It happens in the best of organizations, in the most well-managed nonprofits and corporations alike. It usually happens when opportunities that seem too good to pass by arrive on the leader’s desk, and he or she jumps at them.
You can retrace the leader’s logic afterwards: “This new thing might not be exactly within the mission, but it harmonizes with it. Surely, that is good enough.”
And to be fair about it, the problems come usually not with the first foray outside the mission but with the second and the third and the fourth, because with each successive deviation, the institution’s mission becomes that much more clouded and resources become that much more misaligned.
The leadership and management experts call it mission creep, that unintended loss of institutional focus because of the creation or adoption of programs, initiatives or agendas that lie outside (sometimes, just outside) of an institution’s core mission.
Christian institutions are particularly and predictably susceptible to mission creep in two ways.
First, an opportunity presents itself which is good and Gospel-shaped, and it feels like the kind of thing that a Christian institution really should be doing. Feeding hungry kids? Jesus seemed to care about that sort of thing. Housing the homeless? Hard to say no. But, and this is the dicey part, just because Christians should be doing it, doesn’t mean your institution should be.
This can be especially difficult to explain to those employees who conflate “Christian institution” with “church” in their thinking and in their orientation to their work. It can be awkward to say, “You know, driving senior citizens to their doctors’ appointments is a good thing, but as a seminary, it’s not really why we are here,” but it is important to say it. Otherwise you may find yourself engaged in all kinds of good ministries that are actually beyond the scope of your institution’s mission.
Second, for Christian institutions, particularly those with limited resources, there is always the thought of creating partnerships with other organizations. Most often, such creative alliances can have a multiplying effect, and institutions can find themselves suddenly able to do much more than they could before. This is a good thing.
Other times, though, institutions will pursue a partnership hoping to expand their resource base or their reach and find themselves committed to missions or causes not their own. This can create problems with an institution’s core constituencies, donor base and employees. Entering a partnership with eyes wide open to the implications of that partnership is essential.
One caveat here -- it is important to distinguish between mission creep and mission expansion. Mission creep is not strategic in nature; it is the unfortunate byproduct of decisions made and is often injurious to the institution. Mission expansion, on the other hand, is the deliberate and strategic decision to enlarge the core mission of an institution to account for changing circumstances or emerging opportunities.
Years ago, Steven Covey said that the leader’s job was to keep the main thing the main thing. For Christian institutional leaders, keeping focus on the mission is the main thing.