In theory, everything a congregation does should serve its mission. Traditional strategic planning starts with a mission statement and progresses through strategic vision, goals, objectives, timelines, budgets, and a tagline for the T-shirts—each expressing and reflecting the mission. If leaders have to choose between what they personally prefer and what the mission calls for, their obligation is to pick the mission. Members, too, when they vote in congregational meetings, hold the congregation in trust—not for themselves, but for the mission.

Fidelity to mission assures donors that their gifts will serve the same ideals that motivated them to give. Some donors try to take control, writing elaborate restrictions, hoping to require the institution—even after they are dead—to do as it is told. But most donors—whether of a dollar in the plate or a bequest of millions—rely on the institution’s understanding of its mission to provide a sense of continuity or even permanence, as times change.

But what if times change so much that the original mission starts to look like a mistake? “New occasions teach new duties,” says Lowell’s familiar hymn, and “time makes ancient good uncouth.” Uncouth was a strong word back in 1845, but Lowell was protesting major evils: slavery and the war with Mexico, whose ban on slavery in Texas partly prompted the U.S. invasion. Lowell was suggesting that the nation needed to change its mind about some of its most basic values.

Could a church or synagogue face a similar about-face? Is it possible that our mission—as stated in the mission statement or as lived in our daily practices—needs to be changed?

I’m not talking about small tweaks. Any mission statement needs to be restated now and then—updating the language and correcting errors. Leaders owe their loyalty to the mission, not the mission statement. If the current generation thinks it can state the mission better, they should try. But what if the mission itself—the bedrock of principle on which the institution stands—needs radical revising?

This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Almost any congregation that has passed its hundredth birthday regularly violates some of its founders’ cherished values. Some of our country’s oldest churches once advocated slavery or witch-burning. Some newer ones were founded in a moment of zeal for a principle—not using pipe organs in worship, not admitting members without full immersion, not ordaining homosexuals—that soon seem, if not uncouth, at least odd or antiquated.

And so our discipline of church strategic planning needs to allow for the possibility that the most cherished principles of the founders or the current members may come into question. Rational planning—the kind that begins with a mission statement and proceeds logically to produce goals, objectives, and work plans—will not do when the frame itself is bent. Rewriting the mission statement is a good way to refresh a mission that has gone stale—but it fails to solve the problem of a mission that has gone toxic in the icebox.

I have worked as a consultant with a number of congregations that were founded from a split. At least one of the resulting bodies almost always has an unstated mission that says, “We are the church of NOT THEM.” A negative mission has great unifying power—for a while—but means less to newcomers. Sooner or later, a congregation has to organize for something. Congregations born of division often need to re-found themselves a few years or a generation later. It is not an easy process. Congregations often fizzle out rather than swallow pride and say, “It’s not enough to be holier than those we split from. To thrive long-term, we need to be called into the service of a purpose greater than ourselves.”

Inevitably, someone mentions money. “People gave this building/organ/fund because they trusted that the church would remain true to its original faith. You may be right that we would be more relevant if we changed, but our duty is to keep trust with the donors.” This argument is not without merit, but I’ve noticed that it rarely is the actual donors making it.

Once I helped a small church that had a hard time making a decision—any decision—and then carrying it out. I suggested that the governing board choose one modest, non-controversial goal. They did: the entrance to the church was almost invisible because a large tree had grown right in the doorway. The board approved the project, assigned it to a trusted leader, and approved the funds and the authority to remove the tree.

A few weeks later, I returned to lead a gathering on another subject and I asked how the tree project was coming. Apparently a small group in the congregation protested the removal on the grounds that,

1.) Trees are good, and

2.) This tree was a memorial.

My gathering turned into a forum on this issue. Eventually I was inspired to ask, “Who is the tree a memorial to?” After a brief pause, the protesters with a single voice said, “We can’t remember.”

Donors give their gifts in support of mission, but they give them to a living congregation. Re-founding requires looking beyond the words of the old mission statement. It requires the courage to question the founding principles themselves in the name of loyalties and values deeper than the ones we know how to articulate. More often than not, re-founding requires taking a critical look at the founders’ own anxieties and prejudices, and embracing a wider concept of the mission they glimpsed only narrowly. I have read many local histories of churches that split during the 1800’s over whether to play an organ in worship. Within a decade, the non-organ-playing church—if it survived at all—installed an organ bigger than the one in the old church!

Congregations that divide this year over our current version of the organ issue (snare drums, this time) will find themselves going through a similar process. After a time, the surface issue goes away, and the hard work that remains is to dig below the mission as once stated to the deeper sources of our calling.

Repenting of an ancient mission is not easy, whether it is written in a covenant or mission statement, or simply graven in the lineaments of history (“We’re the church that adds a building to our campus every twenty years.”) Like every major planning triumph, a successful re-founding prompts some members to depart. Not every congregation that tries re-found will survive. But some do, and in the process glimpse a little of the light that helps us find the next path as we make our way together through a changing world.

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Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. “When the Mission Changes” originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Clergy Journal (logosproductions.com).

 

 

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FEATURED RESOURCES

AL276_SM Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations 
by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann

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AL370_SM Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership  
by Dan Hotchkiss

In Governance and Ministry, Alban Institute senior consultant Dan Hotchkiss offers congregational leaders a roadmap and tools for changing the way boards and clergy work together to lead congregations. Hotchkiss demonstrates that the right governance model is the one that best enables a congregation to fulfill its mission—to achieve both the outward results and the inward quality of life to which it is called. 

AL278_SM Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change  
by Mark Lau Branson

Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.

AL244_SM The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge
by Gilbert R. Rendle

Congregations need to learn new cultural languages and practices in order to speak to and be heard by new generations of people. But how do congregations enter the wilderness of ministry with these new generations when many of those in the entourage do not appreciate the trip? Rendle shows us how to talk with and really understand one generational cohort while another cohort is present “looking over one’s shoulder.” 

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