Can you state—or approximate—the mission statement of your parish, school, university, or organization? I mean from memory, without pulling up the website on your phone or looking for a bulletin or newsletter.
When I asked this question to several people—including some who are long-time, active members at their respective Catholic institution—the response was often something of a deer-in-the-headlights look or the uncertain sharing of a few words and phrases. So if you’re coming up blank, you’re in good company.
If only a few committed stakeholders can offer even a rough paraphrase of their Catholic institution’s mission statement, it’s worth asking: Do mission statements make a difference?
If a mission statement is only a slogan emblazoned on the back of the bulletin or tucked away on some corner of a Catholic institution’s webpage, it isn’t informing that institution’s daily ministry. This is even more true if no one can remember how and when it was developed—sometimes mission statements developed years or even decades ago remain in place despite significant changes in an institution’s leadership, membership, and context. It’s easy for those of us in Catholic institutions to go about our work—administering sacraments, educating children and youth, preparing liturgies, responding to the needs of those on the margins—in a way that is detached from the stated mission. When we are in the weeds of the work itself, responding to urgent pastoral needs, we often lose sight of the big picture.
That said, mission statements can play important roles in articulating a community’s purpose, so long as it is carefully discerned and re-discerned as we ask what the Spirit is asking of us in this time and place.
It could be argued that any Catholic institution has some core common elements when it comes to mission. Any institution that self-identifies with Catholic will be rooted in the gospel, informed by Catholic tradition, and seek to base its actions on the life and teachings of Jesus.
The value of intentionally crafting a mission statement lies in articulating how a given institution aspires to live out the universal mission of the church in a particular place and time. What is the unique population the institution serves or hopes to serve? How do the needs of the local community come into play? Is there an affiliation—Franciscan, Dominican, Benedictine—that shapes the institution’s identity and mission in the past or currently?
A mission statement that considers these questions and is rooted in deep and broad listening, informed by the institution’s history, and in touch with the needs of the broader community can serve as something of a compass as an institution goes about its daily work.
When a mission authentically reflects an institution’s identity, “it undergirds everything we choose to do: worship, pastoral care, outreach, and stewardship of resources. It drives our actions. When an institution’s mission is precise enough, you can tell it’s there,” says Anne Weyandt, an associate professor of theology at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minnesota who works with Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations in Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.
The articulation of mission helps an institution discern their priorities and make choices about the various opportunities and challenges that inevitably present themselves. Do we join this interfaith or ecumenical collaborative effort? Do we invite this speaker to give our parish mission? Do we invest resources in responding to a particular local, national, or global need? Do we release a statement in response to a high-profile news story? It can also help an institution discern how and where to invest time, money, energy, and other resources.
Holy Trinity parish in Beaverton, Oregon recently rewrote their parish mission statement. Deacon Brett Edmondson, Holy Trinity’s business manager, had done research while studying at Notre Dame about vibrant parishes, and his findings informed Holy Trinity’s process. Edmondson’s bias going into his research was that vibrant parishes would be ones that focused on building strong community. However, his findings surprised him: emphasizing mission, not community, seemed to be the key to a parish’s vibrancy.
“What I learned in talking to pastors and parish leaders was that when they discovered their local community needs and tried to address those, they found their mission. And as they did that, that produced a more vibrant sense of community,” he says.
Holy Trinity’s pastoral council and staff first read several books of mission and parish life. Then they engaged in a process of dialogue over several years to discern their mission as a parish in an “average, middle class neighborhood” in the unchurched state of Oregon.
“We wanted something short and sweet and memorable. The problem that we found in looking at mission statements of other parishes is that they are often so long that people can’t remember them and they have no practical effect,” Edmondson says. “We decided that our mission is to help people come to know Jesus, grow in that faith relationship, and go to take that to others in their daily lives. Know, grow, go has become our mission and it shapes the way we make decisions, celebrate liturgy, everything.”
The mission statement, and the dialogue process that helped to create it, have led the parish to aim for the margins, rather than the center.
“ ‘Know, grow go’ reminds us that Holy Trinity is here to serve our community and our world, rather than our priests, our staff, or our ‘insiders,’ ” says Edmondson. “It’s easy to play to insiders when you’re preaching or doing liturgy—keeping in mind those who are already invested. What’s more important is to think about the people on the community’s margins. Maybe they’re family members of parishioners or people who have been hurt by the church.”
For a mission statement to make a difference in the life of the institution it first needs to be crafted intentionally. The engagement and listening necessary to craft a strong mission statement can be time and energy consuming but can bear meaningful fruit over time for an institution.
“Mission statements only makes sense in context of a vital conversation within an institution about what are we doing and who are we serving,” said William P. Gregory, Catholic missiologist and associate professor of religious studies at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa. “Is the mission tied to the strategic plan? Is that part of ongoing conversation about what we do and how we do it?”
“Developing a mission statement takes individual and collective openness to listening. A pastor could declare, ‘This is the mission,’ but it may not resonate the people of the community, or it may not connect to the larger world that the church is in service to,” says Weyandt.
To craft a meaningful mission statement, institutions should “try to engage as many voices as you can…veterans of the community, newbies. Sometimes it’s even more important to go outside your institution. What might local leaders or leaders in other faith traditions have to say? It’s synodality,” she says.
Few mission statements are built to last for millennia—arguably, only Jesus’s Great Commission is. Especially when an institution has undergone significant change—new leadership, a merger or union with another institution, or a major event like the pandemic—it’s important to listen anew to articulate the mission in this new season. An effective mission statement needs to be carefully discerned and reconsidered over the course of an institution’s life. Periodic discernment and revisioning helps an institution’s mission statement stay relevant and avoid falling into the trap of “we’ve always done it this way” thinking.
The above examples show how vital a thoughtful mission statement is in articulating mission and serving the community in which an institution is located. In Weyandt’s words: “Mission statements are important because the bearers of Catholic identity are all of us. As the church continues to evolve, it’s all of us. We need to be clear on our identity, our purpose. The mission isn’t some invention of our own, but what the Holy Spirit reveals as our collective call.”
Image: Unsplash/Chad Greiter