Your mission statement just isn’t that interesting

I hate to break it to you, but your mission statement just isn’t that interesting.

No – come back! I’m not suggesting that you schedule a leadership retreat, or a years’ worth of all day monthly meetings, so that you can develop a more interesting one.

More, I’m suggesting that the mission statement itself just isn’t a very compelling piece. Two primary options for how this plays out:

Option 1

Someone tells me about their beautifully crafted mission statement. Many of these really are a work of art –– carefully worded, maybe with some fine-tuned alliterations (“We Cherish Christ, Cultivate Community, and Care for our City”) or a nice acrostic (First Church used to Find, Ignite, Reach, Strengthen and Train people).

After the person tells me about the mission statement, I ask them how they’re actually living it out. The most common response I hear goes something like this: “Well, that’s what we’re working on now.” You might not believe just how common that kind of response is.

That’s usually because some team has just recently––within the last two or three years––come up with that shiny new statement. They invested a lot of energy in that statement. That was a fun and exciting time, dreaming of what the church would be like. Then came the hard part: actually doing it. That takes much more work. It’s mostly done out in the real world where things may or may not work, not in the conference room world where our diagrams seem unimpeachable.

Many of the people I talk to have moved on from crafting the statement to organizing and educating. They’re trying to get all of the church, or at least its leaders, to memorize the new statement. Maybe there’s a sermon series about it. And they may be reorganizing their leadership structures to get it to fit. In the alliteration church above, they’ll be reorganizing into Cherish, Cultivate, and Care Teams.

This is a time of great excitement for leadership around the church. There’s a new, bright future just up ahead. But still, none of the hard work has happened.

I’m wholly uninterested in mission statements at this point in the process. Because I’ve learned that this is usually the end point of the process. [1. The other most common place in the process is even earlier: “We’re having a series of monthly meetings right now to build trust and then work on our mission.”] The problem is that this “transition” point never seems to actually end. Go around a room of ministry leaders and ask them what’s going on in their ministry, and the most common response will be, “Well, we’re in transition right now.”

In some sense, we’re all always in transition. Each day is a new day––transitioning from yesterday to tomorrow. Total stability is either a myth or an incredibly boring state. But in ministry, “transition” often has to do with trying to move from something that wasn’t working to something that we expect to work. We remain constantly in transition because we thought we had found a magic bullet in that last program or curriculum or mission statement. There was a time when that old thing was the shiny new magic bullet that would change everything… until it didn’t. And so we’re “transitioning” to something new because the old wasn’t working well enough. (There are exceptions––the old was great, and has enabled this transition to something even more. We’ll get to that below.)

Now if the work that followed actually helped the church live into that mission statement, maybe it would all be worth it. But I’m dubious. If the last mission statement didn’t help them achieve all their dreams and didn’t get total “buy-in” from congregation or leadership, why will this one? They may point to problems in how the last big idea was crafted or introduced… My question: was the mission statement the problem?

Personality and leadership

Some of this has to do with the personalities of our leaders. If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs Types, they show how some people tend toward abstract thinking and others tend toward concrete thinking. The abstract thinkers are Ns in Myers-Briggs language. They live with their heads in the clouds––dreaming and thinking and sometimes missing the real world around them. They come in two varieties: the Idealist type (feelings-heavy) and the Rational type (thinking-heavy).

Idealists and Rationals make up only 20-30% of the population. The other 70-80% are concrete thinkers––people who live in the real world. Let’s all thank God for that ratio!

I keep a spreadsheet of Myers-Briggs Types for anyone whose type I learn.[1. You could have that bit of information alone and probably know that I’m an INTJ.] Of all the pastors in my spreadsheet, 85% are Idealists and Rationals. Though these groups of abstract thinkers compose only 20-30% of the population, they compose 85% of the pastoral leadership around me (a rather broad survey of pastors, mainly United Methodists). As a proud Rational, let me tell you what these personality types enjoy: sitting in an air-conditioned room with coffee and snacks and thinking/dreaming about things. We can solve any problem with an 8-hour monthly meeting. Sometimes the Idealists don’t even know if there is a problem, but they still have the meeting. Dreaming is fun.

