Cracking Your Congregation's Code: Mapping Your Spiritual DNA to Create Your Future / Edition 1

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Discover your unique strengths and values — and what God wishes for the future of your church.

All congregations want to thrive and remain vibrant — but it's not always easy. Many approaches to growth and renewal don't quite fit, because they don't take into account the "spiritual DNA" of the congregation — those intrinsic characteristics that give each congregation its unique identity. Cracking Your Congregation's Code provides a practical program for reaching the heart of what must be done to survive and thrive. This unique book guides clergy and lay leaders to create or revisit their mission, vision, and values. The authors' proven, field-tested change process will help congregations in any setting refocus on what really matters in ministry: welcoming, nurturing, empowering, and serving new and current members.

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
"Finally . . . an honest look at why organized religion is losing members and why it needs to use twenty-first century marketing to make church relevant and attractive. Southern and Norton have written a primer that is must reading for not only pastors but for those who want to fill a spiritual void. It is obvious to me, a general assignment reporter who has covered religious issues, that the two authors truly have their fingers on the pulse of what's needed to bring people back to church. A thought provoking and uplifting book." —Vic Lee, reporter, KRON TV, San Francisco

"Seminaries, denominational leaders, and ministers have a sacred charge to grow the membership of the church. Norton and Southern provide an outstanding-and proven-strategy for teaching both clergy and lay people to accomplish this mission." —The Rev. Robert Warren Cromey, trustee of the General Theological Seminary, New York, New York

"Norton and Southern offer real help to mainline churches seeking health and growth." —Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., Denver Area— The United Methodist Church, Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, Yellowstone Annual Conference

"If your congregation seeks to grow in spiritual depth and vital ministry this book is an invaluable resource, at once visionary and practical, deeply challenging and empowering. Let it help you transform your congregation, and your congregation will grow." —The Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs, executive director, United Religions Initiative

"Southern and Norton are a reliable source for innovative ideas about the changing nature of the contemporary church, and they have a deep understanding of the role congregations play in American society." —Eva Spiegel, ACFnewsource project manager, American Communications Foundation

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780787955335
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 9/24/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Southern and Robert Norton launched Church Development Systems, a nonprofit organization and consulting practice in 1990. Together they have advised, coached, and led hundreds of congregations on the path to renewal and growth.

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Read an Excerpt

Cracking Your Spiritual Code

Growing into Who You Are

There's more to your congregation than meets the eye. Just as the human organism inherits certain genetic traits, characteristics, and dispositions that in combination make up the whole person, so your congregation has a complex inheritance. Many factors, including denominational, liturgical, and cultural inheritance, go into making it what it is. Author Ken Wilber says that "to understand the whole, it is necessary to understand the parts. To understand the parts, it is necessary to understand the whole."

Your Spiritual Inheritance

Nearly two millennia have passed since St. Paul identified the Church as "the body of Christ." He then went beyond metaphor by using the human body as an analogy. Paul wrote, "Our bodies don't have just one part. They have many parts." These parts, he said, cannot act independently. They must work in a harmonious relationship to keep the whole body healthy.

Suppose, he wrote, a foot says, "' I'm not a hand, and so I'm not part of the body. ' Wouldn't the foot still belong to the body? Or suppose an ear says, 'I'm not an eye, and so I'm not part of the body. ' Wouldn't the ear still belong to the body? If our bodies were only an eye, we couldn't hear a thing. And if they were only an ear, we couldn't smell a thing. But God has put all parts of our body together in the way he decided is best!" (1 Corinthians 12: 14-18). Paul was quite clear that the Church--the body of Christ--is a living organism, with specific, identifiable parts that work together for the good of the whole.

Congregations, of course, read Paul's words frequently. But are the words understood as poetic metaphor or as a practical, real-time model for the Church? Evidence indicates that the poetic approach wins out. There is a long history of thinking of the Church as an organization dependent on others for its life, rather than as an organism in which life already exists. This organizational model has become so deeply ingrained that changing it requires a profound shift in consciousness, one that compels us to rethink the very nature of the Church.

Denominational Inheritance

The principles we've described as significant in discerning your congregation's spiritual DNA are applicable to religious traditions. A denomination passes on its own inherited spiritual DNA--those characteristics, beliefs, and cultural features that create a public identity as well as a connecting link to its congregations. Let's highlight a few of the inherited genetic traits of some mainstream denominations.

