Mission Drift: Who’s on guard?

The word 'mission' on a compass instead of 'north'

Used with permission.

In the first post of this series, I described research showing how Christian organizations lose their Christian identity. Now it’s time to discuss who should be standing on guard over a ministry’s Christian identity.

Surprisingly, it is not just Christian agencies that lose their Christian identity; although rare, churches can too. As I write this, a United Church of Canada minister, Gretta Vosper of West Hill United Church, is a self-declared atheist fighting not to be defrocked as a Christian minister. Two-thirds of her congregation walked out in 2008 after she did away with the Lord’s Prayer, but still there are people (less than fifty) who attend the church and support her as their ‘minister’.

In terms of Christian ministries, Christian identity has two components:

  1. Christian values and culture
  2. Christian mission

When either or both of these become lacking in a Christian ministry, we can say that mission drift has occurred.

Mission Drift

In Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders,Charities, and Churches, authors Greer and Horst trace how originally Christian organizations (such as Harvard University and the YMCA) lost their Christian identities, and how others (including Compassion and InterVarsity) have retained theirs. They report that most formerly Christian organizations did not intend to lose their identity, but they just “drifted quietly, gradually, and slowly.” This accords with the research findings in the first post of this series.

To prevent mission drift, our Christian faith must really matter to the life and work of our ministries. Ministry leaders must integrate Christian faith into all aspects of their ministry’s existence so that a Christian identity is passed on from one ‘generation’ of staff to the next. Greer and Horst found that all too often the passion of one generation became the preference of the next, and then became irrelevant to the third, in the same way that the Israelites lost their faith in Judges 2:10.

So, directors and leaders,

  • When was the last time that faith was a crucial factor in any major decision?
    • Beyond trusting God to provide, have you had a robust, theologically-grounded discussion that reframed the issue?
  • Do you really believe that faith is essential to your work?
    • Would your organization suffer if it became completely secular? If it wouldn’t suffer much, then perhaps you aren’t making as much use of your faith as you should be.
  • Does faith saturate every aspect of pursuing your mission?
    • How does your Christian worldview intersect with HR practices, program design, etc?
  • Does it permeate your culture?
    • Are people comfortable expressing their faith outside of formal prayer or devotional time? Would a visitor to your ministry immediately get the sense that faith matters?
  • Is it a pass/fail screen for new board and staff recruits?

If you didn’t have a recent example of faith factoring in a decision, or if you answered “No” to any of the questions, then you may have a problem with mission drift. There is a handy free assessment tool you can use to see how much in danger of mission drift your ministry is. (Use the white button partway down the page just after the video to open the assessment.)

Responsibility for preventing mission drift

Both the directors and the senior leader are responsible for guarding against mission drift. In fact, in Mission Drift, the authors found that in every case of lost Christian identity, poor board recruitment and governance were driving forces behind mission drift.

If you think that directors and staff would never be the source of pressure to change your identity, the authors report that the pressure to secularize isn’t so much exerted by forces from outside the organization as it is by forces from within: your supporters, employees, and directors.

So let’s look at how directors and executives can ensure there is no compromise on your Christian identity.

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

Board

The board bears ultimate responsibility for safeguarding the mission and corporate identity. The main risk factor in its ability to do this well are the directors themselves, for several reasons:

  • Term limits guarantee that there will be turnover on the board, risking the loss of corporate memory. Term limits are very healthy because they bring new blood and fresh thinking to the board table, but over time you could end up with a board that is only familiar with the last four or five years of history, making gradual drift harder to see.
  • Directors are involved in the ministry, but their lives are wrapped up with their vocations elsewhere. There is a heightened risk that they will bring values and culture from another organization (often a secular organization) to the board table with them.
  • Board members may not have the theological resources to protect against mission drift. Few directors are likely to have a formal theological education, making it possible that in spite of being very devout and faithful Christians they might overlook the theological assumptions or inconsistencies implicit in the choices they face.

The board must therefore intentionally ensure it is equipped to safeguard this ministry’s mission. They might:

  • Read a corporate history of the ministry featuring the development of its values, culture and mission. Corporate histories should include stories that are part of the corporate lore that exemplify its Christian identity.
  • Include a discussion of the corporate history, values and mission at each board orientation.
  • Study a theology of whatever the mission is about. For example, Christian Horizons has a theology of disability that guides its work.

Practical steps might include:

  • Embedding Christian faith as deep as possible in your corporate documents so that they are hard to change. A statement of faith might be in your bylaws and a Christian purpose in your corporate objects.
  • Intentionally asking “Which biblical-theological principles apply to this decision?” when making significant decisions such as setting priorities, approving capital projects, or relating with senior staff.
  • Asking how well the board demonstrates faithfulness to God through its meetings and work.
  • Vetting potential board recruits for
    • their passion for the specifically Christian nature of the organization. If the ministry lost its Christian identity, would they still be interested in serving?
    • how much their faith affects their daily lives. Are they serious about their faith?
  • Setting longer board terms (although if the longer term causes people to serve only one term rather than two, then stay with what you have).
  • Adopting a self-perpetuating governance model, so that the selection of directors is a carefully considered appointment by the board rather than an election by a possibly uninformed membership.
  • Ensuring they do not pressure the staff so much that the staff feels they need to compromise the Christian identity to fulfill the board’s expectations.
  • Keeping an eye on the senior executive to ensure corporate culture and mission strategy remain thoroughly Christian. Just as potential directors are asked about the application of their faith in their lives, the leader should also be asked (if they don’t talk about it themselves) about how their faith works itself out in daily life. In what ways does the senior leader give evidence of being led by God? What is the leader doing to ensure that the staff is committed to the Christian identity?

