Being a Mission-Centered Congregation

One of the characteristics of a vital congregation is being mission focused or mission centered.

What Is a Mission? Why Is It so Important?

A congregation’s mission is an answer to the question, “Why does this congregation exist in the world?”

As the Unitarian Universalist minister Thom Belote says in his chapter “Mission” in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality:

If a religious community is like a large boat traveling across the sea, its mission is like a map of where it wants to go on the journey. Without a mission, the boat is merely adrift, susceptible to the whims of wind and surf, or it is commandeered by whoever is the most opinionated and determined to seize control of its steering wheel. Having a clear mission helps us to know that we are en route toward our goals.

A Clear, Shared Mission Is Helpful to a Congregation in Many Ways

Congregational leaders are constantly faced with a barrage of decisions. Without a clear mission, how can they make those decisions? On what basis will they decide?

  • A clear mission helps congregational leaders know when to say yes and when to say no.
  • A clear, shared mission also helps a congregation evaluate how it’s doing. Without a mission, how does it know?
  • A clear mission can also motivate members to be generous to a congregation with their time and money.
  •  clear mission can also help newcomers to a congregation decide whether they want to join a congregation.
  • A clear mission can help reduce conflict. Without a clear, shared mission, a congregation will begin to be led by different groups or factions with conflicting purposes and goals.

But let’s clarify some terms here.

What’s the Difference Between “Mission,” “Vision,” “Covenant,” and Even “Strategic Plan?”

For my purposes here, a mission answers the question, “Why do we exist in the world?” A vision statement answers the questions, “What is the future we hope for and dream for in this congregation? How will this congregation fulfill its mission at this particular time and at this particular place?” A covenant answers the question, “How shall we be together with one another as we carry out this mission and vision?” A strategic plan, if a congregation has one, is more specific and lists specific goals and objectives and timelines for achieving them. Annual goals identify how the mission and vision will be achieved in a particular year.

As can be seen, a congregation’s mission changes the least over time, while a vision or strategic plan should probably be revisited every five years.

As can also be seen, a congregation’s vision, covenant, its strategic plan, and yearly goals all flow from its mission, so when we talk about being mission centered, we mean putting everything that flows from a congregation’s mission at its center.

Being mission centered then, is a matter of regular practice. It is the repeated practice of not only lifting up the congregation’s mission but using it in decision making - - at board meetings, at committee meetings, at congregational meetings or any time when the congregation is making important decisions.

What Makes for a Good Mission?

So what makes for a good mission?

(Let’s note that this a different question than “What makes for a good mission statement?” As Dan Hotchkiss says in Governance and Ministry, a congregation’s mission statement at a particular point in time is only an approximation of its mission. For a discussion of what makes for a good mission statement, see Thom Belote’s previously mentioned chapter or watch a YouTube video based on that chapter at https://youtu.be/Qh6S9-j1URk .)
Management guru Peter Drucker says that all non-profit organizations have, in essence, the same mission: “a changed human being” or “an improved human being.” (Drucker has used different phrases in different settings.)

This, I think, is not a bad starting point for any congregation. In fact, a good question, any congregational leader might regularly ask themselves is, “How is this congregation changing lives?” or “How is this congregation improving lives?” or, more wordily, “How is this congregation helping people to have a fuller, deeper, richer, more satisfying experience of life?”

However, “a changed human being,” whether inside or outside the walls of any congregation, we want to suggest, is not quite specific enough to be a good mission for a congregation.

There are many non-profit institutions in any community that help change people’s lives - - YMCAs and YWCAs, libraries, hospitals, food co-ops, League of Women voters, service organizations, and political organizations.

However, in U.S. society, there has usually been only one type of organization that has served people’s peoples spiritual and religious needs - - the religious organization (whether called a congregation, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or a coven).

I might humbly suggest that all Unitarian Universalist congregations essentially have the same mission: nurturing individuals’ spiritual growth (their capacity to live with connection and meaning) and the world’s common good.

The UUA created a bumper sticker a few years ago that expressed the same idea: “Nurture your spirit. Heal our world.”

Similarly, former UUA staff member and PWR Regional Lead Nancy Bowen said, “The purpose of the church is to heal the consequences of lovelessness and injustice in the hearts and minds of our members so they might heal the community and together heal the world.”

A large Episcopal church in California expressed a similar idea: “Transformed people transforming the world.”