The business of crafting mission statements is a siren song for these kinds of leaders. After a few years of coming down from the high of creating the last one, people miss that great visioning/dreaming/missioning/visioneering experience, and they start angling for a new statement. This is also known as: we made a mission statement, but we never really did what it said, so the mission statement didn’t work. We need a new one.

And why didn’t we really ever do what it said? All of us who live in abstract world specialize in diplomacy (Idealists) or strategy (Rationals)––the idea work. What we don’t specialize in is logistical and tactical thinking––the actual, hands-on work. And guess who doesn’t give a rip about our beautifully alliterated mission statements? The concrete thinkers who actually know how to do the work! They’re generally uninspired by all the new education and organization around something dreamed up in a conference room.[1. This is hardly just an issue in church world. It’s why so many of the “front lines” people are baffled at the things handed down from corporate that corporate thinks they would care about.]

This is especially an issue in my UMC context, where pastors move frequently. One of the first things a new pastor wants to do when (s)he arrives: work out that new mission statement. Why isn’t the old one ever good enough??

For churches that aren’t actually living it out, your mission statement is just not that interesting. It doesn’t mean anything. And I’m not convinced that this next one is the answer, either.

Option 2

But then there’s the other scenario: the church that is doing it. That statement reflects the reality of how they’re living. Their mission statement is a bit more interesting. But only barely.

Our church has a mission statement: to make disciples across the street and around the world. Interesting? Maybe a little, not a lot. To be clear, I don’t mean that it’s bad! I like it. I use it. I hope to God we don’t schedule a series of meetings to reconsider it. (Although no acrostic, no alliteration…)

In the past 10 years, our church decided not to build a massive sanctuary, but instead to start two new, small communities. One of those communities moved to a different part of town nine years ago. The other––the one that I lead––just moved to another part of town a year ago. We have welcomed hundreds of new people into the life of the church because of those moves. Those are people we never would have reached with a giant sanctuary downtown. Just this past Sunday, someone walked in because her house is around the corner and we made a connection with her. When we say “across the street” in our mission statement, we really mean it. New communities give us a chance to meet new people and give them an invitation into the life of the church. A bigger sanctuary will do a lot of good things, but it won’t do that.

Did my community move because of our mission statement? No. I’m pretty sure we would have done that regardless of the exact wording of the mission statement. We would have done that because our church believes in going new places to reach new people. We believed in that before we incorporated it into a mission statement. The mission statement reveals our values, but that statement was not the key to our move. The key to our move and the reason for our mission statement were the same––we deeply value contextual discipleship and doing it in more and more places. While we have things on paper to support that, it’s something more internalized than it is formalized. And it’s internalized in our congregation because we repeat the stories, not because we make them memorize the mission statement.

What’s interesting to most people isn’t the mission statement, it’s what we’re actually doing. Another example: a first-time guest recently told me that she loved how our church values being a part of the community. She didn’t say that because I stood up on Sunday and said, “Our mission statement is to Care for our City…” or anything of the sort. She said it because I talked about a neighborhood Labor Day cookout we were hosting so we could meet neighbors and offer a community event as a blessing in the area.

Far more interesting than a statement of purpose/mission/vision is when someone can say, “We’ve been doing _____ for a long time, it’s what we’re doing now, and it’s what we expect to do going forward. And the reason we do that is [insert formal mission statement if you must; explain it in more normal language if you can].” If you don’t have the track record to show that you’ve done it before and it mattered, and that you’re doing it now and it matters, I don’t have much faith that you’re going to do it in the future in a way that matters.

At this point, people may point to some exciting new announcement, and the way a group delivered on it. Think of Apple’s iPhone announcement. They had never done iPhone before. They announced it. They did it. And it changed… everything. But why did we care about Apple’s iPhone announcement and believe it? Because they had a track record of creating new things that people loved. Exciting new announcements only work if you fulfilled or surpassed the promise of your last several exciting new announcements.

