Staying Mission True: On Organizational and Church Mission Drift

August 29, 2014

Without careful attention, organizations inevitably drift from their founding purpose and mission. Most never return to their original intent. We know because we saw it happening to us.

The executive of a global oil and gas corporation, who led the company’s charitable giving, articulated that he’d caught HOPE International’s vision and wanted to significantly increase financial assistance. There was just one condition: as an organization, we needed to tone down our Christian mission to gain the support of this publicly traded company.

They were ready to write a very large check.  And this check could have helped thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—more individuals break the cycle of poverty.

For the good of our organization, couldn’t we just “tone down” our Christian identity?

This began a critical conversation within our organization about Mission Drift. How does it happen? And more important, what can we do to prevent it?

Over the past three years, we have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with leaders of faith-based organizations of all varieties. We focused our research on evangelical parachurch organizations, but believe the implications extend to churches and Christian-led businesses as well. What we found was both deeply troubling and deeply inspiring.

Based on our research, here are five insights for staying true to your mission as you grow, professionalize and age.

  1. Assume it can happen to you

Researching Mission Drift led us to the conclusion that Mission Drift isn’t just our organization’s problem.It’s pervasive. And it affects organizations of all varieties: nonprofits, churches, denominations, businesses, foundations, and schools. Mission Drift is a very real possibility for every organization.

Harvard was founded with the initial mission statement: “To be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.” Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton were all founded with a similar mission and vision.

The YMCA was founded by George Williams to teach the Bible and convene prayer meetings among poor urban street youth in London and was once the largest missionary-sending agency in this country. Today, in many communities, the YMCA is no more than a family fitness center.

The pawn shop industry was actually created by Catholic friars as a business enterprise to help poor families in their communities, but today this industry is known not for its service to the poor, but it’s victimization of the poor.

The Pew Trusts was launched by a fervent evangelical philanthropist, Howard Pew, a friend of Billy Graham. With the profits from his family oil business, Sunoco, Pew and Graham cofounded Christianity Today and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Today, The Pew Trusts fund the very Ivy League schools Howard spoke out against and have given substantially to Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider.

Our contention is not with these institutions today. It’s with the institutions they are not today. Peter did his grad work at Harvard. The Pew Trusts give to many noble causes. The YMCA is an important institution for the flourishing of people and places. These organizations contribute in many positive ways to our society. And, of course, we’re not arguing all institutions should be overtly evangelical.

The silence surrounding issues of Mission Drift need to be broken, given its prevalence and organizational impact. According to a recent study at Q, a Christian leadership conference, 95 percent of leaders surveyed said Mission Drift is a challenging issue.

Though pervasive, Mission Drift unfolds slowly. Like a current, it carries organizations away from their core purpose and identity almost without them even knowing it.

  1. Hire for heart and mission first

Hire for heart and character over experience and credentials. Take for example the story of Big Idea, the maker of Veggie Tales that was likened to a Christian Disney.

Internally though, right when Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber were at the peak of their fame, Big Idea had an identity problem.

During a meeting, Phil Vischer, Big Idea’s founder, stood up to share his founding vision.

“I am a Christian,” I said, “and I believe the Bible exclusively holds the truth about our standing before God and the path to restore our relationships with him. I want to share that truth with our culture. That is, at the end of the day, what Big Idea is about.”

His president of two years said, “If that’s what this is about, I need to opt out.”

Vischer realized too late that he had not chosen his leadership team using standards in line with the company’s mission. Soon after, Big Idea went bankrupt.

When your founding values and core identity are no longer found in your current staff, you have a serious people problem.

  1. Distinguish the mission from the means

Mission True organizations are not unwilling to change. In fact, if they don’t transform, they will stagnate. But they distinguish the mission from the means.

Consider Young Life, an organization we define as Mission True.

Young Life once ministered to high school students with evangelistic barbershop quartets. However, men in pinstripes singing in four-part harmony probablywouldn’t capture the imaginations of today’s teenagers, so Young Life now uses cell phones and social media to secure their attention.

“If we lose touch with one generation of teenagers,” said Young Life’s Marty Caldwell, “we’ll be completely ineffective in about eight years.”[1]

While methods have changed, they have not lost their heart and founding commitment to share Christ with young people. They continue to stay with their core purpose.

