There’s and old saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” And while meandering can be fun on a lazy Sunday afternoon, it can get old fast. Forty years wandering around in a small desert gets kind of boring. And if I remember the story right, long-term wandering leads to a lot of complaining and the creation of shiny, bovine-shaped distractions.
I can’t express enough the importance of developing a unique mission in every congregation and finding words to articulate it. It’s vital to be able to describe how the congregation is special, what it does well, and how it uses those gifts in service to something larger than the desires and needs of individual members.
Not so long ago there was an Alban Institute publication called “How Responding to People’s Needs Hurts the Church” It’s a great article that reminds church leaders that while churches do meet people’s needs, meeting people’s needs is not a sufficient purpose for our congregations. To be healthy, vital, and relevant the church needs a mission that is more expansive, more challenging, and more inspiring than “We’re here to support and nurture one another.”
There are two parts to a sense of mission. (And these two parts parallel the “differentiation” and “connection” I posted about earlier in this series.) The first is a healthy sense of community identity and the second is a sense of calling.
In my experience, our congregations suffer from “low church-esteem.” We tend to focus on every thing that we feel we’re not doing well enough. We spend many hours and a lot of energy analyzing the reasons behind our many “failures.” We point out and sometimes complain about the committees we think should form. We expect that we will continue to struggle to raise money or integrate newcomers into the life of the church. Meanwhile, focusing on our weaknesses doesn’t create the culture of energy, excitement, or meaning that would help people want to get involved. And so our very negativity perpetuates the problem.
When a congregation decides to articulate a shared sense of identity, it shifts the focus to what brings joy, energy, and a sense of excitement to the community. When we begin to find the right words to describe our mission, we begin to recognize our community at its best–both who we are and who we strive to be. A mission statement is not a laundry list of all the tasks we think we should do. Neither is it a vague statement about an ideal of the perfect church. It is a simple, clear statement of purpose. It answers the question, “What is our congregation for?” It gives a sense of direction, a sense of scope, and a call to action. It states clearly who we are and calls us to remember and relate to something larger than ourselves.
Here are a few possible mission statements that capture this sense of identity and purpose:
“The mission of Our UU Church is to inspire and challenge us to engage deeply, learn continuously, worship joyfully, and share generously in order to improve ourselves, our community, and the world.”
“The mission of Our UU Church is to celebrate religious freedom, nurture curiosity and learning, and work for a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world.”
“The mission of Our UU Church is to to worship and foster spiritual growth, to serve humanity, and to understand ourselves and our universe.”
Like the stones that line a path, the words of a mission statement are meant to help us find our way. When church life gets stormy and it’s hard to see clearly, a mission statement that truly expresses our deep sense of shared purpose will keep us moving toward the goal we could see clearly when things were calm and clear. And even when things are going well, a mission statement keeps us focused, helps us make decisions that further our aims, and reminds us all that our congregations exist for something larger than ourselves.