In lieu of grand programs & fanfare

I read Good to Great by Jim Collins last year––a decade late to the party, I know. I thought it was outstanding. But the most profound part of the book was one that I haven’t heard quoted in leadership circles.

In chapter 8, Collins describes going to the great companies and asking their managers about when everything changed. When was that sudden moment of exhilaration, when they all “bought in” to the big new idea and everything changed? Most of the managers couldn’t name that point. Instead, they described a steady process of doing the work, leaning in a bit more and doing what they did a bit better each day. He writes,

“We found a very different pattern at the comparison [not-great] companies. Instead of a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done and then simply doing it, the comparison companies frequently launched new programs—often with great fanfare and hoopla aimed at ‘motivating the troops’— only to see the programs fail to produce sustained results. They sought the single defining action, the grand program, the one killer innovation, the miracle moment that would allow them to skip the arduous buildup stage and jump right to breakthrough.

Those not-great companies probably often described themselves as “in transition.” What Collins calls the “grand program” is what I’ve been calling the “magic bullet.” Can’t you just imagine the long (and exhilarating to the dreamers) series of meetings that produced each one of those new “grand programs”? Meanwhile, the great companies just kept on doing the work, day by day.

The work of ministry

The work of ministry doesn’t need to be as complex as we often make it. Your mission statement… it may not be perfectly crafted the way that you want it. But it’s not that interesting, anyway. Much more interesting is the work. And you can probably figure most of it out without that perfect statement. (The church made it some 1,900 years without committee-crafted mission and vision statements, SMART goals, and 5-year Ministry Action Plans. There’s a chance that you could, too!)

A good place to start:

  • Lead your people in good worship. That may include gathering other members of the congregation to help in worship planning and in the worship service itself. This requires time devoted to preparation––diligent sermon study and development, hopefully other study about the nature, history and purpose of worship, maybe with that group you gathered above.
  • Visit the people. Visit people in crisis. Visit people in your congregation. Visit people in your community. This may require some creativity––how do you meet people who aren’t in your congregation? Spend more time talking about souls than strategy. Spend more time in living rooms (or across coffee tables) than in conference rooms. Use that time visiting people to know more about their spiritual condition and their personal history. Believe in them and give them opportunities to grow and lead.
  • Organize the people. Your mission statement or strategic plan or whatever it is probably has something in it about small groups and serving in the community. That’s great! Find some way to organize people into groups for the sake of spiritual growth. Give them opportunities to serve in the community. This also doesn’t have to be complicated. And remember that if you choose some fancy curriculum/program, it’s not a magic bullet… so it’s not worth a great fanfare and hoopla campaign.
  • Study. At a youth ministry conference several years ago, someone told us to read two theology books for every practical ministry book we read. That was a catalyst for me going to seminary. I wish I remembered who that person was so that I could thank them… and tell them to make it three for every one. (I use “theology” here to reference several kinds of non-practical books. My reading plan in “Related Posts” below says a lot more.)

My basic contention here is that it’s just not that complicated. Difficult, yes! Complicated, no. Do the work, learn as you do it, then keep doing it better. There are no magic bullets here. There are no magic bullets anywhere, only dreams of them.

If you love mission statements, if they’re the filter that you pass everything through before action, I’m not suggesting you kill yours. Maybe it really is something crucial for your leadership team to use. That’s just fine! But whatever that statement is right now, it’s probably good enough. Don’t invest your best energy in creating yet another one.

And don’t waste your people’s best energy on that new education and restructuring campaign. Unless you look back upon your last education and restructuring campaign as a monumental success, there’s just not much reason to believe this one will be, either. (I’ll be the killjoy for moving pastors: that monumental success of a campaign you look back to at your former church, it’s probably the one someone else is undoing now. One person’s sensational new plan is another’s problem to fix.)

As a thinker and dreamer, I understand our love for this kind of work. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just not that interesting, especially if it hasn’t accomplished what it should have in the past. If your church has the debris of several half-enacted slogans and statements in its wake, now is not the time for new slogans and statements. It’s the time for doing the work.

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See the “Related Posts” below for more on Worship, Visit, Study (in Classical Pastor posts), reading plans, and perishing without vision statements


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