Lutherans stress the importance of Word and sacrament. The Bible is the written witness of God's revelation. One is saved by grace through faith. Episcopalians, in a theologically diverse Church, uphold the importance of liturgy and the centrality of the Eucharist, as received through The Book of Common Prayer. United Methodism is committed to the importance of faith and works, through Christian living and social justice. Presbyterians hold that the true church is where the gospel is truly preached and heard in a community that values stately worship and intellectual achievement. The United Church of Christ's heritage features appreciation for the way God has worked in the past, while recognizing the continuing need for adapting the work of ministry to the needs of our time. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) emphasizes Christian unity based on Scripture and has a strong sense of ecumenism. The Reformed Church in America, the oldest Protestant body with uninterrupted ministry, treasures its past, but it has provided innovative ministries through the work of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. At the Reformation, Baptists sought restoration of the first-century Church and in doing so stressed individual conscience in the light of Scripture rather than creedal uniformity.

These historic bodies, and those congregations that have grown out of the New Thought movement, do have inherited differences. Yet they have even more in common, in their challenges, strengths, and resources. To map their future, it is important to be aware of the past and, of course, the present.

How Environment Affects Your Spiritual DNA

Spiritual DNA does not exist in a vacuum; nor is it subject only to its own internal heritage. It is also affected by environmental factors. Perhaps there are no longer any children or younger families in the community. The neighborhood has changed, but a congregation's core constituency has not. A congregation assumes that its desired target audience exists in the geographical area, when it fact it does not. Clearly, your environment can affect the growth of a ministry in your congregation, even if the ministry reflects your spiritual DNA. The circumstances and conditions by which you are surrounded do make a difference.

Environment can affect your mission and vision in other ways as well. One client congregation felt a strong commitment to serve the physically challenged. This reflected their values, and the congregants saw it as a compelling way to implement their mission; it was in alignment with their spiritual DNA. As they were exploring ways to bring this into reality, it became clear that there was a major environmental impediment. The church architect had placed all the restrooms on the second floor! The congregation did not have the financial resources to build restrooms on the street level, nor did they have funding for an elevator. So they had to be realistic and put their dream on hold; the environment did not support ministry to the disabled at that time.

You CanChange Your DNA

Today, scientists are close to being able to monitor, modify, alter, and repair our human genetic makeup. The genetic makeup of the body of Christ can also be modified. Ordination of women is a case in point.

In 1853, Antoinette Louisa Brown was ordained as minister of First Congregational Church in Wayne County, New York. She was the first woman ordained in a mainstream American denomination. By 1893, the Congregationalists had nine women in ordained ministry. Baptists and the Disciples of Christ ordained several women by the mid-nineteenth century. Attainment of women's suffrage in 1920 signaled a new era, but most tradition-bound denominations remained steadfastly opposed to the idea of women in the ordained ministry. By the mid-1950s, however, thinking had changed; and in 1956 Methodists and Presbyterians granted full clergy rights to women. By 1970, two Lutheran bodies authorized women's ordination. Episcopalians began ordaining women to the priesthood and the episcopate in 1977. The old genetic makeup of these denominations was modified and altered. Because new genetic material was introduced, their spiritual DNA has been forever altered.

Spiritual DNA can also be modified by denominational merger. Examples are the formation of the United Church of Christ in 1957, the United Methodist Church in 1968, the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1983, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988. These mergers moved forward in relative harmony because the spiritual DNA of the bodies involved was compatible. Not all congregations from the participating denominations, though, went along with these historic actions. They asserted that as a result of the merger, they were now the keepers of "the faith once delivered"--possessors of the true DNA--and they banded together to form "continuing" denominations.

Sometimes, despite apparent similarities, differences run deep. Here's a prime example. The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have many commonalities. They share historical Reformation links. Their liturgies are similar. They take communion in one another's parishes and celebrate the Eucharist with each other. So closely have they worked and dialogued together for more than thirty years that someone, with tongue in cheek, has suggested that if a merger ever does take place the members might be called "Lutherpalians." Both denominations took a major step forward in 1999-2000 by entering into "full communion" to work closely in common mission, starting new ministries, and supporting struggling congregations. Full communion, however, is not merger. So, why, with such an amicable relationship, don't they form one large denomination?

