Safeguarding against Mission Drift
In the Middle Ages, kind-hearted Franciscan monks developed a charity model to make sure the poor could buy food and wisely manage their money. This model, called Montes Pietatius, was also intended to help protect the poor from people who would take advantage of them (e.g., loan sharks).
The Montes Pietatius model still exists today—sort of. Today, they are called pawn shops.
Perhaps the reputation of pawn shops as an institution to help the poor, instead of taking advantage of them, may be a little less sterling than the Franciscan-led Montes Pietatius.
What happened to their original mission? Why was there so much mission drift?
Do we need to safeguard our missions so they don’t drift into pawnshop land?
Mission Drift Is a Failure in Faithful Stewardship
When the Lord, returns, it might be that He will accuse certain stewards of Christian colleges of theft. In this arena of stewardship, don’t we immediately think of Ivy League schools? They are outstanding. But, while the world may view them as a complete success, they are certainly failures when measured by the intentions of their founders.
The classic example is Harvard, a once-struggling, small Bible institute founded in 1701 that only became financially stable when a pastor donated his library and half of his farmland. This pastor, like your donors, was willing to sacrifice his own wealth to achieve Godly purposes. How did the boards and administrators of Harvard do as stewards of his donations?
Shouldn’t Harvard give the pastor back his books?
In his article, “Grand Larceny: The Secular Conversion of Christian Colleges,” as published in the Fall 2016 edition of Christian Academia Magazine, Professor Phil Shackelton asks,
Why does it matter if a Christian college moves to the left? It matters because of what we’ve learned about the typical developmental trajectory of church-related colleges over the last 100–150 years. Simply, colleges founded by churches rarely (if ever) become secular by moving to the right…. On the contrary, institutions become secular by moving to the left (the Christian left), and then it seems to take a generation or so to gradually shed the Christian identity in all but name.
So, after a generation or so, actually 65 years, Cotton Mather and some of his fellow preachers were so concerned about Harvard’s mission drift that they founded a new college: Yale.
In his first book published in 1951, God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr., called out his alma mater for teaching counter to the Christian beliefs for which it had been founded. At the time, the school was not bragging about its abandonment of Christian purposes when raising money from the Christian community
Christian colleges drifting from their founding purpose is not merely a matter of history. We see it happening in modern colleges as well. But we can become good stewards, gain wisdom from our predecessors, and put safeguards in place. We can take care that leaders in the next generations will not steal what we build in order to build their own reputations while sacrificing their school’s Christian mission at the altars of finances, reputation and size.
Specifically, we can safeguard against receiving dangerous donations and against the pirates who would undermine such a mission, while binding future leaders to a Christ-centric mission and continually assessing our faithfulness to a Christian purpose.
In this Winter edition of Christian Academia Magazine, we will look at two safeguards that you can begin to put in place. In Spring, we will look at two more.
Mission Drift Safeguards
Safeguard #1: Don’t Accept Donations from Mission-Corrupting Sources—the Pirates
Donations can influence, obligate or even poison. We see this in politics with accusations that donations to the Clinton Foundation bought influence at the State Department. President Trump has admitted that he has a history of buying influence as well.
Jihad Watch reported in 2011 that since 2008, donations from Muslim leaders are “the largest source of external funding for universities by quite a long way.” Though donors say they want to promote Islamic understanding, in reality, they are accused of pushing an extreme Islamic ideology to our students.
But even gifts from people who do not have an agenda can open the doors to mission drift. Consider a denominational college that may have been founded with offering-plate money, but which severed ties with their denomination so that they could become “broader and more inclusive.” They would have to have found other sources of funding to divorce their founders. How “happy” such a denomination must be to have poured so much money over so many years into a school that no longer wants to solve the problems for which it was founded. Of course, this is what happened with Harvard, Yale, and so many others.
Donors can become termites, or they can keep a school centered on its mission. In an excellent book on this subject, entitled Mission Drift, by Peter Greer and Chris Horst, we read that
“Donors are an accurate predictor of whether or not an organization is going to deviate off mission…. Donors either center an organization on its full mission or contribute to Mission Drift” (Peter Greer and Chris Horst, 2014 p. 115).
When a Christian school is getting a large portion of its funds from sources that do not have a passion for a Christ-centered mission, it is vulnerable to mission drift.
Be careful of where your funds come from, and
2) be careful of who joins your staff
Safeguard #2: Hire Only Mission-Centered Applicants (and Shoot the Pirates)
For many years, a friend of mine has served at a large and well-respected Christian university. He signed their statement of faith every year and pretended to believe it. He laughs when he remembers speaking to a student at a class reunion. The student told him how impressed he had been by the professor’s prayers at the start of classes.
