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Shoot the Pirates: And Three Other Strategies for Safeguarding Your School’s Mission (Part 2)

We may not know the future leaders of our school, but we can do much to prevent future mission drift. [Picture by Anushka.Holding)

What do Christian colleges have in common with corporate America?

Mission drift.

So pervasive is this problem that it got the attention of the witty writers at The Onion, a satirical “news” publication.

In a 2012 article, a fictitious CEO explains that his “company was built on tradition—a set of values systematically phased out the second my great-grandfather died.”

After all, the ridiculous ideas “about not treating your employees like commodities were abandoned in the early 1980s and, to tell you the truth, we don’t miss them,” he writes.

Though the words are fictitious, how true is the sentiment? Does anyone at Yale or Harvard miss their founding principles and mission? How long will it be before future leaders at your school abandon its mission as well?

Mission drift doesn’t have to happen. You can put safeguards in place today that will help ensure your foundational vision and mission is protected for many decades, even centuries to come.

In Part 1, we looked at Safeguard 1: How the source of your funding determines how far and fast your mission drifts; and Safeguard 2: How to hire board, staff, and faculty who will keep your mission intact—and fire those who won’t.

In this article, we’ll look at Safeguard 3: How to help ensure that future leaders comply to your mission; and Safeguard 4: How to assess if your school is staying on tract or drifting off course.

 

Safeguard #3: Require Future Leaders to Comply with a Christ-centered Mission

In Bruce Cannon’s Christian Academia Magazine article, “Absolute Craziness on College Campuses” Cannon describes how state colleges in California have six gender options on applications and that some colleges require Christian clubs to allow non-Christians to hold leadership positions.

But Cannon has taken a bold stand for the university he presides over by clearly declaring in the face of temptations to drift, “WE WILL NEVER WAVER.”[1] He just may be able to stay on course, as did many great Christian leaders. But how can any leader ensure that future generations who grab the baton won’t waiver on the established mission?

Let’s look at Howard Pew, a close friend of Billy Graham, as an example. He thought he took a bold stand for his mission by granting a great deal of money to support causes he embraced.

During his lifetime, Pew donated the major funding to set up Christianity Today magazine and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Pew and his siblings were also major donors to Fuller Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute.

Because he saw that the Ivy League schools were no longer theologically conservative, he would absolutely not donate to them.

But his values didn’t pass down to future leadership. Today, the Pew Charitable Trust gives millions to Ivy League schools and even Planned Parenthood while withholding donations from the school Pew helped found, Gordon-Conwell College.

Yes, the Pew foundation does support activities that conservative Christians also passionately support, but the wishes of the original donor are no longer steering the mission trajectory. More than mission drift, could this be tried as a case of grand larceny?

Let’s contrast the fate of the Pew fortune with that of Quaker Oats founder and Christian philanthropist, Henry Crowell. Would the Crowell Trust drift?

No, he determined.

Crowell put safeguards in place so that the stewards of his fortune after his departure would not lose touch with his intentions.

First, he made his intentions for his money loud and clear in writing. But he understood that such proclamations were not enough.

Second, Crowell set up required mission-centered procedures. Still today, before an annual business meeting, the managers entrusted with his money spend three hours reading and reflecting on Crowell’s intentions in his writings.

University administrators would be wise to require such a procedure as well:  every board member, faculty member, and other stakeholder must annually review, reflect upon, and recommit to the institutions founding history, vision, mission, goals, and doctrine.

You can do this. You need to do this. A Christian school that quietly blubbers something vague about a Christian mission is on its way to losing it.

“Wake up! Strengthen what remains.” (Revelation 3:2a)

No leader needs to fear. A school that roars its commitment to building on the foundation of Jesus Christ will not find it is being pressured by unspiritually-minded donors or students. We saw in Part 1 how Southern Baptist Theological Seminary made its intentions absolutely clear by way of renewing focus on its Abstract of Principles, and you can too.

