Of Mission Statements and Missions

(From Human Development, 17,2: Summer, 1996)

Mission statements are "in". As we gradually become more aware that the organizations in which we invest a lot of our lives need to be able to define themselves, to clarify their identity and purposes, it seems that writing mission statements is the logical thing to do. These days, we encounter mission statements everywhere: parishes have them, schools have them, health care and social service agencies have them. You might even see one on the wall at the XYZ Widget Corporation.

Granted, composing a mission statement can be a salutary exercise for a group of people that has been drifting aimlessly or even pulling itself apart. But experience indicates that there are some more foundational things people need to be clear about before jumping into the effort: Just what is a mission statement? What is its purpose? What can it do, and what cant it do, for a group of people?


Maybe the best place to start is to acknowledge a paradoxical phenomenon that is all too common: an organization's development of a mission statement without having a mission. That phenomenon can make us think more profoundly about what a mission statement is --- and what it is not.

People often fail to see that a mission statement is only a statement --- a declaration, a set of words. And like any set of words, it may represent and communicate many different things.

It may be helpful to consider mission statements from the perspective of sacramentality. In a very real sense, a group's mission statement is a sacrament. It's a public expression intended to disclose something interior, and by the very disclosing confirm the identity already present.

The hitch is that sacramental signs can be misleading, even fraudulent. People bring children to be baptized for all sorts of reasons --- perhaps "to please Morn and Dad," perhaps because people in their family have always done it, perhaps because of a superstition that God will zap them if they don't --- but with no intention of committing themselves to the Lord or to a community of people. People go to confession with no interior disposition to be reconciled; they take the marriage vow without the foggiest idea of what "sickness" and "poorer" and "till death do us part" might entail. Any good sacramental theology must reckon with the reality of counter-sacraments --- meaningless signs.

Groups can create mission statements that are just as empty. Sit in the faculty room of a school or the employees' snack bar at a hospital and listen to the commentary: "If I have to look at one more plaque on the wall proclaiming this places commitment to 'the dignity of the human person' or 'compassionate caring,' I'm going to barf." One might wish that such remarks were only manifestations of the employees' "grumble factor," serving as a harmless way to blow off steam when work becomes more than usually stressful. All too often, however, such comments express valid criticism of institutions that have lofty rhetoric unmatched by institutional behavior.

That is not to say that human declarations, including mission statements, can't be enormously powerful. Millions of people throughout the world build their whole lives around their trust in Jesus' promise, "I will always be with you." But we must acknowledge the limitation in all human promises, especially when they are idealistic, as mission statements tend to be.

If its possible to have a mission statement without having a mission, then perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper to discover the relationship between a mission statement and the reality it is attempting to express. Our lack of clarity about mission may account, in part, for the creation of empty mission statements.

How to begin? I'd suggest that we might help ourselves by examining expressions we use in everyday speech. We might say of someone, "He's on a mission; he is determined to make the Olympic team"; or "Her mission was to get into nursing school, and nothing was going to stop her." Considering the meaning of such ordinary statements can help us tease out some of the factors involved in having or being on a mission.


One of the first things that strikes you about someone who genuinely has a sense of mission is that he or she is focused. Organizational writing today contains a lot of references to focus. The FORUS (Future of Religious Orders in the United States) study of religious congregations asserts strongly that only organizations with a clear focus will make it through the current period of change. Focus is an important concept; we need to work hard to keep the term from becoming just another in the list of buzzwords that flash across our mental skies like meteors, dazzling for the moment but quickly overtaken by the next spectacle.

Having a focus is not a matter of coming up with slogans; it's hard work. The fellow trying to make the Olympic team and the young woman struggling to get into nursing school have to concentrate human energies. When you're getting out of bed at 5 a.m. to go to the gym for a three-hour practice involving endless repetitions of difficult and perhaps painful routines, or when you're trying to squeeze in some studying in the few quiet hours between putting your kids to bed and waking them up for school, numerous alternatives can look very attractive. Their allure seems almost to be enhanced by the height of your goal: the higher the goal, the more costly the effort, and the better the alternatives look.

