether they use long-range planning committees, church boards or a consensus-building process involving every member, religious communities have to set a course to help them reach distant goals.
Those goals can be as complex as a new spiritual campus or as straightforward as deciding when the church will finally get that new boiler.
Decisions have to be made about everything from the nuts and bolts of maintaining a physical plant to more conceptual issues like mission outreach, education and the direction of ministry.
Lawrence congregations take different paths toward plotting future visions.
At Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt., that job has fallen to the six-member Second Century Committee.
"Our greatest challenge is to meet facility needs without boxing ourselves into a corner. The needs of the community and our congregation are not static. They're always changing, and we have to think not just of our generations, but those to come," says John Esau, committee co-chair. "We go back 130 years in Lawrence, and the vision that was set early on was certainly a long-term one. And we're trying to carry on that heritage."
In recent years, one thing the committee had to determine was whether the congregation should stay downtown or move to a piece of property it owned farther west in Lawrence.
The committee helped shape a conversation within the church, and a consensus arose to remain downtown and undertake a major construction project.
"The toughest thing is every member of the congregation feels like that facility is their second home. They have a sense of ownership. To try and balance the diverse interests and priorities of a large congregation is challenging for both our staff and our volunteers," Esau says.
The Second Century Committee has also made some decisions about the church's long-range financial planning.
It has begun to emphasize asking congregants to remember Plymouth Church in their wills and estate plans.
"We think everybody else is asking for money colleges, hospitals, you name it. Everyone's out there asking for people to leave a lasting legacy. We're realizing there are people within our congregation who can make a significant difference well beyond their lifetime," Esau says.
The Lawrence Unitarian Fellowship, located south of town off U.S. Highway 59, has conducted a wide-ranging survey of its membership to set a course for its future. The plan that emerges will serve the fellowship for the next 10 years.
Stuart Boley is chair of the fellowship's five-member long-range planning committee.
"We're trying to look at everything facilities, programs, how we're serving the community. We're also going to do some home visitations with members and do a lot of listening to priorities and ideas," Boley says.
"We have to listen, and then we have to lead. In an institution that is very democratic as our fellowship is it's important to involve the membership in the process the entire way to engage the fellowship and ask, 'What is our common dream and how are we going to get there?'"
The St. Lawrence Catholic Center, 1631 Crescent Road, has a 12-member advisory council that is charged with drafting plans for the future and enacting them.
The plans are typically broken down into years, with one-year objectives and five-year goals.
The Rev. Vince Krische says a simple principle guides the council's work: "We start with asking, 'What does the church need? What does Catholicism need?' That vision is provided for us already in the documents of the Holy Father and the documents of Vatican Council II.
"Then we have to see how we can translate those documents into programs for the students here."
As important as church boards and long-range planning committees are, Dunn says, the vision for First Nazarene's new campus came from a higher authority.
"We took seriously the idea of finding out what God wanted to do through us. We began to dream God's dreams. We're talking about a (future) school, athletic fields, walking and biking trails, a retirement facility. It was a process of listening to each other and our hearts and what God was saying individually," Dunn says.
"Why in the world did we end up with 91 acres? Because we let the vision drive it. And we believe that vision comes only from God."