Repetition avoids mission drift

By Ronald E. Keener

Most mission statements are too long and aren’t translated into action.

Speak the name of Peter Steinke and what comes to mind immediately is his respected position in church life as a congregational systems consultant who has been a pastor, educator and therapist for clergy. His interest and work have been in helping congregations become healthy and vital.

In 2006, he published the book How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Alban Institute) and earlier  Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach.

His recent book is  A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (Alban, 2010), and there speaks about mission drift. Church Executive asked Steinke to address the topic more closely.

Why should churches have a mission statement?

Dr. Edwin Friedman, author of Generation to Generation, noted that a sailor on a lake who did not have a destination would not know how to adjust the sails to take advantage of the wind. Instead the sailor would meander, get lost or drift. Churches need a mission statement for direction.

Whatʼs wrong with most of those statements?

One problem with church mission statements is that they are not statements, but more like creeds – far too long. Someone said mission statements should be one sentence in length (and without more than one comma), understood by a 12-year old, and repeatable at gun point. A second problem is many statements are not converted to actions. They do not inform and shape staffing, budgeting, or programming.

You suggest that a mission is a sort of “compass to navigate the hazy conditions created by cultural shift.” How so?

The context in which churches operate has changed. New forms to meet the challenge of change will not develop without some sense of what the church is about. The word disaster comes from a word meaning “without a star.” Not having a point of destination or orientation spells trouble.

Churches have “mission drift,” you say, that is seen as limping along without a focus. What does cultural shift have to do with it?

Cultural shifts beg for new responses. For one thing, the culture is no longer a supporter of Christendom. Making a difference through personal action, for instance, is what many want to be part of and people want to be “on the ground” to make a difference.

What meaningful steps can a church board or pastor take to avoid mission drift?

This sounds too simple but it is effective. Repeat, repeat, repeat  who we are, what we are about, where we are headed. Raise consciousness!

Are there a few signs that churches can notice in spotting drift?

Energy is low. Leaders donʼt take risks. Blaming. Excuse making. In other words, people react instead of respond.

You note that “every congregation, as a living system, is in the survival business,” Strong words; what is meant?

Anything organic dies eventually. Living systems need nurture, pruning too. Thereʼs no logical reason to believe any church will survive forever. But what can we do to pump some oxygen and nutrients into this garden we call church?

What do you make of people who say if God wants us to grow, he’ll provide the way?

I donʼt argue with these people. But I challenge them. He won’t provide a way that doesn’t involve people like you and me.

Thatʼs quite biblical.

What is it that churches need to look at as their membership or attendance declines?

Not the past. Many declining churches want to recapture the golden days with the golden pastor. Look to what you can do when your faith becomes active in love. Increasing loving service (outputs) prevail over gains or inputs. Mission is outward.

One church’s mission sounds so much like any other church. How can a church be distinctive in its mission statement?

Mission statements are mission statements. But what specifically, uniquely, or concretely can we do in this place and neighborhood? I like James Davison Hunter’s notion of “faithful presence” where you are, doing Godʼs mission right here. Jesus did a lot of that.

How does the neighborhood know that we care about it? Ask people — if you came into our building, joined an event, what would you experience? Would their responses be consonant with our self-understanding and beliefs?

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