“Mission drift”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about possible reasons behind congregational decline, or at least the reasons behind congregations surviving but not thriving. Peter Stienke, a respected expert in congregational dynamics, has an article in the latest issue of Christian Century magazine titled “Buckle Up: Congregation Change Isn’t Easy.” In this article, Steinke defines what he calls “mission drift:”

…Some members say their congregation has a sense of mission because they have a mission statement. Sad to say, few know what it is.

Limping along without a focus is called mission drift. It is what happens when people have forgotten what their objective is and are just going through the motions. To judge from my experience, congregations in mission drift will at some point:

  • engage in conflict,
  • suffer a malaise of spirit
  • decline in some statistical manner
  • adapt to their most immature members
  • fail to mobilize people’s gifts and energy
  • surrender to apathy or complacency
  • do little planning
  • become turned in on themselves
  • blame outside forces (or perhaps one another) for their depression, and/or
  • be unable to make effective appropriate changes.

Interestingly, I’d say that this list of symptoms also applies to congregations that are in a stalled transition from a pastoral-size congregation (average attendance of up to 150) to a program-size congregation (average attendance of over 200). This suggests that there might be some correlation between mission drift and a stalled size transition. I say “correlation” because I’m not willing to assign a causal connection between the two. While it seems possible that mission drift could stall a size transition, wouldn’t there be some kind mission in place to prompt growth before the stall happened? And it’s hard to imagine how that a size transition somehow magically makes a congregational mission disappear. Perhaps there’s an underlying cause, e.g., perhaps when a congregation gets up past an average attendance of 150, the old informal communications network breaks down — where everyone just knows what they need to know — and there is as yet no formal communications network in place to effectively pass on the mission statement to newcomers, and to repeatedly remind old-timers.

3 thoughts on ““Mission drift”

  1. Jean

    Interesting to read this — “mission drift” as it is described here in the list of symptoms looks remarkably like the feelings people at my university campus are undergoing right now. And the campus is undergoing significant change: shifting in size (2000 to 3000, thereabouts) as well as demographics (more traditional aged students) and modes of delivery (more online, “distance” education courses).

    All three changes are happening at once and no one is very comfortable. Nor does anyone quite have a sense of who we are. We too have a mission statement, but it seems hollow, mere words. To some being able to say who we are, definitively, matters greatly; others simply feel adrift; some are embracing the wealth of possibilities. But there is that real sense of “drift” — we are moving, but where to?

    Perhaps it’s just that sense of movement, change, that inevitably causes difficulties. How, I wonder, does an effective leader go about working through a passage like this? I say this, watching some less than effective leaders work through our own passage. What would you do?

  2. Dan

    Jean @ 1 — This has been an ongoing conversation in the non-profit world for some time now:– How do you manage and lead effective organizational change, when the non-profit world tends to be inherently conservative and resistant to change? You put the question this way: “How, I wonder, does an effective leader go about working through a passage like this?” Problem is, every non-profit organization is different, and organizational change can mean many different things, so there are too many variables to give a firm answer. This is why I spend so much time writing about and thinking about managing organizational change — no one answer will work for every situation, so it’s endlessly fascinating to me to sort through different variables, and look at the same basic problem from many different perspectives.

    Having said all that, I still think Peter Drucker’s book Manaing the Non-profit Organiation is the best single volume book on the subject.

  3. Ron Robinson

    Thanks Dan. I like your connection with the changes and challenges of communication regarding size transition affecting mission drift, assuming there was a real mission to begin with. How we communicate always affects how we form cultures. A big reason I think why missional communities favor smaller groups.

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