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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Getting More Out of Your Mission Statement

In September I wrote a blog post which questioned the value of the mission statement. But if you worked hard on your church’s mission statement, I don’t want to suggest that it was wasted effort. I would like to share some thoughts, though, about how you can get more value out of your mission statement, so that it actually drives your mission.

One way to get more out of your mission statement is to identify the words that are the key to its meaning and focus on them.  I call these “weight-bearing words.”

These words function like a load-bearing wall in a house. According to Wikipedia, a load-bearing wall “bears a load resting upon it by conducting its weight to a foundation structure.” In other words, it allows the foundation to support the weight of the house so that it doesn’t
Load bearing wall

The weight-bearing words in your mission statement are those few words that connect your church’s life to its foundational purpose and identity. They capture the essence of who you are as a church. You should have two or three at most. If you can’t narrow it down to that few, then your mission statement is too diffuse and unfocused. And, if you find that the words that really describe your congregation’s purpose and identity aren’t in your mission statement – well, it’s time to retire that version of your mission statement.

Choosing two or three words doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t important. But the weight-bearing words often encompass others in their meaning. For example, the word “discipleship” could incorporate other words like “worship,” “fellowship” or “spiritual growth.”
Having narrowed your focus to these few, key words, you then reverse direction and expand them outward.  You do this by spending lots of quality time with them in worship and conversation, digging into them, drilling down into them, telling lots of stories about them, unpacking all their complex layers of meaning. You do this by creating as many opportunities as possible for people to interact with these words.

Often, weight bearing words seem on the surface to be very mundane and ordinary. They might include such everyday words as “family,” “community,” “caring” “faith” or “love.” But that’s OK. Our God is the God who comes to us in the everyday, and whose glory is revealed in the ordinary. From the beginning, the Christian church affirmed this understanding of God by taking ordinary, everyday words and discovering in them profound theological and spiritual significance.

Take the word baptizo, for example, from which we get our word “baptize.” Baptizo originally
described the act of dipping vegetables in brine to make pickles. The vegetables were changed by being Immersed in brine. How imaginative of the early Christians to take this workaday word to describe the inner transformation that takes place when believers are immersed in the waters of baptism. 

Or take the most common word for “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia. Originally, this was not a religious word at all, but referred to a town hall meeting where citizens were called together to conduct the business of the city. Rather than choose one of the many available words for a sacred or religious community, the Christians saw the potential of that mundane word to describe what happens when Jesus calls his followers together in a particular place to do his work.

Your weight bearing words may not be loftily spiritual, but quite non-religious and down-to-earth. This is as it should be since Jesus abolishes the dividing line between the sacred and the secular and turns every place into holy ground.

But ordinary does not mean shallow.  The reason mission statements are often ineffective is that we take a casual, “everybody-knows-what-that-means” attitude towards. Instead, we need to find ways to open ourselves to their hidden depths.

Let’s say your church decides that one of the keys to your purpose and identity is the word “inclusive.”  Don’t be content with just saying, “Oh, we accept everyone.” For one thing, choosing to include some people often means that you choose to not include others. Or, they exclude themselves because they do not feel they can find a home among you. Have some serious conversation about what exactly it means for you. Whom are you able to include in your church? How is that inclusiveness expressed in practical terms? How does that inclusiveness stretch and challenge you? What price are you willing to pay for including young families, persons with addictions, the poor, those with disabilities or mental health issues? Most importantly, how does that word “inclusive” help you to participate more fully in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation?

I’ve compared words to a wall. That’s an analogy, and, like all analogies, it can only be pushed so far. Words and walls may be similar in some ways, but they’re very different in others. A wall is static and stationary. Walls don’t move. In fact, they’d better not move!

Words, on the other hand, are dynamic and evolving. Our words echo the Word of God
which, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, is “living and active.” They do not just describe what is, they have the power to evoke what could be. Words don’t just confirm the status quo, they hold the potential to change us.

If “inclusive” is one of your weight-bearing words, don’t let it make you complacent and self-congratulatory. Allow it to challenge your hidden biases, unexamined blind spots and the barriers you might be erecting to the participation of some that you’re not even aware of. If inclusivity truly is central to your identity and purpose, don’t be afraid to prayerfully face these uncomfortable questions head on.  Let this word prod you and invade your comfort zone. Then your mission statement can begin to do what it should do – lead you farther down the road of faithfulness.

The dynamic quality of these weight-bearing words means that they can change over time. The words that express the essence of who you are as a church today may not be the best words in five years. Part of our openness to the Spirit is being open to the future significance of different words to carry the weight of our church's life.

Mission statements can be nothing more than a string of empty and easily forgotten words, but they can also contain our best and most profound intuitions. Finding the words that bear their weight and exploring those words to the full is one way to get more out of our mission statements.