Now my friend is in leadership, influencing hiring decisions, so it’s quite fortunate that he has since become born again and really does know the Lord he use to pretend to pray too. If he were still pretending, imagine how his hiring choices could have watered down the spiritual level of his faculty. Greer and Horst write,
“The gravitational pull of secularism is felt perhaps most acutely in hiring.”
A church-basement Bible institute may not have this problem. It will not be flooded with resumes from people who lack passion for a Christian mission. After all, who would lie about his Christian commitment to add such an unimpressive school on his resume? At this stage of a school’s development, the pay scale is not a great temptation either. As the school grows and develops, though, the number of reasons someone applies to work there also grows.
So, the first priority in hiring should pertain to such qualifications as character, mission fit, and spiritual passion.
For example, a courageous, highly-skilled army general probably won’t help his organization if he is primarily concerned about himself, his reputation, and his advancement. After all, Benedict Arnold was a courageous and highly skilled general, a war hero, but not a good hire. Bad choices of applicants who have great resumes are still bad choices.
Jim Collins, author of the best-selling book, Good to Great, has studied companies that had tremendous, but short-lived growth under a charismatic leader.
“These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company.”
He concluded that “there is perhaps no more corrosive trend to the health of our organizations than the rise of the celebrity CEO, the rock-star leader whose deepest ambition is first and foremost self-centric.”
Hiring the wrong consultants can also be bad investments.
A student-recruiting specialist told me that the company he once worked for specialized in growing religious schools by making them less religious. Being concerned with growth in numbers and dollars, but not mission, the company would suggest things like, “You don’t need Bible classes in a business degree.”
At some point in the future of your school, some leader is going to be tempted by the idolatry of growing the school’s enrollment, status, wealth, and reputation. Of course, this will be good for his reputation, too.
While more students, more money, and greater respect can be truly appropriate goals to strive for, we must keep in mind that these good goals are secondary to the primary goal of achieving the mission.
Obviously, care to scrutinize the spiritual qualifications of faculty, administrators, and especially the president is crucial. Equally decisive is the spiritual and mission fit of each board member. Greer and Horst also write,
If you go back to the stories of Harvard, Yale, ChildFund, and the Y, the Pew Trusts, and the many others we found in our research, poor board selection and governance was always one of the driving causes of drift. If the board isn’t composed of folks who live out the values of the organization they lead, the organization will drift. The organization will secularize. It will only be a matter of time.
Thus, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s standard on governance states that “the board’s first responsibility is to recruit members who are spiritually mature and able to make wise decisions as led through prayer by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine).
So, when someone recommends a rich and generous board prospect, a person of reputation, but also a person whose spiritual life is unimpressive, don’t take the bait.
The pull to mission drift is greatest not from without, but from within. So, when considering new hires, consider that passion for your mission must take priority over impressive resumes. When we are more smitten by faculty credentials and publications, board members’ wealth, and celebrity leaders than with their spiritual agenda, we are walking into mission drift.
How to Make Good Hiring Decisions
To safeguard against this drift, consider setting up such hiring, promotion, and appointment policies as these:
- Ask employee and board applicants to write an essay about their spiritual journey (e.g., how they came to Christ, influences leading to their growth, how they cultivate their walk with the Lord, past and current service in church or other volunteer ministries, and any other items that would help you distinguish pretenders from faithful followers.
- Ask applicants to discuss the mission statement. What does it mean to them? For which parts are they most enthusiastic? Are there any parts for which they do not feel passionate?
- Ask applicants to discuss the meaning of your school’s statement of faith. Are their parts they do not fully embrace?
- Ask similar questions when someone is potentially being promoted (especially if he or she would be in an influential position, such as in recommending persons for hire).
- Finally, and especially important, place a highly trusted and proven officer in charge of vetting all applicants for their spiritual qualifications and mission fit. In addition to reviewing the above questions, this officer would check references. (If there is still doubt about the applicant, the officer would ask the references who else would know the applicant.)
Sometimes, the temptation to avoid these safeguards and not hire the right candidate is very high. This is especially true when the school’s schedule conflicts with God’s.
Administrators sometimes think, “Since we have an agenda to accomplish, and God just doesn’t seem to understand our schedule, we will hire an otherwise-qualified person who embraces most of our mission.”
Misguided hiring decisions like these reproduce themselves and compound over time. It’s truly better to leave a position vacant than to hire someone who does not deeply embrace the entire Christian mission.