Whatever the exact words that are used, each of these statements has a vertical dimension or a depth dimension (“nurturing individual’s spiritual growth”) and a horizontal dimension or a breadth dimension (“nurturing the world’s common good.”)

Out of Balance Missions

My observation is that many congregations have several common problems in trying to be a mission-centered congregation. Whatever their explicit mission may be, their implicit mission or de facto mission is something else and what really guides the congregation.

One common problem I observe is having a mission that is out of balance. What do I mean?

In the nonprofit world there are some organizations that are purely member-service organizations. For example, AAA (Triple A) is a member-service organization. Members pay a fee to join and receive certain particular benefits in return. There are other organizations, that are purely “missional” organizations. The people who support the organization with their time and money usually aren’t the ones who benefit from the organization. For example, if I support an organization that addresses world hunger, it is unlikely my family will ever benefit directly from that organization’s programs.

However, many organizations in the nonprofit world are a combination of both. For example, many people support public radio both because they directly benefit from it and because they believe that providing quality, in-depth news helps make the world a better place. Similarly, some people support the ACLU mostly because they believe in its mission, though they also acknowledge the possibility that they could benefit directly from it.

Most Unitarian Universalist congregations are, and should be, I think, a combination of both, and I acknowledge there always is a healthy balance and tension between this inward-facing orientation and outward facing orientation, between serving the needs of its own members and serving the needs of the wider world.

Sometimes congregations, however, lose this balance and tension. Usually what I see are congregations that are too focused on their internal needs. Yet occasionally what I see are congregations that focus too much on the needs of the outside world.

Keeping Everybody Happy
(or Satisfying Individual Members’ Preferences)

An even bigger problem, I have observed, is congregations whose implicit mission becomes keeping everybody happy. They don’t even just focus on serving their congregations spiritual and religious needs. Instead, they focus on serving their members’ preferences.

What’s the difference? Providing people with worship experiences that will inspire them to do good in the world is an example of serving a need. Singing or not singing particular hymns, using or not using particular words, lighting or not lighting candles of joy and sorrow is a preference.

In truth, though, some of these congregations aren’t even focused on satisfying the preferences of 51% of a congregation’s membership. Instead, they are focused on the individual preferences of a few - - perhaps individuals with the most informal influence, perhaps those who donate disproportionately, or most often, those who complain the loudest.

The result is a congregation that stays stuck in the past, unable to fulfill the spiritual and religious needs of the majority of its members or potential new members, and unable to serve the larger world.

Other De Facto Missions

I have observed that some congregations sometimes let other implicit or de facto missions guide them.

Here are some common ones:


For some congregations, the most important things are membership numbers and growth, following the idea that bigger is always better. It is true that research shows that bigger congregations usually serve their own members and the larger world better, but sometimes growth becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

The Budget

For some congregations, maintaining and supporting the budget seems to be the axis around which all decision making rotates.

The Building

Some congregations of have an “edifice complex,” and the whole congregation seems to be dedicated only to maintaining its physical infrastructure.

The Staff

Some congregations become employment agencies and keep an underperforming minister, religious educator, music director, church administrator, or sexton on the payroll for years.  On the other hand, some congregations revolve so much around the relationship with a charismatic religious leader’s personality, they don’t know who they are when that individual inevitably leaves the congregation.

A Particular Program or Event

Often particular programs seem to become a congregation’s raison d’etre. For example, sometimes a congregation’s whole reason for being seems to be to be to show off its music program. The congregation is more like a concert hall or performing arts center than a church. Other times a particular event, like an annual rummage sale that has happened for decades, becomes overly important in a congregation’s life, no matter how much staff time, volunteer time, or space it requires or how little money it actually makes.

All of the items listed above can be vital to a congregations life - - growth, the budget, the physical infrastructure, the staff, programs and special events. But all should be means to ends, means toward serving the congregation’s larger mission.

The Biggest Mission Trap of All: Religious Community as De Facto Mission

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include something about “creating community” when articulating their missions. However, Unitarian Universalists aren’t the only ones to do this. The most common word in church names used to be “First” as in “First Unitarian Universalist Church of Happy Valley” or “First Baptist Church of Happy Valley.” It is now “Community” as in “The Community Church of Happy Valley.”

It’s no wonder. Many people in American society are very lonely. More people live alone than ever before. With people working longer hours at their jobs, it’s also harder to have friends or even get to know one’s neighbors. And more people live farther away from their family of origins than in the past. This is especially true of Unitarian Universalists. With higher average levels of education, Unitarian Universalists, especially in the Pacific West, are more likely to have moved far away from the places they grew up than other Americans.

