The Subtle Danger of Mission Drift

“Without careful attention, faith-based organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission. It’s that simple. It will happen.”

So warn Peter Greer and Christ Horst in their new book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House). But why is “mission drift” so common among Christian ministries? How does it happen, and how can it be prevented? And by what metric do we determine whether an organization has remained resolutely—and likely counterculturally—“mission true”?

I corresponded with Greer and Horst, executive leaders of HOPE International, about sad stories, the role of $$$, InterVarsity’s trajectory, Albert Mohler’s leadership, and more.

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Why is “mission drift” such a problem for well-intentioned Christian ministries and charitable trusts?

In a survey of hundreds of Christian leaders at the 2013 Q conference in Los Angeles, 95 percent said mission drift was a challenging issue to faith-based nonprofit organizations. The reality of mission drift isn’t a surprise, but it’s surprising that organizations aren’t more proactively safeguarding the center of their mission.

Through our research we confirmed that mission drift is a pressing challenge for every faith-based organization. The zeal and beliefs of the founders are insufficient safeguards. There is no immunity, no matter how concrete your mission statement is. Or how passionate your leaders are. Or how much you believe it could never happen to you.

Relatively minor decisions, when compounded by time, lead organizations to an entirely different purpose and identity.

Many today might be surprised to learn Pew Charitable Trusts started with evangelical intent. What happened?

Alongside his siblings, J. Howard Pew launched the Pew Charitable Trusts with the wealth generated from their family oil business (Sun Oil, known today as Sunoco). Pew held strong Christian convictions and had a vocal wariness about the secularization of many American institutions—like Princeton and Harvard. He was a good friend of Billy Graham, and together they launched several new evangelical institutions, including Christianity Today and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Today, more than 40 years after Pew’s death, the Pew Charitable Trusts funds many organizations Pew himself eschewed, including Planned Parenthood and several Ivy League schools. What happened? In short, Pew’s convictions and values were hijacked by the agenda and values of the current board and staff. Don’t get us wrong, they still fund many worthy causes. But they aren’t embodying the mission and values of Howard Pew. They say so themselves. When asked why the Pew Trusts no longer supports Gordon-Conwell, an organization Pew founded, current Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel simply replied: “[Howard] was a man of strong convictions, and his successors on our board are following in his tradition by having strong convictions.”

The substance of those convictions, however, is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has received such broad criticism. Convictions don’t exist in a vacuum—they have to be about something. It’s akin to assigning a diehard Yankees fan to lead a Red Sox fan club simply because he’s passionate about professional baseball.

How does money tend to factor into the mission drift equation?

Through hundreds of hours of interviews with Christian leaders of organizations of all varieties, donor influence was identified time and again as a leading cause of drift. With almost any donation there are “strings attached.” In some instances donors—often corporate donors or government funders—will place prohibitions about how overtly Christian an organization’s work can be. Historically this restriction was perhaps most evidenced in Andrew Carnegie’s university funding, which disallowed “sectarian institutions” from receiving funding. Many colleges—including Brown and Dartmouth—cut ties with their founding Christian denominations to be eligible to receive Carnegie’s millions.

We’ve experienced this challenge at HOPE International, where we work, and it’s a daily reality for nonprofit leaders. At some point organizations must decide if their mission is for sale. Is financial growth the most important indicator of success?

You claim that InterVarsity “carries the same DNA it had in the beginning,” yet many believe the ministry has drifted leftward theologically over the years. How do we determine whether an organization has stayed true to its gospel mission?

No organization is immune from mission drift. In the book we outline challenges within our own institution. In defense of InterVarsity, they’ve been expelled from a number of college campuses because of the depth of their Christian conviction. In response to the difficulties they’ve faced, president Alec Hill said in an interview: “There are a lot of universities trying to derecognize us, but we have a Lord we have to obey.”

When you return to InterVarsity’s founding in England in the 1870s, you’ll learn about a group of Cambridge students who started Bible studies and prayer meetings on their campus. These students received harsh criticism from university officials because of their evangelistic orientation. More than 130 years later, why does InterVarsity exist? “To establish and advance at colleges and universities witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord,” their purpose statement reads today. Just like at their founding, they’ve received tremendous opposition to their mission from many university officials. This track record doesn’t mean “mission true” organizations like InterVarsity won’t ever change. But a good way of determining whether an organization has stayed true to its gospel mission is by comparing the modern-day institution with the story of its founding.

You point to Albert Mohler at Southern Seminary as an example of the “challenges leaders are up against when they return their organizations to their founding identities.” What can other institutions learn from Mohler’s leadership in this regard?

What Mohler demonstrated most clearly was that the best time to make hard decisions is now. It’s easy to ignore drift or push divisive decisions to tomorrow. Mohler wasn’t interested in a 50-year turnaround plan, however. Recognizing the school fading away from its founding, he made the painful decisions necessary to reclaim the founding mission of the institution. It wasn’t without a lot of controversy, however. At his inaugural convocation address, students hung a crude dummy—an effigy—in a tree outside the chapel in protest of his leadership. Mission-true leaders hold the values and mission of their institutions above the pushback they’ll receive for doing so.

When do the moments of greatest temptation to drift typically arise?

We chose the word drift intentionally. It has the image of slowly, silently, and with little fanfare carrying you away to a new destination. It’s not dramatic, and yet anyone who’s spent time on a boat of any size knows it happens.

It’s clichéd, but the moments of greatest temptation occur when you least expect it. We’ve felt the tug of secularization most when we’ve been enjoying seasons of growth. It’s so easy for success to cloud drift. But it’s always there. As Christian leaders, we must daily commit ourselves to protecting and celebrating what matters most in the institutions God has entrusted to us.

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