Review: Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches

Well, it’s been a very busy month, and I’ve not read nearly as much as I’d hoped, but I have written more than I had expected. Admittedly later than intended, here is my review of Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches by: Peter Greer. Chris Horst, with Anna Haggard.

We’ve all done it – you start out burning some scrap wood and wind up with a bonfire. You planned to share a link, and wrote a lengthy post about it. You started cleaning the living room and wound up redecorating.We see it all the time, charities, even businesses, compassion, passion and innovation, that end up cold and heartless bureaucracies. We observe that some “Churches and denominations abandon the truth of the Gospel as they age … have lost their saltiness. They have forgotten why they exist and have moved away from a core commitment to the Gospel. Today, they resemble little more than a country club without a golf course. And so their light dims and pews sit empty” (p 78). Sam Walton’s vision for Wal-Mart was not only about making money, but “saving people money so they can live better” and making employees partners sharing in the company’s success, but succeeding generations have changed the focus from benefiting employees and customers to solely focus on profit. Mission Drift is everywhere.

Greer and Horst are President/CEO and director of development at HOPE InternationalMission Drift came out of an experience they had with a wealthy donor offering to give them substantial funding provided they would tone down their organisation’s Christian identity. Realising that this threat to staying “Mission True,” as the authors phrase it, was not unique to them, they undertook a study of organisations that had drifted and had stayed Mission True to examine the causes of drift and what might be done to prevent it.

Using examples from the past, such as Harvard and Yale, the former  dedicated to the mission of training preachers, and the latter founded just 65 years later by a group of pastors “concerned by the secularization at Harvard” (p 18)  and hoping to avoid the drift they saw there. Obviously neither university bears much resemblance to their original mission. They also examine YMCA and Christian Children’s fund, now entirely removed from their originally gospel centred missions, and now just called The Y and ChildFund, amongst other examples of organisations who have forgotten their original reason for existence. In contrast to these they use examples such as Apple, Compassion, Quaker Oats, International Justice Mission, InterVarsity and Southwest Airlines. But don’t mistake Mission Drift as  “an exposé of organisations that have drifted,” as the authors have “intentionally chose[n] organisations that have publicly and widely communicated their own drift” (p 31). Greer and Horst desire to equip, encourage and build up, not tear down, even if, as they admit, it can be a tough and painful process for an organisation to take steps “to protect and reinforce their mission” (p 31).

Throughout the book, Greer and Horst identify and outline sources of, risks for and signs of Mission Drift, and offer strategies and example practices of how to guard against and steer away from it. They identify two kinds of drift – that which happens under current management, and that which happens after the current leaders are no longer around to keep an organisation on mission. The key seems to be deliberate planning against Mission Drift, from intentional definition of the mission and identity of an organisation (particularly when faith and evangelism are key parts of the mission), to concrete practices and metrics for evaluation of how the organisation is measuring up to them. Such practices cover a wide range from those that ensure the organisation is actually achieving the mission (eg not just measuring support given to those in poverty, but how effective it is in releasing them from poverty) to strategies to imbue the organisation with a culture, not just in the ‘now’ but that will be propagated to future generations of organisational leaders and workers.

If you’re a manager or involved with an organisation (or ministry, business), Mission Drift provides a detailed discussion on effective hiring, communication, branding and building procedures, the importance of changing with the times, yet without changing identity, and the organisational culture that is more important than the rules, to ensure that your organisation stays Mission True. Their emphasis is towards faith-based organisations, whose Christian identity and distinctiveness they show is vital to the work that they do, with definite advantages and strengths over their secular counterparts. However, their guidance is equally applicable to secular organisations, churches and individuals. They point out that “too often, institutional drift is fundamentally unintended, the result not of sober and faithful choices in response to wider changes, but simply unchosen, unreflective assimilation” (p 13) to outside influences and culture, and this is why purposeful measures are needed to prevent a passive inadvertent Mission Drift.

There are helpful summaries at the end of each chapter, review questions, notes on the methodology they used in their study, a good list of further reading, and thorough endnotes sourcing ideas and quotes.

One aspect that stood out to me, as particularly relevant to us who are not leading or involved with organisations, was the importance of board members (as opposed to the day-to-day leadership), and donors in keeping an organisation on track with their mission. We as supporters of various stores, charities and other organisations play a big part in the path they take – no more money = no more organisation. Greer and Horst point out that not only do small donors like you and I generally provide the lion’s portion of funds (so it’s not as necessary to change under pressure to gain funds from big donors and government grants as it may seem), but we can play a critical role in monitoring and speaking up if we see organisations we support straying from their purpose and character. We also have the responsibility to make sure we’re supporting organisations we actually agree with – those with values and methods that line up with ours.

This book would not have been at the top of (or possibly even on) my reading list, had it not very been kindly sent to me for review by the publisher (via LibraryThing) prior to its release date (giving me something of a deadline) but I am glad that it was. Even though the book is written “to and for evangelical nonprofit leaders,” I think it can be profitable to individuals and anyone involved in almost any organisation or endeavour. I found myself examining my own life, as a Christian living ‘on mission,’ as a husband and father – even to this blog, to see where I might be less than Mission True. I am tempted to chase more followers and write catering to that growing audience, and to use this blog as a platform to preach, forgetting that my ‘mission’ is simply to get back into writing, and to write about things I find interesting and care about, particularly reviewing books. Mission Drift has shown me that I needed to remain true to my mission, not to be pressured to make lots of posts and engage in strategies to draw reads, to keep it fun rather than a chore.

Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches by: Peter Greer, Chris Horst, Anna Haggard
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Baker Publishing Group (2014)
Amazon link

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this insightful review David. I appreciate your candor and description. I have read Mission Drift and completely agree with your assessment of how it forces us to examine our personal roles as parents, spouses, & bloggers outside of its focus on Christian non-profit leaders.

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