So many of us long for a place where we can get to know others and be known. We want to have a place in our life like the bar in the television show Cheers where “everybody knows your name.”

There are so many touching stories of people discovering community at a Unitarian Universalist congregation as well, discovering for the very first time in their lives a place where people accepted them and cared for them exactly as they were.

Without a doubt, the caring community many people have discovered in Unitarian Universalists congregations has changed and even saved lives.

Yet there are several problems with having “creating community” as congregation’s implicit or de facto mission.

When “community” is over-emphasized, it likely keeps a congregation small. Studies show that congregations in which people say the congregation “feels like a family” are the ones that are most unlikely to grow. This makes sense. A person can be born into a family, can be adopted into a family, or can marry into a family. Families rarely do a good job of incorporating strangers.

When congregations over-emphasize community in their mission, congregations usually also put a lot of energy into maintaining that community, which often means they never do something that might make somebody upset enough to leave, which often keeps the congregation from ever doing anything different. Related to this, these congregations are often unwilling to set limits on inappropriate or even harmful behavior.

(This might be called the shadow side of Universalism. Too often Unitarian Universalists wrongly assume that believing that all people are worthy of love also means that a congregation can’t set limits on harmful behavior that is destructive to the wider community or kick somebody out if they can’t follow norms that are necessary for other people to feel safe.)

While more folks are lonelier than ever before, there are also plenty of people who already have a sense of community in their lives. They already have close relationships with nearby family, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Or perhaps they find community in one of the many other places it can be found in our society such as clubs or bowling leagues or art classes. What would a congregation that makes community its mission say to those people? Would it say, “We have nothing to offer you?”

There is a final problem worth mentioning in congregations that over-emphasize community.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Kendyl Gibbons says, “Real community is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a byproduct of people working together toward shared goals.”

Without some shared goal or common purpose, there is the strong possibility that a congregation will simply become a “lifestyle enclave.” This term was coined by the sociologist Robert Bellah in his book Habits of the Heart and refers to people who belong to a similar demographic, but don’t share a commitment to some larger shared purpose or goal. Among Unitarian Universalists, this often means a community of people who are predominantly older, female, white (and usually with family origins in northern European rather than southern or eastern Europe), well-educated, financially well off, politically liberal, and skeptical or even disdainful of traditional religious belief (though rather unsure about what they really do believe or what commitments they might make because of those beliefs.)

“Lifestyle enclaves” can be wonderful places. In them, people often instantly feel at home (or at least those who match the dominant demographic do). Conversation is easy and interesting. People are friendly to each other and seem to care about each other. Yet the bonds between people in lifestyle enclaves and people’s commitment to them are ultimately weak. Lifestyle enclaves do not call people to some higher purpose. People are rarely transformed in any significant way because of their participation in a lifestyle enclave. People aren’t willing to sacrifice for a lifestyle enclave, and when life in the enclave become difficult, people are more likely to walk away than work things out.

In a community that is mission-centered, on the other hand, people don’t always feel as immediately at home. They are attracted by the community’s shared purpose, but there are also more people who are different from them and who may even believe different things. Conversation can be awkward. Relationships form more slowly. Yet ultimately they are stronger because they are built around a shared purpose and the bonding experiences of working together toward that shared purpose. People are strongly committed to the community and are willing to sacrifice for it. When life in community becomes difficult, people are more likely to stay at the table because something really important is at stake.

“Creating caring community” should always be a part of any congregation’s life, but if it becomes the end-all-be-all for any congregation, paradoxically, many members will most likely never experience the very thing they most seek.

Road in the arid mountains disappearing in the distance

Discussion Questions

1. What questions do you have about the material presented in the reading or in the addition resources? What, if anything, do you need to be further explained or clarified?

2. What reflections do you have about material presented? What resonated most with you? What fits or doesn’t fit with your experience of life in your congregation?

3.Does your congregation have a mission statement, a vision statement, a covenant, a strategic plan, or annual goals? How are they used? Are they used to guide decision making, budgeting, staffing, or evaluation?

4.How much is your congregation’s mission inward facing? How much is it outward facing?

5. Does your congregation have an implicit mission or de facto mission different than its explicit mission? How would you describe this implicit or de facto mission?

6. What would it look like for your congregation to become more mission centered or mission focussed