Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Focusing on the mission, looking around corners

Over the years I have heard a few people say that the church should be “run like a business.” By that they sometimes mean the church should spend as little money as possible.

It is true we should not be wasting money. However, the most efficient way to run the church would be to close it. We don’t produce anything. Closing the place would be cheaper than paying for salaries and upkeep on the building.

That probably won't work real well.

Yet there is another way to look at how the church should be run like a business.

On Monday evening, I saw an interview of Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon, the cellular telephone and communications giant, on the Charlie Rose show. Seidenberg made two points about business with broad implications for any organization including churches.

First, he said, successful businesses stay true to their core mission. The people in the organization know exactly what they do, and they do it with excellence.

Second, Seidenberg said, leaders “look around the corners.” They figure out what is ahead and get there first.

The challenge, Seidenberg said, is being lulled into complacency by concepts that work well now but which will not work well when the world changes. And since the world is constantly changing, leaders must always be looking around the corners to see what is ahead and be ready to get there. It isn’t easy and leaders don’t always get it right.

Let me reflect on his points as they relate to the church.

First, we need to know who we are and what our mission is: We are the people of God and our mission is to proclaim by word and deed the reality of the Resurrection. Our tools are many: liturgy and music, education for all ages, pastoral care, and reaching into the community with justice and compassion, to name only a few.

But the tools are not the mission. The tools change and adapt to changing circumstances while the mission never changes. You might say our mission can be summed up as “Giving Hope.” We must be creative in finding new tools even as the mission never changes.

To keep our mission steady in our gaze, it helps to have a succinct and clear mission statement (though most church mission statements I’ve seen usually say more about the tools than the mission). We ought to be able to measure what we do with the yard stick of our mission statement. Here’s St. Paul’s mission statement, and when you read it, ask yourself whether specific things that we do fits the mission:
The Mission of St. Paul’s Memorial Church is to celebrate and
bear witness to God’s love in our community, the University of
Virginia, the region, and the world beyond us. By our worship,
our teaching, and our outreach we seek to make known God in
Christ, equipping our members for service in the world.

Keep in mind the mission statement is not the mission; it is only another tool to focus on the mission. We should not be overly focused on creating the perfect mission statement. We should be focused on the mission itself. If we do not keep our focus on our mission we have no reason to exist as an institution. In other words, maintenance of the institution is not the purpose; the mission is the purpose.

And that brings me to Seidenberg’s second point:

To be truly faithful to the mission requires looking around corners to see what is ahead. For us it means we cannot be content to do things the way we’ve always done them. Ministry must adapt before we round the corners.  

What worked 40 years ago – or even 10 years ago – may not work now. For example, the clergy cannot assume that providing Sunday worship and weekday pastoral care is all they need do even though that worked before. The clergy must be in the classroom and in the community, and exploring new ways to deepen and expand our core ministry. 

Meanwhile, laity’s role in ministry is expanding at every level. One recent example: our university students launched a highly successful Taize worship service on Tuesday evenings which will be back in the Fall. Another example: We have a dedicated group of hospital visitors who provide pastoral care beyond what the clergy can do. Each of those tools is working well now, but we must be ready to adapt each of these tools as circumstances change. The laity and clergy together need to find new ways to work as team in providing ministry at every level.

I would be remiss in not mentioning one other corner we need to look around: communications. At St. Paul’s, we have joined the internet revolution with websites, blogs and electronic newsletters. But there is much more that we can be doing if we are to reach new people and continue to be faithful to our core mission. I will say more on that in another post.

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