Senior Leader

The senior staff leader bears responsibility for the ministry living out its Christian identity on a daily basis. The main risk factors leaders face are: 1) loss of personal Christian vitality, and 2) reliance on worldly thinking. These are very real risks because:

  • Ministry leaders are usually quite absorbed in their ministry, and might sacrifice their personal spiritual life for the sake of more time for the ministry. Alternatively, they might end up conflating their personal spirituality with that of the ministry’s, thinking they are one and the same. Neither of these must be allowed to happen.
  • Agency leaders, unlike most pastors, might not have any formal theological education, creating a lack of awareness of how a Christian identity could affect the organization beyond just having a staff devotional time.
  • There is much that worldly wisdom has to offer in terms of scholarship and research, but it must always be considered in light of our faith. Leaders may be prone to do what works rather than what is theologically sound.

Leaders can safeguard the mission by:

  • Studying the ministry’s history. Senior leaders should be better versed in the ministry’s history than anyone else except perhaps the archivist. I outlined how I did this at CCCC (follow the links in this post for specific examples).
  • Either taking courses in biblical-theology or reading up on it, so that they can think theologically about the mission and operations of the ministry.
  • Developing their own rich spiritual life and learning to discern God’s leadership.
  • Ensuring that they see themselves first as followers and only secondly as leaders. They must feel personally led by the Holy Spirit in their leadership. If they don’t feel this is so, they should reflect on their own spirituality.

Practical things a leader can do to prevent mission drift include:

  • Be the model for living out what the ministry stands for.
  • Watch corporate culture very, very closely. Ensure that faith matters within the general culture, not just at leadership meetings.
  • In Mission Drift, Phil Smith notes that “People join your organization who are very excited about portions of your vision, but are either opposed to or don’t care about the rest of it.” Unless you have intentionally decided to hire non-Christians for some roles (which can be fine), you should hire only those who are passionate about everything the ministry is and represents.
  • Build the senior leadership team’s capacity for theological reflection and spiritual vitality through their professional development plans. Have staff think theologically about their own work.
  • Ensure theological discussion is a true discussion and not a sermon. The leader shouldn’t be the only one raising matters of faith.
  • Document God’s call to your founders and previous leaders. Why did God cause your ministry to be founded? Are you still true to this call today? If the call has changed or developed over time, document how and why it evolved. This prevents unintentional drifting. Do the same for your corporate values. Have they changed, and if so, has there been any compromise or is there an even greater dedication to being a godly organization?
  • Watch for concrete examples of how faith intersects with your ministry and write them up as stories to add to the history and lore of the ministry.
  • Define key terms in your strategic statements. It’s amazing how different people can interpret the same word in so many different ways. The CCCC End statement consists of only ten words, but a short paragraph explains what the End statement means to us.
  • Ensure that all marketing and branding statements reflect the corporate objects and by-laws. (CRA Charities Directorate also checks this when doing a general charity audit.) Sometimes the language of strategy doesn’t play as well to your audience as language developed from a marketing perspective, so different words might  be used. This is okay as long as the public version retains the intent of the internal statements. So compare the statements and be sure you have not compromised your Christian identity.
  • Finally, watch the board very carefully. The board and the senior leader are mutual checks on one another. Bring to the board’s attention anything they are doing or not doing that could result in mission drift.

Conclusion

A Christian ministry is successful to the degree that it is faithful in how it pursues its mission and experiences corporate life. Both the board and the senior leader must be on guard, watching over the ministry as if from a watchtower, to survey everything about its organizational life to ensure that its Christian faith permeates every aspect of its existence. If you want God’s blessing, you must be faithful.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling: The key to retaining your ministry’s Christian identityTransmitting Corporate Values >>
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Thoughts on Mission Drift: Who’s on guard?

  1. Peter Klenner

    Hey John,
    You’re exactly right. Great article; also the one in this month’s “Bulletin.”
    In a nutshell, here’s what I see happening in the Canadian (western) church:
    The church body is becoming more secular (in the words of Prof. Gordon Fee, “There’s too much Corinth in the church”); we elect our Directors (and elders etc.); therefore church leadership becomes secular; then you get Mission/Ministry Drift!
    We are in the process of moving all our churches toward Appointed Directors.
    Thanks for your continued ministry to all of us.
    The peace of our Lord,
    Peter Klenner
    The Anglican Mission in Canada

    Reply
    1. John PelloweJohn Pellowe Post author

      Thanks, Peter. I know I’m just adding my voice to the chorus, but I hope by promoting these points that people will take a close look at how they do ministry and how they lead their ministries. May God bless your initiative in church governance.

      Reply

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