A conversation recently with a pastor new to his appointment and then, on the same week-end, with the executive board of a denomination, reminded me: it is all about the mission. It is about clarity about two things. First, who are we? – the identity question. And second, it is about vocation or calling: what is it that we are supposed to be doing and why?
Everything hinges around these two questions when it comes to institutional flourishing: knowing who we are in terms of identity, core values and what it is that makes us who we are. And second, it is about the particular work that we are called to do, together: to what end, as a key value in itself, are we in business? It matters to us that something happen and we are called – I use the language of vocation intentionally – to make this happen.
We discern and affirm mission by recognizing several variables. We begin with history – the story that is ours and which brought us into being. In Institutional Intelligence I speak of charism: what is the original gift that God intended when this entity – denomination or church or academic institution or non-profit – was brought into being. What is our story, our history? Our mission is about how this story will be lived out now, in this time and in this place, but we still ask what it is that brought us here. And second, who are we called to serve? Who are the primary beneficiaries of our mission?
Further, mission is fluid, rather than static. There will always be continuity with the past – thus the story – but our mission will be for this time and for this place and thus mission is always about responding to the particular context or circumstances or challenge that we are facing. So, mission is about history, but it is also about the present and the future.
And then everything – governance protocols and systems, budgets and financial resources and expenses, personnel appointments and the development of our staff – is to this end: the mission. Governance is about leveraging power and influence so that the mission happens. Finances are stewarded around this commitment: the mission. And staff are appointed and development so that they can participate in this story, the mission. And, of course, you only hire people who get it – that is, they know what it means to own the mission and work towards making that mission happen.
When it comes to leadership – especially senior leadership – I am struck by two things. First, that we do not import our own personal mission. Rather, we read and interpret the story and the circumstances and we help the organization name that mission.
Second, we have the power of rhetoric: we tell the story, we affirm the core values, we highlight accomplishments or developments that reflect that the mission is happening. A pastor might have an aside in a sermon that illustrates what it means to be this congregation. The children’s sermon might also let the kids know about us and who we are. The board meeting for the university where I serve opens with first agenda item: the report of the president. And that report will always open, after some preliminary comments, with a reflection on the mission of this particular university [what makes us us]. And I regularly remind the board that it is their job to be trustees of the mission and to confirm that indeed the mission is happening. The recruitment of paid or volunteer staff, fund raising, budget decisions, everything is ultimately about what it means to be this organization and what it means for us to fulfill our mission.