Thursday, February 02, 2012

Biting Off More Than You can Chew

A favorite expression in my family of origin was, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”  It was not used just at the dinner table but also as a reminder that sometimes we attempt more than we are capable of completing.  I thought of this when I heard someone use the term "mission creep" recently.

Wikipedia defines “mission creep” as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original   goals, often after initial successes. Mission creep is usually considered undesirable due to the dangerous path of each success breeding more ambitious attempts, only stopping when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs.”  Journalists coined the term in reference to the United States’ disastrous involvement in Somalia in the 1990s, but it can be used to describe our nation’s experiences in  Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq as well as Somalia.  Our intentions were good, we invested lives and resources in the fight, but we were in over our heads.

“Mission creep” or “getting in over your head” is tragic when it happens in military actions, but we often experience this in other settings as well.  A good example is higher education where a four year school begins to offer degrees at the masters level, then wants to move on to offering doctorates without regard to the need of constituents or the resources available.  Churches do it when they decide that they have to adopt certain programs, develop new ministries, and construct new buildings in order to “give people what they need” and sacrifice their mission in the process. 

From personal experience, I saw this happen in the program of Baptist student (or collegiate) ministries.  Baptists worked to get ministries on large university campuses that were well staffed, adequately funded, and housed in comfortable facilities.  Then the regional schools began to grow and they wanted the same thing.  So what happened when the community colleges flourished?  They needed full time ministers, program budgets and buildings as well.  Much good work was and is done with such an approach, but we should stop and ask the question “Is such a model feasible and sustainable?”

The key idea (and it is a dangerous one) seems to be this:  “If you are going to be a real (fill in the blank), you need to . . . ."  In recent years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has struggled with this concept.  Although CBF has denied wanting to be a denomination for much of its history, there has been an inexorable move to adopt more of the trappings of a full-service denomination and this has often taken more time, money, and people power than anticipated.

When a college, church, denomination, or ministry is threatened with “mission creep,” perhaps the organization should stop and ask these questions: 

  1. What are the basic needs of your situation, context, or constituency? 
  2. What are you (and your organization) really gifted to do?
  3. Can you state clearly the desired outcome?
  4. Is anyone else already doing it? (If so and they are doing it well, stop here!)
  5. What resources are at your disposal?
  6. Will you know when you have reached your desired outcome or goal?  How?

Organizations have the same struggle that we have as individuals.  Our choice is not between the bad and the good but between the good and the best.  There are so many things to be done and so little time.  Wise people set priorities and follow through until those priorities are achieved.  Wise organizations might well do the same.


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