On the surface it looks fine, but as we have noted, there's more here than meets the eye. There are significant differences in their spiritual DNA, stemming largely from each denomination's understanding of ministry. Episcopalians view the historic episcopate, as it has been passed down from apostolic times, as being a vital and necessary part of their spiritual DNA. Lutheran spiritual DNA is centered in the Word, and power and authority in the Church resides in the Word alone. It is no small matter for either side to alter its identity, and it remains to be seen whether they can modify their DNA sufficiently to eventually become one.

Such is the power of inherited spiritual DNA. Let's turn our attention now to those genetic elements that all congregations, regardless of denominational or environmental inheritance, must understand.

Your Core Values

The first step toward cracking your congregation's code is to agree on your core values: the beliefs that define your very essence as a congregation. Your values show how you respect others, what you hold in highest regard, and what you want to hold on to. They determine how you go about building the kingdom of God.

Values Are Clear, Not Vague

Mainstream congregations tend to be generous in their worldview, in their missional giving, and in their openness to the ideas of others. They are particularly generous in their willingness to go to any length not to offend. They would agree with Philippians 4: 8 that we should never "stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise." Yet when asked to venture past the thinking stage--to be specific and define exactly what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise--most people tend to get a little vague: "We stand for all values. You name 'em--love, trust, courage, beauty, integrity, and so on--we love 'em all." And they do.

So if a congregation loves 'em all, why specify and define core values? Because there is often a gap between what is held up as a high ideal and what is done in actual practice. In other words, a congregation doesn't always carry out the ideals it espouses. This is not intentional. It is typically the result of lack of clarity as to how the values are implemented through ministry. Lack of clarity inevitably results in wrangling, disagreement, and dissension. An "honest to God, this really happened" example, we feel, makes the point.

Pastor Jeff led a congregation made up largely of folks of Scandinavian origin who felt very strongly about diversity as a core value of their congregation. They talked extensively about diversity in general terms, though they had never defined it and, as far as the pastor was concerned, didn't truly practice it. When Jeff suggested that they reach out to some of the minority groups in the area, there was mild interest but no specific activity to do so. When a biracial couple attended the church, they were largely ignored.

Jeff was confused. How can the congregation claim to hold diversity as a core value yet not seem willing to practice it? The more he brought up the subject, the deeper the resistance and dissension. He called us in and told us the story. We asked him a simple question: Had the members of the congregation ever defined what they meant by the word? He gave a typical mainstream answer: "Why should we? We know what it means. It's obvious to anybody what diversity means. And if these folks really believed it, we'd see it reflected in the makeup of the congregation on Sunday mornings."

Still we suggested he discuss it openly. He chose his Bible class as a test case. He asked them if they truly believed in diversity. Yes, they replied. He asked if the congregation practiced it? Of course, they said. "Well," he asked them, "where is this diversity? I don't see it." "Why, Pastor," someone said, quite seriously, "look around this group. We are a diverse congregation. We have Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes. That's diversity."

Clarity about what diversity meant came from their discussion. This incident is illustrative of why defining each core value as carefully as possible is worth the effort. (Oh, by the way: Jeff now happily pastors a multiracial congregation that defines diversity in much the same way he does.)

Clear Values Equal Clear Decisions

Your values form the basis for developing policy and procedure, for creating cohesiveness and teamwork, for developing ministry activity that serves the congregation and the community. They help you make proper choices when conflict arises, and they provide strength and guidance in good times and bad. They help you decide where to invest your time, how to act, and on what to concentrate your resources and energy. You move forward on projects that properly promote your core values, and discard those that do not. Core values indicate what you will do, and they also dictate what you should not do.

Values vary from congregation to congregation. Your values help attract to you those who share them. Values reflect what you stand for and what you hold to be significant. They communicate to newcomers what they can expect if they join you. Clearly communicated core values foster loyalty and commitment among everyone associated with the congregation.

The number of values you can rack up is not so important as the clarity you bring to those central values around which there is consensus. The values should mirror your current reality, as well as the vision of what the congregation aspires to achieve in the future. They don't have to say everything that is important to the congregation, but they should highlight its unique priorities.

Discerning your core values is a three-step process:

1. Identify those three to five values that are an essential part of the life and work of your congregation.

2. Define--in writing--exactly what each of these values means in the life of your congregation.

3. Prioritize them, because they have varying degrees of importance and meaning in the life of your congregation.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul provides an excellent example of this process in his discussion of a particular core value: love. First, he identified its importance with these words: "What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels? If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (v. 1).

