Don’t Waste Your Time Writing a Mission Statement

It almost sounds like heresy to say it.  Don’t waste your time writing a mission statement.  So many churches in North America have spent a lot of time over the last 40 years carefully crafting just the right language for the just the right mission statement, not wanting to engage in any new mission directions until we have that statement perfect.  But, has that exercise proven fruitful?  What are the results we have seen from writing such wonderful statements?  Have more people come to know Christ as their Lord and Savior?  Have our statements caused more people to be sent out into the world on mission with God?  Have our statements caused our world to be transformed?

Patrick Lencioni is the best-selling author of such books as Death by Meeting and the Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  In his book entitled The Advantage, he says,

“Since the 1980s, many organizations have centered their clarity and alignment efforts around a singular tool that has been a major disappointment.  What I’m referring to is the mission statement.  Thought I can’t be sure, I suspect that at some point about thirty years ago a cleverly sadistic and antibusiness consultant decided that the best way to really screw up companies was to convince them that what they needed was a convoluted, jargony, and all-encompassing declaration of intent…  Even if my historical suspicions are untrue, it can’t be denied that most mission statements have neither inspired people to change the world nor provided them with an accurate description of what an organization actually does for a living.  They certainly haven’t created alignment and clarity among employees.  What they have done is make many leadership teams look foolish.”

Lencioni then goes on to quote a mission statement from a company and asks the reader to guess which company the statement came from.  The mission statement said,
“(X Company) provides its customers with quality products and the expertise required for making informed buying decisions.  We provide our products and services with a dedication to the highest degree of integrity and quality of customer satisfaction, developing long-term professional relationships with employees that develop pride, creating a stable working environment and company spirit.”  Do you recognize the company?  This is the mission statement of Dunder Mifflin, the fictional paper company from the TV Show The Office.  The statement was written as a joke.  It’s a spoof.  And yet it sounds like so many real mission statements of real companies.

While Lencioni is writing for the business community, the same could be said of the church.  Somewhere along the way, people in the church got the idea that crafting a mission statement was essential to getting their church moving in a new direction.  And yet, this is rarely true.  Mission statements rarely lead to new action.  So, why do we do this?

Many of the church mission statements that I have read sound the same as most other church mission statements that are out there.  Very few are unique.  Many of the church mission statements that I have read don’t really have an impact on what that particular congregation is doing.  Many of the church mission statements I have read seem to just hang on the wall or get printed in a bulletin without getting into the heart and soul and culture of a congregation.

So, are church mission statements worthless?  When they are used as we often use them, then yes, they are worthless.  But, they don’t have to be.  However, their purpose is the opposite of what we think they are.  We often try to write new mission statements to inspire our people to move in new directions.  This rarely happens.  When mission statements do work well, they work in reverse.  They describe what has already been happening for a long time.  They don’t provide new energy and direction, but they describe the energy and direction that is already there, so people know in which direction the river is flowing that they are stepping in to.

Many churches have thought that if they could just write the great mission statement, that they would be able to walk by sight and not by faith.  They could predict and guarantee where the church would go and steer it in the direction they want it to move in.  But, the Christian faith doesn’t work that way.  We walk by faith and not by sight.  God invites us to follow Christ and trust Him to know where He is leading us.  It is Abraham in Genesis 11, leaving his home in Iraq because God told him to, without knowing what the destination of his journey was going to be.  It is like Noah obeying God to get on the ark, not knowing how long he would be on the boat, or where it would finally come to rest.  It is like Paul and Barnabas setting off on a missionary journey, not knowing where their travels would take them.  We begin to move first, and then God tells us where we are going.  We don’t tell God where we are going first and then move.  We don’t write our mission statement first.  We follow Christ first.  And after we have journeyed with Christ and our Christian community for a while, we get a stronger sense of where and how God is leading us.  And after many days on the journey, we look back at where we have been, and where we have come from, and it is then that we write our mission statement.  It describes the journey we have been on for a long time.  It describes what we have already been doing for some time.  And it invites others to journey with us.

So, we don’t waste a lot of time trying to write the perfect mission statement.  It is not an instrument that is capable of leading or inspiring us to take new actions or move in new directions.  Rather, just the opposite is true.  We walk by faith and not by sight.  We start out and begin moving in a direction first.  After some time, much conversation, and many ups and downs, then we can write a mission statement that describes where we have already been, where we have come from, and where we humbly guess that the Holy Spirit is leading us into the future.  We don’t write and then move.  We move and then write.

3 Responses to “Don’t Waste Your Time Writing a Mission Statement”

  1. Nathan Says:

    In my experience, the mission statements rarely resonate with members in any significant way. Having served in established congregations all of my career it seems that relationships rally folk more than carefully worded mission statements.

  2. Rev. Garrett Anderson Says:

    This was a well-timed piece for me. I think our session is getting close to the point where we need a vision statement. We have a sense of mission but can’t clarify it. Without the clarity then its too easy to slip into maintenance mode….making sure we can replicate what we’ve done before. I don’t see the vision statement as so much motivation for the congregation but a clarifying statement for the leadership.

    I think looking back at what we have been doing is our next step in seeing where to go.


  3. Nathan Says:

    Pastor Anderson, I like your comment. That is a helpful clarification. The “statement” is more for the leadership. Well said. Thanks.

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