To remain Mission Trueis to adapt and grow, so long as that adaptation and growth does not alter the core identity. Mission True organizations know why they exist and protect their core at all costs.  They remain faithful to what they believe God has entrusted them to do. They define what is immutable: their values and purposes, their DNA, their heart and soul.

  1. Know who your stakeholders are

Mission True organizations partner with donors who believe in their full mission.

Consider the case study of Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie made an extraordinary gift to provide pensions for teachers in colleges and universities. However, he had a stipulation—only universities without church affiliation could receive funding.

Andrew Carnegie’s action was the greatest single act leading higher education to secularism in this country’s history.

Brown University, the first college founded by the Baptists, led the way in severing ties with its Baptist affiliation to receive funding. Other elite colleges like Dartmouth soon followed. Carnegie’s funding advanced secularism at an alarming pace throughout the country. Author of Andrew Carnegie, David Nasaw, writes, “It is doubtful that he had any idea, in doing so, of the unintended consequences of his action. . . . Carnegie pensions would, in a relatively short time, change the face of higher education in America.”

Economic incentive is a potent factor in Mission Drift, and it is not just a historical issue.

Anyone who has ever worked for a nonprofit knows how much power donors hold. And it can often put Mission True organizations in a defensive position when they meet funders who are uncomfortable with their Christian distinctiveness. However, the sum of the many individuals is far greater than the sum of the few major foundations and corporate donors, a fact that many organizations all too often forget.

Supporters of organizations have much more influence than they realize.

  1. Measure what matters most

“What gets measured gets done” is a well-worn business mantra and for good reason: it’s true.

Our organization, HOPE International, is in the “missionary banking” business. And when we reached the milestone of our one millionth loan, most members of our staff engaged in wholehearted celebration of this a major numerical achievement. However, a couple weeks later at another staff meeting, a team member shared that eight individuals in Brazzaville had come to know Christ through our ministry. This milestone received far less attention.

Jesse Casler, our vice president of administration, recognized the discrepancy:

“We regularly celebrate the numerical milestones,” he shared, “but I wonder if we could do a better job celebrating when we see lives touched by Christ.”

It is natural to focus on easy-to-measure indicators: weekly attendance, total donations, percent-to-program, and number of people served. These are important things to measure. Auditors, nonprofit evaluators, and the Better Business Bureau all need this data to hold us accountable and to benchmark against industry standards.

Yet these indicators tell us very little about impact on the people we’re serving. Or how well we’re using the funds to accomplish our mission. For a faith-based organization, a preoccupation with financial and growth metrics unintentionally sends the message that financial and numerical successes are preeminent.

What’s not measured slowly becomes irrelevant. It is possible to be successful in the things that ultimately don’t matter to your organization’s success. Our highest goal is to remain faithful to our Christ-centered identity and mission. If, and only if, we are living our Christ-centered mission and implementing it with excellence will we focus on growth.

It will not be easy for faith-based organizations to stay true to the mission God has given us to steward. In fact, it will be quite costly. The currents of drift are not in our favor.

In the most recent study on religious freedom by the Pew Trusts, the results are troubling. Across the world, being a disciple of Jesus is increasingly dangerous. In their report, they described “A rising tide of restrictions on religion spread[ing] across the world.”

Even here, in a country founded on the bedrock of religious freedom, the future looks grim. Over the past four years, Pew stated that the United States has moved from a country of having “low” religious freedom restrictions to “moderate.”

We have an impossible mission, actually. Leading increasingly large and complex institutions is remarkably difficult. Doing that all while also actively integrating and submitting to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is almost inconceivable. Thankfully, we serve a God of the impossible.

And we can hold onto hope because we work not by our own strength, but by His. Not from our laptops, but from our knees. Not with hands thrown up in frustration, but with our hands lifted up to the Creator of the Universe, praising him and thanking him for the precious gift of being clay in his hands.


[1] Marty Caldwell interview with Peter Greer.

Peter Greer and Chris Horst
Peter Greer (@peterkgreer) is president and CEO of HOPE International. Chris Horst (@chrishorst) is the vice president of development at HOPE International. Together with the support of Anna Haggard, they coauthored Mission Drift and Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing. They wrote this essay with support from HOPE intern, Megan Wanek.