But only putting it in writing and reflecting on it is not enough of a safeguard on its own. We can do much more than even Crowell did:

Third, as is promoted by the Association for Biblical Higher Education, put your mission and statement of faith in a constitution that requires 60-days advance notice of any proposed change and at least a three-quarter vote of the board to make a change. 

Fourth, carve it on your walls.  Talk about it in meetings.  Include it in your PR.  That is, make sure the mission is known by everyone inside and outside the walls of your institution.

In that regard, leaders should make clear public commitments to the founding mission even decades after its founding, constantly explaining and reaffirming its meaning.

Fifth, make each proclamation plain and simple. No person new to the community should be confused into thinking the mission statement is just a set of fancy words. Each Christian pronouncement must be clear: do not use “iffy” language in an attempt to sound respectable in the eyes of people who are spiritually blind. Being perfectly clear will also help to ensure that future leaders won’t misinterpret the mission to mean something that they want it to mean.

Of course, making a document say whatever you want it to say does not mean your interpretation is what it really says.  The best way to ensure a true interpretation of your mission is to state it as clearly, plainly, and simply as possible, and then put policies and procedures in place to ensure it is enforced for centuries to come.

My father often told me, “You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say.”  True.  You can also make the constitution say whatever you want it to say. Just ask certain members of the Supreme Court.  Such eisegesis of an insurance contract or car loan document may prove a little more difficult to enforce.  Why? Because these contracts are generally written simply and plainly, without ambiguity.  Do not use “iffy” language in your various statements of purpose.  Imagine what future assessment reports will look like if someone not committed to your purposes is assessing achievement of ambiguous mission and goals statements.

Safeguard #4: Continually Assess Mission Trajectory

It is likely that a school’s mission will change over time. The issue to watch is the direction of that change. Mission drift away from Christ-centered principles can happen so subtly that you may not even be aware that it has already happened at your school.

Greer and Horst in their book, Mission Drift, write, “The pressures of mission drift are guaranteed. It is the default, the auto-fill. It will happen unless we are focused and actively preventing it.”[2]

Actively preventing mission drift requires monitoring how well your school is achieving its mission and to make appropriate adjustments where it is not.  The assessment processes required by accrediting agencies can be helpful in this effort, but care must be taken to precisely administer them, just like an X-ray machine, to identify the broken areas of your mission.

Several types of instruments provide valuable insight:

Professionally prepared tests like the Wesleyan Wellness Profile or the Spiritual Transformation Inventory will compare your school’s data to national norms.  You can also develop your own school-specific surveys with the following criteria:

  1.  Ask student opinions of the spiritual climate on campus, in classes, in on-campus events, and in dorms.
  2. zSimilar data can be solicited from the faculty.
  3. A “1–5” Likert Scale can be used to ask various groups of campus stakeholders to rate how well your school fulfills each phrase of its mission, goals, and vision.
  4. Course evaluation forms should also ask questions pertaining to the spiritual. For example:
  • “To what degree were the ideas promoted in this class consistent with the values and theology of the denomination that supports our school?”
  • “To what degree does this instructor seem to evidence a spiritual life or personal ministry that you would like to imitate?”
  • “To what degree did this class enrich your spiritual life?”

As your school develops, its mission may change. But as new leaders take the baton, they must publicly accept their responsibility to the founders and their mission and to faithfully steward the school for God’s purposes. The safeguards above will help ensure that occurs.
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To recap from Part 1 and this article, the four safeguards that you can begin putting into place today, be careful

  1. where your funds come from,
  2. who joins your staff,
  3. that you loudly and clearly articulate a distinctly Christian mission as well as set up procedures to help insure compliance by future leaders, and
  4. that you have assessment procedures that sound an alarm if you are drifting off from your mission.

 

[1] Cannon, Bruce. “Absolute Craziness On College Campuses – Christian Academia Magazine.” Christian Academia Magazine. October 16, 2016. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://christianacademiamagazine.com/absolute-craziness-college-campuses-2/.

[2] Greer, Peter, and Chris Horst. Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014, pp. 30–31.

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