VisionFest 2020: An executive summary

July 8, 2020
By Sarah B. Drummond
On Thursday, July 2, representatives from the bodies that lead Andover Newton Seminary gathered to cast a vision for the 2020-2021 academic year. The goals of the session included naming key priorities for the year and selecting a theme from among previously submitted suggestions from the group. For a description of the process used to frame VisionFest, see the description, “What is a VisionFest?,” below this article.
VisionFest took place in the midst of what we at Andover Newton have been calling “the perfect storm,” a term borrowed from the title of a book by Sebastian Junger about three colliding hurricanes. In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic, anti-Black racism in America, and deepening poverty have not just coincided but are feeding into each other. Making bad matters worse, this perfect storm is unfolding amidst incompetent, divisive, and uncoordinated political leadership, and the world is crying out for wisdom. Religious leaders are waking up to new responsibilities we are just beginning to understand. 
Andover Newton must be at the leading edge of preparing faith leaders to enter this new and quickly changing world. The following priorities for our school emerged from VisionFest:
  1. Embracing the prophetic moment: Andover Newton must embrace this perfect storm, rather than pretending it is not happening, or hunkering down to wait for it to be over. The school must integrate what these crises are teaching us about God’s vision for creation into our curriculum content and educational methods.
  2. Transparency teaches: beyond adapting programs to take into consideration new formats and demands for social justice leadership education, Andover Newton’s leaders must show their work so that students can model their own adaptations after Andover Newton’s. Andover Newton’s leaders will not behave like they have answers, but rather they will practice collaborative knowledge-building for a new day.
  3. Social justice leadership education: communities are looking to faith leaders to help them make meaning and take action amidst multilayered injustices, newly laid bare for all to see. Andover Newton must educate for theologically rooted social justice leadership, which connects collaborative action with Christ-like compassion. Andover Newton must intentionally address anti-Black racism in and around it and educate for anti-racist ministry and ministerial leadership. 
  4. Varsity hospitality: there is no accidental hospitality amidst a pandemic. The creativity and thoughtfulness community-building will require this year is unlike anything the school has seen in generations. Starting with Andover Newton’s special embrace of students entering in the fall of 2020, Andover Newton’s hospitality must reach new heights, both strengthening community and showing students how it is done. 
After some discussion and work offline among VisionFest’s facilitators, leaders came to consensus around “Embracing Transformation” as Andover Newton’s theme for the 2020-2021 academic year.

What is a VisionFest?

The process of visioning…

In writing about planning and evaluation,* a consistent refrain I sing relates to the importance of inclusivity around visioning. I write that crafting a shared image of a preferred future is perhaps the only activity in which all key leaders in an institution need to engage together. Other tasks can be segmented and delegated if a wide cross-section of the community has bought into a vision and is motivated to make it a reality. Institutional leaders struggle, however, to create forums for creating a shared vision, so when we come upon a good method, it is good to share. 
The method that Andover Newton used for crafting a vision for the 2020-21 academic year – one that promises to be nothing if not unusual – was a gathering we called VisionFest. We convened student leaders, the instructional team, the staff, the chair of the board of trustees, and the Program and Life Committee of the board for a Zoom conference. Leading up to the meeting, we took steps that helped create a productive meeting.
  • We sent out a Doodle poll before choosing a time in order to maximize attendance and build enthusiasm, as well as a sense of expectation that leaders needed to be there.
  • We tracked down those who did not respond to the poll and got them aboard. Those who received this outreach were ultimately touched that we felt we needed their wisdom.
  • We scheduled a relatively short meeting, 75 minutes, and then used the time well.
  • We invited people to send nominations in advance for themes for the year so that our discussion could focus on the relative merits of ideas rather than free-flowing brainstorming.
  • The three co-facilitators – each the head leader of a key constituent group – were prepared with a shared understanding of the conference’s goals. 
  • All communications leading up to the meeting, including numerous reminders and re-sent links, reiterated the meeting’s goals, especially emphasizing that the focus would be on priorities rather than practices.
  • When we hit an impasse during the meeting related to wordsmithing the year’s theme, we asked the group to empower the co-conveners to settle the matter offline. The co-conveners then exchanged emails and texts and landed on wording that reflected the group’s ideas.
  • After the meeting, we contacted the very few no-shows to elicit their thoughts and ultimately their buy-in to the direction the group identified.
  • A few days after the meeting, after having reached all invitees, I wrote an Executive Summary that distilled the conference’s findings for use in planning across constituencies. 
The meeting then flowed like this:
  1. Opening prayer
  2. A “state of the school” from me
  3. Breakout groups, each including a cross-section of participants, charged with naming three priorities for the year
  4. Debriefing, naming the three themes generated from each group
  5. Discussion and selection of a theme for the year
  6. Closing prayer and benediction
Although Covid-19 has restricted leaders’ access to each other in a crucial time for planning, there is something about this strange and unsettling time that caused this meeting to feel particularly important, deepening its impact. I doubt we could have gotten together such a wide array of participants if not for Zoom, but the capacity to meet without having to travel was only part of the impact we felt. These trying times have caused our whole community to see that now is the time to step up and lead. 
Ultimately, the buy-in for the idea of a VisionFest was strong, and I believe that investment in the theme and priorities for the year will be similarly strong in the year to come.
*Sarah B. Drummond has written extensively about change leadership with a special emphasis on program planning and evaluation in religious leadership. Visioning is an important theme in Holy Clarity: the Practice of Planning and Evaluation (Alban, 2009); Dynamic Discernment: Reason, Emotion, and Power in Change Leadership (The Pilgrim Press, 2019); and the forthcoming Sharing Leadership: a United Church of Christ Way of Being in Community (The Pilgrim Press, 2021).