An old saying goes “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there.” This suggests that if you are not clear about what you, your staff, and your congregation are to “produce” in ministry—what the clear outcomes of your work are to be—then it is okay for staff members to spend their time on whatever their current practices or preferences of work might be. This leads to assumptions that work—any work—is appropriate whether it is making a needed difference or not.

The dilemma is that typically when staff do not know what they are to produce—or when staff do not know what they are being held accountable to produce—they tend to value and measure their work by the amount of time consumed or the number of tasks accomplished. We all have been in supervision meetings with staff or evaluation meetings with personnel committees where a person’s work was measured by how many hours were spent doing the work or how many visits, phone calls, reports, dollars, or volunteers were involved. The number of hours, visits, calls, reports, and so on is not a measure of what is produced in ministry but rather a measure of what is expended in ministry. Without a clear and shared outcome in place for a staff person’s work, it is impossible to judge if the expenditure of hours, activities, and resources was appropriate or effective. The real issue of hours and resources is not whether they were spent but whether they moved the congregation toward the outcome of ministry to which it is called by its mission. Staff members are not paid to work hard, but to achieve ministry.

Even more debilitating than simply working hard along any path because you don’t know where you are going is the truism of all living systems: When a system doesn’t know what to do, it does what it knows. It is widely recognized that ministry is in a time of great transition because we are learning how to do ministry in a culture that has greatly changed. In what often is described as an in-between time, leaders have recognized that what many congregations know how to do no longer works well, but many congregations do not yet know what will work—or are not yet practiced at doing what they have discovered will work. The consequence is that when outcomes are unclear, staff members are tempted to spend increasing amounts of time doing what they know how to do by attending committee meetings, revising structure, and working harder and longer at programs that used to work—with the hope that the extra effort at known tasks will make the difference.

Leaders of congregations are more likely to have a good idea of what they “do”—the activities of the congregation—than of what those activities are to “produce.” Keeping people in the congregation happy so that they don’t complain is not an appropriate product of ministry. More people participating in what we are doing is not necessarily a product of ministry. Yet it is hard for leaders to get more specific about what is to be produced in ministry—such as introducing a new generation to the faith, deepening the life of individuals so that their faith makes a practical difference in their daily living, or building a “bridge” into the community and the larger world that will introduce new people to faith.

For mainline, established congregations—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—the question of product did not need to be answered in the past. In an earlier time, these three dominant expressions of faith in the American experience had an assigned cultural role to play in the sociological structure of our nation. It was sufficient simply to be a “type” of congregation—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. That identity provided an adequate explanation of what the congregation was to do. For established American congregations now, the cultural reason of providing a place for membership and national identity is no longer the dominant reason for the congregation to exist.

Mission statements are critically important in shaping outcomes. When well developed, they are statements of identity, purpose, and context, answering the following formation questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What has God called us to be and do?
  • Who is our neighbor?

Despite their importance, mission statements commonly are too general and attempt to speak for too long of a time period, which prevents them from providing clear and immediate direction for ministry. It is difficult to structure ministry without a mission statement. A general mission statement, however, is insufficient to develop clear strategies and make decisions about aligning resources to pursue those strategies.

Outcomes provide the critical next level of specificity of calling and commitment that the congregation needs to understand clearly. Outcomes can be used to do the following:

  • develop strategies
  • set goals with staff
  • answer questions about needed resources
  • develop timelines
  • provide structures of accountability
  • give clarity to goals, making it possible to explain to the various voices in the congregation why some efforts have been given priority attention

What is to be different in this congregation, in the community, and in the lives of individuals in the next one to three years because of our call to ministry? Outcomes need to be specific by stating clear differences within a specified amount of time. Outcomes go a step beyond saying what we will work on and actually describe what will be different if we are faithful in working on our call to ministry.

In a fast-changing environment, it is possible to identify what we are to produce, but it is much more difficult to know from the outset what it will take to accomplish the outcome. Ends can be identified. Directions can be set. But strategies often need to be learned along the way. Leadership in the contemporary congregation, in fact, involves learning how to do ministry while actually doing it in a fluid and changing time. To be effective, the description of the outcome needs to be firm and in place. The way we get to the outcome needs to be held loosely and be malleable to allow new learnings that we will uncover as we do the work. The idea of being firm in purpose but flexible in strategy is a basic principle of the organization of behavior for all vital living systems.

The classic difference between a mission statement and a vision statement is that the mission statement describes what is to be done while the vision statement draws a verbal picture of what the results will look like if the mission is accomplished. The verbal picture is necessary to help people have a perceptual idea of the target: What will it look like? Creativity, invention, and adaptation will be needed along the way. It is therefore inappropriate to hold leaders and staff accountable for an expected outcome if the shape of that outcome needs to change while the work is being done. The verbal picture of the outcome nevertheless provides the direction: “This is what we are after.” Without the picture it is difficult for leaders and staff to know how to shape their work. The final results may—and probably will—vary from the original picture, but there needs to be a visual map from the beginning that will set direction.

We started with “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there.” A much more important corollary is: “Knowing where you are going is much more important than knowing how you will get there.” Times of great change are moments of invention. New things need to be tried. Experiments need to be mounted. We need to be guided by what we are learning more than by what we already know.

Claiming a clear outcome for ministry can be an anxious moment for the senior clergy because of our limited assumptions about leadership that insist that if we name the goal, we need to know how to get there. Senior clergy struggle with supervising staff in new work because they feel the inappropriate burden of needing to tell staff what to do when they are aware that they themselves are not certain.

In fact, in the current environment, the leader who believes that he or she needs to know not only what is to be done but how to do it is a barrier to ministry. Great change takes place in the wilderness of new times. When Moses tried to do all the leadership tasks by himself, he became exhausted and the work of the people suffered greatly. It was when he was able to draw the picture of the Promised Land and work with Aaron and others to figure out the trip, day by day, that the slaves transformed themselves into the nation of Israel.