Second, he then defined what love is (vv. 4-8): "Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude. Love isn't selfish or quick tempered. It doesn't keep a record of wrongs that others do. Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil. Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting. Love never fails!"

Finally, he prioritized love as a core value when he stated (v. 13) that "for now there are faith, hope, and love. But of these three, the greatest is love." This is an example of high-level clarity.

We asked a client congregation to identify three to five strongly held values; they chose integrity, freedom, spiritual growth, and honesty. Then we asked them to define each value by asking themselves, What does this value mean in the life of the congregation? This is an important step, because most of us assume basic values without questioning them. These congregants were no exception, replying, "Why waste our time? We all know what those words mean." We insisted. Once they began the process of defining their values, they realized that, as with Pastor Jeff and his congregation, they had quite different ideas about what these words actually meant in practice. One member thought that honesty meant being confrontational about what he thought was wrong, while another felt that it didn't include anything that might be perceived as aggression toward other members. It soon became apparent that they had to define values in terms of specific behavior. By doing this, they moved beyond the assumption that "everybody knows" to a practical level, defining their values as behavioral standards for congregational activity. Once they got it, they could move to the next step: prioritizing their values in order of importance to help the congregation determine which areas of ministry to concentrate on first.

Core values precisely reflect who you are. Therefore once you have determined your core values, you must do these four things:

1. Make sure that they are stated clearly.

2. Put them in written form for all to read.

3. Ensure that they are widely known and owned by every member of the congregation.

4. Review and discuss them frequently to keep them before the congregation.

In Part Three, the strategic mapping section of this book, we go into a process of how you can discern your congregation's core values.

Your Mission

Although mission and vision are equal, we have found it practical to concentrate on discovering a congregation's mission as the next step in strategic mapping. Why? Because your mission is your congregation's fundamental reason for being. All ministry activities must be in alignment with it. The mission also takes into account those whom you can serve with quality, and how you serve them. Without this definite commitment to purpose, the visioning process can easily get off track and become little more than a blue-sky exercise.

The Great Commission of the Church

One of Jesus' last acts was to give a specific mission to his followers and to those they would empower: "Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world" (Matthew 28: 19-20). There are also four other versions: "Go preach the good news to everyone in the world" (Mark 16: 15); "You must tell everything that has happened" (Luke 24: 48); "I am sending you, just as the Father has sent me" (John 20: 21); and "You will tell everyone about me everywhere in the world" (Acts 1: 8). The quote from Matthew, the most complete and concise, is referred to as the Great Commission of the Church. There is disagreement as to whether these are Jesus' actual words, but there is wide acceptance that they are the underpinning of, and the marching orders for, what the Church is called upon to do.

These five citations all add up to one essential point: the disciples were charged with an assignment to preach the good news of the kingdom of God they had heard Jesus preach, the good news that John the Baptizer had preached earlier. The disciples, and those who came after them, did as they were charged. They went to the people of all nations, they preached, they taught, they baptized, and they made disciples, and as they did so the Church grew and prospered. Like the sons of Issachar, the disciples were clear as to their purpose: they "knew the right time to do what needed to be done" (1 Chronicles 12: 32).

The Great Commission in the Twenty-First Century

Today, the Church is redefining itself and its concept of how it should carry out its purpose. Let's be clear: its mission has not changed; what is changing are the ways in which the mission is carried out.

As once-prominent mainstream denominations appear to wane, congregations are faced with declining numbers and lack of direction. In Toward 2015: A Church Odyssey, Richard Kew and Roger White indicate that by 2015 most congregations with less than 250 members will be unable to do effective ministry--if they exist at all. Moreover, they suggest that if the present downward trend continues, 60 percent of all existing Christian congregations, regardless of current size, will disappear before the year 2050. These breathtaking statements beg the question, "Why is this happening?" Kew and White assert that one of the central reasons is lack of purpose, or mission, in this postmodern era.

If this is the case, why don't congregations do whatever is necessary to clarify their reason for existence? Because, we feel, there are no clear ideas of how best to present the good news in today's world. Part of the challenge lies in our age-old ambiguity about what constitutes the "people of all nations." Mission is still seen as essentially for them and not for us. "They" are conveniently located in far-off places, on the continents of Africa, Asia, and South America, or on some obscure and remote islands in the South Pacific. American and Canadian congregations find it hard to think of "us" as in need of mission.

