I imagine that many folks reading this will have been part of the process of writing a Mission Statement for some church, board, committee, or other organization. In my experience, it usually involves a long period of self-study and soul-searching, followed by small and large-group conversations, at least one of which is usually about the difference between a Mission Statement and a Vision Statement. After considerably wordsmithing, a single highly polished sentence is crafted which seems to touch all the things discussed. It is announced publicly, with promises that it will be used as a rubric to guide decisions in the future: it may be added to publications, website and signage so that it cannot be forgotten. And then, more often than not, it is mostly ignored.
There are a lot of reasons for this. In some cases, I think that we don’t really know ourselves as well as we think, or that we don’t want to say out loud what we actually know. In other cases, we don’t know or really want to know about the world around us where we might be expected to actually live out our mission. Sometimes we may be unrealistic about what we can actually do, or we may be too timid to commit to much of anything at all.
At least in the mainline church, I believe that one reason that Mission Statements are so often meaningless or irrelevant is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of Mission. The word mission has taken on a rather ambiguous connotation in the Church because of its association with Christian missionary activities over the last few centuries. We don’t want to talk about mission if it means the sort of cultural imperialism that imposes western cultural norms along with a particular version of Christianity, often at the cost of destroying indigenous ways of life.
We don’t want to do mission if it means going where we’re not invited, imposing “our views” on other people. And so we carefully construct Mission Statements with all the sharp edges sanded off: watered-down versions of our Baptismal Covenant that couldn’t possibly offend anyone.
I believe that the fundamental misunderstanding here is that mission is something we design. One may decide to go on a journey, but one is sent on a mission. Mission is a sending that comes from something or someone outside ourselves. Remember the old television series “Mission Impossible” (I’m afraid I don’t know if this occurs in the more recent films)? The main character was given a cassette tape with the message that began, “Greetings, Mr. Phelps. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”
We have been given a Message with numerous missions we can choose to accept or ignore. At Creation, God sends humankind on a mission to be fruitful, and to be responsible for every living thing. A few generations later, God sends Abram and Sarai and their descendants on a mission to leave home and travel to a new land, and to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Again and again, in person and through the prophets, God gives messages to Israel, saying in effect, “Greetings! Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”
Through Jesus, God sends us on a mission to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned. Through Jesus, God sends us out to make disciples of all nations, to baptize and to teach. In the Holy Spirit, the Church is called to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP p. 855). In the Spirit, Saints are given missions in every generation, if they choose to accept them. Mission is all around us. Mission is being the church.
And this brings us back to our initial discussion of Mission Statements. One can certainly spend a weekend retreat hashing out a Mission Statement. But the fact is, we publish a mission statement every time we adopt a parish or diocesan budget. You’ve probably heard me say before that a budget is (or should be) a mission document, and in fact is a much more realistic statement of our priorities than any sweet slogan we can dream up.
Think about it: a budget is a statement of where we plan to use our resources and our energy. A budget that emphasizes immediate human need says that we are a church who has accepted the mission to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. A budget that emphasizes evangelism says that we are a church that has specifically accepted the mission to make disciples. By the same token, if our budget is primarily focused on keeping the lights on for those who show up on Sunday morning, that says something about our sense of mission as well.
Of course, one great difference between our mission and “Mission Impossible” is that we don’t necessarily expect to complete our mission in our lifetimes. The mission we have chosen to accept is ultimately God’s mission, God’s project with humanity, and as such is measured in God’s time, not ours. We live in joyful anticipation of that great banquet when the “Mission Accomplished” banner is draped across God’s Kingdom. In the meantime, we accept our rôle in God’s mission, in faith that it is not only possible, but already at hand.