People on a mission have to attend to what they are aiming at. They can't be distracted. Listen to the broadcast commentary on any sporting event and notice how often you hear remarks like, "she's becoming a little unfocused; she needs to forget the mistake on the last point and get back to the strategy that got her here." Momentary loss of concentration can mean the loss of momentum or the loss of the match. All good sports training has moved from teaching the external mechanics of the play to teaching the discipline of inner imaging: See clearly enough what a successful play will feel like, and your body will follow the image. Lose concentration, and even the most gifted athletic body will be of no avail.

The image behind the language of focusing can help. It comes from the mechanics of sight and of the camera, which tries to capture reality. In both instances, focusing implies sorting out what will be in the foreground, or highlighted, from what will be relegated to the background. If you take a photo that encompasses a broad horizon, you won't be able to make out all the details of the scene clearly; if you take a close-up shot of one part of the scene, you'll sacrifice the clarity of its other elements. In the realm of sound, focus means the difference between what is genuine sound, conveying meaning, and what is merely static, communicating nothing.

People on a mission are clear about what is important and central and contributes to forward movement, and what is merely background. Having focus means being clear about the difference between purposes and the means employed to achieve them. For groups that may have a mission statement but no mission, all sorts of extraneous stuff occupies the foreground; trying to interpret what is only static, they lose track of any melody.


Perhaps the most important reason for having a focused mission is that it means being clear about what you're not trying to be or do. It is the "no" that harnesses energy and keeps it from being dissipated in efforts to be something for which the group is not suited. The "no" creates a boundary (which is really the image behind definition) within which energy can be concentrated. You don't really know what you are assenting to unless you know its limits.

Let me offer two concrete examples of focused mission. Jesuit Brother Rick Curry founded and leads a highly effective project, the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped. Through it, persons with severe disabilities create and perform excellent theatrical works across the United States and Canada. Knowing only this about the project, what do you think is its mission? You may be surprised when you read Ricks response to a comment by Tom Peters, the management guru, in an interview. Peters observed that Rick is very demanding of his performers. Rick replied, "I'm not running a social agency; this is a professional theater company. People are going to pay good money to see a quality show, and they have a right to it." Rick knows what his mission is --- and what it is not. Other institutions will have to do the social work.

Another example: Wilmington College is a small institution north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Its administrators analyzed what the school is equipped to do, and they discovered that it is good at taking kids from small rural communities, from families in which no one has ever gone through college, and showing that they can do competent bachelor-level work. The poster they use to advertise the school reads, across the top, "You Could Go to College with Everybody" (meaning attending one of the big, impersonal schools) --- and, across the bottom, "Wilmington College: Not for Everybody."

Can your parish / school / health care facility say what it does not aim to be or do? If not, determining the "no" is well worth the effort. A lot of grief can be avoided if someone says before the wedding, "I don't do windows."


One thing that emerges from conversation with people on a mission is that they are working at that mission because they chose it. Some individuals may seem to be on a mission, yet they are actually being pushed along by, say, a parent; such people won't really carry out the mission, because they do not want it badly enough themselves. There has to be drive in the individual on a mission, because it takes determination to overcome the obstacles that inevitably confront anyone trying to do something different.

People with drive exhibit enormous resourcefulness. They get started in one direction, but when they hit a roadblock, they simply zig, zag, or even backtrack to create a new opening. They will not be deterred. Their eyes are so focused on the prize that being diverted doesn't diminish their commitment. Achieving the goal may take longer, but they're in for the long haul. Instead of backing away when the initial results are disappointing, they up the ante.

Nor are they driven by "shoulds." They want something badly enough to pay a price. Listen to Jesus' parables; they're all about desire --- pearls, and lost coins, and fishing all night for a catch, and returning home because banquets are better than hog slop. They're about passion, not about assuaging guilt.