The Great Commission certainly includes far-off places, but we feel equally certain that it was intended to include us, where we are--right here, right now, in our communities, schools, places of work, and families. Now, as much as they did in earlier times, congregations seek meaning about what God is calling them to do. This requires a clear purpose.

Been There? Done That?

You are probably shaking your head and thinking to yourself, Here we go again. We've heard it a thousand times. We've already done the work, and we do have a mission statement. OK, let's make a deal. If you can answer yes without hesitation to these questions, skip this section and head straight for the next part (vision).

  • Is your mission statement in total alignment with your stated and defined values?
  • Does your mission describe who you are as a community of faith? Does it commit you to transformation? Does it indicate how you will carry this out?
  • Are all the actions and activities of your congregational life in alignment with your values and mission?
  • Is your mission owned by a majority of your congregation? Can the members state the heart of the mission, if asked?

If you answered no to at least one of these questions, you're not alone. Many congregations have written mission statements but don't have a mission. A typical scenario runs like this. The leaders hear that it's important to have a mission statement, so a committee is formed. They spend time thinking about, and crafting, a lengthy, skillfully worded statement. They might have it printed and put on display for a while, and then it ends up collecting dust in a file cabinet. It has become just a piece of paper--a mission statement without a real mission--and the congregation ends up more confused about its identity than it was before they started the process. We've seen this happen many times.

We were called to work with a large and active parish. We got right into the spiritual DNA. The core values exercise went well; they did a good job and were rightly proud of their work. When we turned to mission, however, a team member raised his hand and said, politely but firmly, "You can save us all a lot of time and skip over this section. We've done it." Another team member pointed to the wall behind us and said, "If you'll just look behind you, you'll see our mission." We turned around and caught sight of a beautifully hand-lettered document that had the look of an ancient illuminated manuscript. It was double-matted and mounted in a large gilt frame. "See," she continued, "that's been handled." The team's heads all nodded affirmatively in a gotcha attitude.

We congratulated them on a wonderful piece of art and asked the team to turn their chairs a quarter turn so that they faced away from the mission statement. We then asked them a simple question: "Without looking back, would someone please tell us what the mission of this congregation is?" We got a few brave tries, but it was evident to everyone--pastor included--that no one could respond meaningfully. Yes, they had a beautifully framed mission statement, but they did not have a mission. If their mission had been encoded into the life of the congregation, they would have known it and shared it with us easily.

Few congregations understand what mission really is or how to create for themselves a mission statement that is viable and coherent. Kew and White comment: "Mission is not a tail to be pinned as an afterthought onto the rear-end of the ecclesiastical donkey. From now on mission must be the central organizing principle of all the local parish is and all it does. Once this point has been firmly established, then it becomes blatantly obvious that all our structures should be geared to enabling mission: if they are not, we must question whether they have any right to continue existing--and, in the process, devouring increasingly precious resources, time, and talents." (italics in original)

Mission is what motivates and inspires a congregation to do God's work. Marcia Sutton, minister, teacher of clergy, and a respected spiritual director, observes that organizing around a less substantial purpose is like inviting people to a banquet where there is no main course. A congregation with an "appetizer" approach to ministry is likely to believe its growth is tied to structure rather than to substance, to organization and not organism, and to program instead of purpose. The Church does, in fact, offer a magnificent main course: the transformation of individuals, communities, and our world, through a life-changing encounter with the sacred. In "The Rise of Integral Culture," Paul Ray finds that 24 percent of our population--some forty-four million people--whom he calls "cultural creatives" are looking for just that. A mission therefore must offer and celebrate it.

Unfortunately, this has not been communicated clearly by congregations, and many people have turned to secular institutions to fill their needs. Robert Forman, in "Report of Grassroots Spirituality," calls this our "ABC" environment: "anything but the church." Secular institutions do much good and deserve our support, but they do not share the Church's commitment to offer transformation through disciple making. Clarity about the mission of the congregation points the growth effort in the right direction; coupled with core values, this clarity is a starting place for the strategic mapping process.

The Benefits of a Real Mission Statement

"Sell them on the benefits" has been a truism in business for decades. Convincing a congregation about the value of a mission statement has not always been easy, but once people get it, things happen. Look at these sample comments:

"It's now so clear to us. Our mission spells out who we are and where we're going."

