Anthony B. Robinson: Leaders are stewards of a (hopefully clear) mission

What do we do when a sense of mission is elusive, ignored, too much about us and not enough about God, or opposed by a small but vocal power bloc?

Peter Steinke is well-known for applying systems thinking to congregational life and leadership. In reflecting on his experience of more than 200 “interventions” with congregations experiencing conflict, he said that the one characteristic common to all these congregations was they lacked a clear sense of overall purpose or mission.

That rings true to my own work with congregations and their leaders. When there’s no clear sense of core mission or purpose, a vacuum results. Congregations are as vacuum averse as nature. Stuff fills the vacuum. Frequently that “stuff” is a welter of minor matters (carpet color and kitchen-use rules are especially popular) that congregations obsess over because they have no clarity about what’s major. Sometimes what fills the vacuum are people a colleague calls “power grabbers”: those with an undue need for power.

Often I work with congregations on discovering or renewing a sense and statement of purpose or core mission. The effective leaders I see are good stewards of a congregation’s mission. They are in touch with it themselves, able to use it to help people discern next steps, and ready to articulate it in ways that strengthen congregational identity and direction.

Sometimes a congregation’s members who have been through exercises in developing a “mission statement,” whether in the church or another setting, are wary of such an exercise. I understand. Frequently the work on mission statements is long on process and short on discernment. There’s too much of us and not enough of God in it. Moreover, for many congregations coming up with a mission statement becomes the end when it should be a beginning. A long, difficult process culminates with the production of a mission or purpose statement which then goes on the shelf or in the file. Once you have it, I suggest to leaders, you have to use it.

I use the words “sense and statement” of purpose as a way of warding off the temptation to think it’s only about coming up with a clever slogan or catchy statement. A succinct, compelling statement is valuable, but only when the statement is underwritten by a strong sense of “why are we here?” “Who has God called us to be?” “What has God called us to do?” “What is God’s mission in our time and place in which we are called to join?” Pastoral leaders need to be animated by such a sense of purpose if their ministry is to have purchase. At the same time, they need to be able to support a congregation’s discernment rather than simply assert their own views.

Often when speaking at events I get a question like this: “What do you do if a few people or a small group in the congregation don’t like the mission statement or direction, when they complain (loudly and to whoever will listen) that they or their interests aren’t included by it?”

First, be sure the process of discernment has been sufficiently open and unhurried to allow for wide participation. If that’s been the case and what’s going on is that people are impeding movement because they fear they will lose power, I say, “Vital congregations are prepared to let people go. Your mission or purpose is more important than any one person, family or small group.”

That’s tough for many long-established congregations, especially those that have come to think and speak of themselves as “a family” (not the best ecclesiological image). Many churches and clergy seem to be willing to turn themselves into pretzels trying to please malcontents and grumps. It seldom works.

Remember: your God-given, congregationally-discerned mission/purpose is more important than any one person or family in the congregation (no matter how important they think they are). Trying to placate one or two, we fail to see how the life of the whole community or congregation is undermined.

Steinke is right, a strong sense of purpose or mission strengthens a congregation’s capacity to resist infection and enjoy health and vitality.

Anthony B. Robinson is a speaker, teacher and author whose books include “Transforming Congregational Culture,” “Leadership for Vital Congregations,” and his most recent, “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations.”