Too often, mission statements bear the unmistakable aroma of guilt. We'll say we're for the poor, because we know we "should" be --- not because they're flesh of our flesh, because they're us, because we want our flesh honored and not disfigured.


People on a mission are unique. To return to an earlier example, its not a question of a generic "housewife-seeking-nursing-degree." It's this woman, with this husband and these kids, and these strengths and limitations, trying to get into this nursing school at this point in her life. She's not looking over her shoulder at other women, asking what they're aiming at. The energy and fire and conviction are within her, making her determined to confront her demons and move her mountains.

Too many group mission statements are generic --- what lawyers call boilerplate. If a particular parish community works two to three years to construct its mission statement, and that statement finally reads something like, "We are Catholic Christians called to proclaim the gospel through word and worship and service," one could be pardoned for asking, with Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?" It's not that the description isn't grand (in fact, it may be too grand, inviting later disillusionment); its just that it fits us all. It has none of the incarnational uniqueness that constitutes that community's uniqueness.

A better mission statement might be more modest and more authentic. Perhaps, "We're a tough bunch of mining folk struggling with the demands of an inclusive gospel in the face of militant racism and an anti-government town. Our mission --- for a long time to come --- will be to use all the toughness that characterizes our heritage while developing vulnerability and sensitivity and neighborliness to people who harbor deep hostility in their blood." Or, "We are a deeply wounded community. Our mission for the next five years will be to support and help one another and our children to recover trust in one another, in our church, and in the Lord after the painful discovery of pedophilia in a beloved pastor." The mission statement of Saint Hildegard's should be different from that of Holy Cross, the parish (or hospital or school) a few blocks over. It's got different people, and a different story, and a different set of surrounding conditions, and a different set of obstacles to overcome. And five years from now, even Saint Hildegard's unique mission statement should feel outdated; much will have changed in that time, and those changes should cause rethinking and refocusing. The statement should be different in five years because the mission will have become different. The mission statement of a particular parochial school twenty years ago, when all its students came from Catholic families, would have said something about "handing on the Catholic faith to our children." Today, with 80 percent of its students non-Catholic, the school no longer has that mission; now its mission is "evangelization --- showing those who don't belong to our faith the church's concern, even for the most disadvantaged kids in our city."


Now we may be in a position to know what we shouldn't expect to result from the creation of a mission statement. No mission statement will manufacture desire and determination; sacraments aren't magic. The desire to fulfill the mission has to be present already. When we have the requisite energy and passion, and when we want to be sure it gets expended on the greater good, we work at claiming our uniqueness and focusing on our target and naming what we won't try to do.

Effort at uncovering where our passion lies, what would excite and move us to commitment, comes first. Energies have to be tapped, and that involves conversion --- listening to our hearts in light of the Lords gifts and words. The sense of mission begins with the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "Were not our hearts on fire . . . ?" Like participating authentically in other sacraments, working at drafting a mission statement can be enormously energizing if the body is prepared to struggle with a work of art. It can make a group ask questions, and that can create the possibility of conversion. Creating a mission statement involves answering such questions as, What kind of people are we, really? What has shaped us --- or deformed us? What patterns are important to us, and what is just unexamined custom? What experiences ground our conviction that we have a task in front of us that no one else can do for us? What makes us, and therefore our call and gift, different? What do we want so badly that we're willing to say no to other attractive possibilities? What dreams are so compelling to us that we will fight for them?

If the total membership of a group participates in genuinely addressing such questions, there's a good chance that the grace of mission might just explode within them. There's also a reasonable chance that their mission statement will look quite different from what they anticipated when they began the exercise. It won't be boilerplate. And you won't find people griping about it in the cafeteria; they'll be too invested in searching out ways to make it happen to have time for that.

Father George B. Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does organizational consulting with Management Design Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.