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Don't Write A Mission Statement - Tell A Story!

One of my favorite weekly reads is Mike Metzger's Clapham Commentary. In this commentary Mike talks about the pitfalls of the mission statement. If you've been in leadership, whether in the church or in the marketplace, you've probably written a mission statement. But is the "mission statement" the best way to capture people's hearts and imaginations?

Here is an excerpt:

Good stories are like Post-It Notes – they make things like mission statements sticky. “Ethnologists have shown that culture is transmitted mainly through stories – anecdotes, jokes – but not in formal doctrines or theories,” writes Stephen Denning. When CEO Howard Schultz was asked about Starbucks' growth, he reframed his answer as a story: “We’re not about filling stomachs but filling souls.” This story is a metaphor for Starbucks’ mission of creating a “third place.” You’ll remember Schultz’ story more than Starbucks’ mission. I’ll prove it.

Take this mission statement of a well known company (from Gary Yukl’s Leadership in Organizations): “We will create an empowered organization to unleash our creativity and focus our energies in cooperative effort; it will enable us to develop and build the best personal vehicles in the world, vehicles that people will treasure owning because they are fun to use, they are reliable, they keep people comfortable and safe, and they enable people to have freedom of movement in their environment without harming it.” OK, close your eyes right now and answer this question: how much of the nun story do you remember? How much of this mission statement can you repeat?

We’re famous for piling on tired cliches of management jargon - “empowered organization,” “unleash our creativity,” “principle-centered leadership,” and “passionate people” - that really mean very little to anyone. They’re not compelling because they don’t tell a story. “Stories are 'more true' than facts because stories are multi-dimensional,” writes Annette Simmons. “Truth with a capital 'T' has many layers. Facts need the context of when, who, and where to become Truths.”

When churches and other Christian institutions start writing mission statements, it is almost always a sign that they’ve already lost their mission, says James Burtchaell in The Dying of the Light. His study of how Christian colleges and universities abandon their religious identity over time uncovers the myth about mission statements. Of course Christians are called to a mission in the world. But highlighting the statement often indicates it’s become nothing more than a slogan. It’s an icon but isn’t sticking in our imagination. Only stories do that. ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time’ to reach the heart, writes Bill Pullman, author of His Dark Materials.

If you don’t buy the mission statement myth, ask yourself why you don’t have one hanging on a wall at home. Families transmit their culture through stories. My family wasn’t particularly good at storytelling yet one Thanksgiving weekend I remember my dad describing growing up in Chicago. He was born in 1929 – the year of the Great Depression. In high school he’d get up at three in the morning to fire up a coal burning oven for a storefront bakery. Have you been up at three on a February morning in Chicago? His story told me why working hard was part of our family culture.

When we tell stories about growing up, ancestors, vacations or places we’ve visited, we’re transmitting culture. The best doctors listen to patients’ stories as well as run tests. A rapid heartbeat can be caused by many things. Yet when a patient describes their hysterical fear of needles and hospitals, the culprit may have already been found.

(HT: Clapham Commentary)

Certainly the Bible has mission statements in it, i.e. Matthew 28:18-20. But the thrust of the scripture is about telling a story. It is God's story, and it is a story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. If you can choose between writing a mission statement or telling a story, tell a story!


That was very interesting Bill

I like most of what I read from Mike.

The power of a concise mission statement is that it can be used as a measuring stick for our actions. Mission Statements do not replace stories but help focus our energies on how to interpret the story. Christ's recitation of the two greatest commandments helps us understand the rest of what he had to say as he told parables and lived out his life before mankind: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'".

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