When to Fire
Greer and Horst’s book on mission drift suggests we hire slow, but fire fast. The longer the wrong person is entrenched in the institution, the more painful it will be to remove this wrong choice—and the more damage he will do.
When I was at a rather conservative seminary in the 1980s, no Baptist theological school was more notorious for radically liberal theology than Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). This changed when new President Al Mohler, “gave a ‘declaration of war’ against unorthodoxy within the institution, a declaration in the form of a convocation address: ‘Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There.’”
In that address, Mohler pointed the audience to the orthodox theological positions of the 1858 founding confessional statement entitled Abstract of Principles. This founding abstract contains a requirement that to teach, or remain teaching at SBTS, a professor must teach according to the theological positions contained in the original 1858 Abstract. It states,
Every professor of the institution shall be a member of a regular Baptist church; and all persons accepting professorships in this seminary shall be considered, by such acceptance, as engaging to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Abstract of Principles hereinafter laid down, a departure from which principles on his part shall be considered grounds for his resignation or removal by the Trustees.
Mohler challenged the audience by saying,
This Abstract is a sacred contract and confession for those who teach here who willingly and willfully affix their signatures to its text and their conscience to its intention. They pledge to teach ‘in accordance with and not contrary to’ its precepts.”
Mohler felt compelled to take such a strong stand after years of unfaithful faculty appointments, faculty members who were teaching contrary to such foundational Christian doctrines as the trinity, virgin birth, and resurrection.
As with chemotherapy, the board and president must have wondered just how much of the patient’s cancer can be killed without also killing the patient. Most of the faculty resigned or were fired, and of course, many donors were offended. Students left in large numbers as well. But the beleaguered patient rallied.
Today, their website proudly announces that they are one of the largest seminaries in the world and that they still “stand on the confessional vision articulated by the founding faculty in the Abstract of Principles and on the Baptist Faith and Message.”
Avoid such chemotherapy. Hire slow. Fire fast.
When it comes to safeguarding your founding mission, be careful of where your funds come from and who is on your board and staff.
In Part 2, we’ll look more closely at how to loudly and clearly articulate a distinctly Christian mission, as President Al Mohler did.
We can do much to keep our successors faithful to the purposes for which our school was built. A Christian mission can last. Consider, as one example, Hillsdale College, which is over 170 years old. Their website reads:
Hillsdale College is an independent institution of higher learning founded in 1844 by men and women “grateful to God for the inestimable blessings” resulting from civil and religious liberty and “believing that the diffusion of learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings.” … As a nonsectarian Christian institution, Hillsdale College maintains “by precept and example” the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.”
If we want a similar legacy for our schools’ future, now is the time to initiate strategies for safeguarding our mission.
In this first part, we saw how the source of a school’s funding and the values of its staff will likely dictate its mission trajectory.
In Part 2, we will look at how to set up procedures that will help ensure mission compliance by future leaders as well as assessment procedures that sound an alarm if a school’s mission is drifting off from its Christ-centric mission.
May God Bless The Future of Your School
 Shackleton, Phil. “Grand Larceny: The Secular Conversion of Christian Colleges” Christian Academia Magazine. October 27, 2016. Accessed October 29, 2016. https://christianacademiamagazine.com/grand-larceny-secular-conversion-christian-colleges/.
 Spencer, Robert. “Muslims Pour Money into Universities in U.K., U.S. in Order to Change Intellectual Climate and Push Islam.” Jihad Watch. March 06, 2011. Accessed November 29, 2016. https://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/03/muslims-pour-money-into-universities-in-uk-us-in-order-to-change-intellectual-climate-and-push-islam.
 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, p. 103.
 Collins, Jim. “Good to Great.” Jim Collins. October 2001. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html#articletop.
 Greer, p. 85.
 “ECFA Standard 2 – Governance.” Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://www.ecfa.org/content/comment2.
 Hanbury, Aaron Cline. “Twenty Years and Counting: Mohler Reflects on His Presidency of Southern Seminary.” The Southern California Baptist Theological Seminary. October 15, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.sbts.edu/resources/towers/twenty-years- and-counting- mohler-reflects-on-his-presidency-of-southern-seminary/.
 “Abstract of Principles: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” The Southern California Baptist Theological Seminary. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.sbts.edu/about/abstract/.
 Mohler, R. Albert, Jr. “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There.” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. August 13, 2013. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://www.sbts.edu/resources/articles/dont-just-do-something-stand-there/.
 “About – The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://www.sbts.edu/about/.
 “Mission – Hillsdale College.” Hillsdale College. Accessed November 20, 2016. https://www.hillsdale.edu/about/mission/.