Anthony B. Robinson: Second thoughts on mission statements

Don’t use a mission-writing process to avoid the hard work of responding to the new thing God is calling you to do right now.

As someone who teaches and writes about church leadership, and who works with congregations as a consultant, I have been an advocate for thinking and talking about a congregation’s “core mission,” or “purpose.” And I still am.

I continue to believe that a basic challenge facing many congregations today is they just aren’t all that clear about why they are there. They have lost a sense of compelling mission or purpose. Leaders are people who remind an organization or congregation who they are and why they are here. That is, leaders pay attention to mission or purpose.

And yet, I have a few doubts, or at least some reservations and second thoughts, about big, protracted congregation-wide processes to identify mission or purpose.

Sometimes such big (and, in a variety of ways, costly) processes, which usually involve many meetings and extended time, can be a terrific form of work avoidance. Instead of getting on with it, we talk, study, discuss and write reports.

Not long ago I was with a fairly typical mainline congregation. Wonderful people. Remarkably busy. And yet, their congregation was getting steadily smaller and older (many were in their 80’s or 90’s). All the trend lines for the last thirty years said, “Gradual but steady decline.”

What is to be done? One strategy I have commended on many an occasion is to step back and get clear about core mission and set major priorities in its light. I’ve seen that work. Usually it works when there is strong pastoral leadership that has a sense of where it’s headed and will keep such a process moving in productive ways.

And I’ve seen it not work. I’ve seen it turn into a huge energy suck that amounts to nothing or even a net negative. “Net negative” happens when a congregation’s best people are worn down by such protracted processes and finally give up. Such processes, which typically last twice as long as the period of normal human gestation, do not result in a new birth but in a report.

In that fairly typical mainline congregation I mentioned a moment ago I could see that some sort of big process to identify mission and set priorities was attractive. It was an educated group and people like us are good at talking about things and avoiding decisions.

I could also see a host of simple (though in reality not-so-simple) changes that could be made right now, and needed to be made, in worship. These would be “on hold” while the big process unfolded.

The kinds of changes I could see weren’t rocket science, but they did take “outsider eyes.” For example, less organ music and more use of the piano, played by someone who knows how to lead a congregation’s singing. And get the choir down out of its hidden loft and up front singing with enthusiasm, engaged in leading worship. And tear out the “chancel fence” and locate the pulpit centrally to enhance engagement and communication. Such changes would make worship more engaging and lively.

And also changes that would irritate the hell out of some folks who like sitting in the choir loft and doing the New York Times Sunday crossword during the sermon, or who feel that its not church if the organ isn’t plodding through each and every hymn (Have you ever noticed how with some musicians all hymns sound exactly the same, regardless of key, tempo or melody? Whatever the meat, when it is put through the same grinder it comes out as the same sausage.)

My point is that planning processes can be another way of avoiding simple/not-so-simple changes that will ruffle feathers but need to be made. They need to be made if part of a congregation’s challenge is moving toward worship that is an experience of the presence of the living God rather than an experience of “how we have always done things here.”

So, yes, think and talk about mission. Renew a sense of biblically and theologically-grounded purpose. Write the vision and establish the priorities for realizing your God-given purpose. But don’t use such a process to avoid the hard work of responding to the new thing God is doing, and calling you to do right now.

Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here.