"Our mission compels us constantly to ask, 'What matters most to us? '"

"We've discovered the fundamental reason for our existence."

"For the first time, we have a consistent focus from which to proceed."

Perhaps the ultimate benefit of a well-defined mission is that it gives you direction for being a faithful congregation, just as the rudder of a ship holds the vessel steady through rough times by keeping it on its true course.


congregation without a well-defined mission lacks purpose. This conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, says it all:

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where--" said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"--so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if only you walk long enough."

Like Alice, many congregations don't seem to know where they are headed, or what they will do once they reach "somewhere," or more important, why they are going there in the first place.

Four Qualities of a Good Mission Statement

A good mission statement has four distinguishing qualities: it's unique, it reflects the congregation's values, the congregants buy into and own it, and they feel accountable to it.

Your Mission Is Unique

A well-stated mission allows seeking people to make comparisons, to see how and why your congregation is different from others in the community, thus helping them decide whether this is the spiritual place for them. Unique, by the way, doesn't necessarily mean that you offer something that no other congregation offers, but rather that you make an effort to inform people of the opportunities for transformation available to them through your congregation.

Your Mission Reflects Your Values

Your mission statement must reflect your values, value by value. Like an interlocking puzzle, mission and values must agree, so that once in place they allow you to see (envision) the whole picture.

Buy-In and Ownership

An effective congregation starts out with a clear mission. But unless it is constantly clarified in response to change, the mission can quickly be forgotten--or worse, become irrelevant. It's necessary to build a culture of ownership. You can't impose a mission statement from the top down, but you can keep putting the idea out to the congregation until they own it. "Americans are, by nature, rugged individualists, with strong personalities," writes management consultant John Grinnell. "We've got to know 'why' and [then] 'buy-in' to a concept." We've rarely seen anything done well unless people were committed to it. Everyone--especially those in a leadership position in the congregation--needs to buy into the mission statement. Part of their buy-in is the ability to articulate it, if not word for word then at least its essence.

Accountability to the Mission

With buy-in and ownership comes accountability. To what or whom are people and teams accountable? How can accountability be measured? The first step in accountability is to be clear about boundaries. Of course, your spiritual DNA sets up the ultimate boundaries. As Anthony De Mello said, like a river, spiritual DNA creates its own banks and its own natural flow. Let your potential leaders know, before they accept a position of leadership, that your ministry activities are not disjointed stand-alones, that there are no Lone Rangers in your congregation, that everyone is accountable.

A good beginning is to create a written job description stating the purpose and function of every ministry activity, a description that contains a statement of how the activity, and the leaders of that activity, support (are accountable to) your mission. It gives the congregation a tool by which it can measure whether the activity is doing what it is designed to do. If not fulfilling its promise, the activity should be discontinued. Let's be clear on what we mean by job description. We're not suggesting that you get overly bureaucratic and create a maze of unnecessary paperwork. A job description in our context is a brief, succinctly written, permission-giving outline of a particular task.

Accountability isn't intended as a restrictive management technique that's imposed on a congregation. Accountability was clearly part of Jesus' ministry. He taught his followers, trained them, and reflected (followed up) with them. He sent them out on practice missions to give them experience in preaching and dealing with people, and they returned to Jesus, "and told him everything they had done and taught" (Mark 6: 30). At first, he set boundaries by limiting where they should evangelize. Later, in the Great Commission, those boundaries were expanded to include the whole world. Paul was equally clear that accountability was important, especially regarding behavior. He fully expected people not only to be able to talk the talk but to walk the walk, as demonstrated in their own personal lives.

Being accountable means that individuals are responsible for their actions. It means doing the best one can in any given situation. It means being responsible to the great trust that has been extended to the individual by the congregation. Accountability is an understanding by each individual, each group, each team, that all congregational activities are connected to a common mission, and that people and activities are working for the good of the whole.

Make It a Thoughtful Process

We North Americans are an impatient people. "Get that done by yesterday," we hear, which causes us to act in haste and often results in wasted effort and time.

Some parish leaders shared with us how they discovered that. They had spent a long day working on particularly thorny problems. Just before adjournment, someone reminded them of one final item on the agenda: a mission statement. They each grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled down some comments. They were too tired to be particularly creative, so they used standard "mission-type" words and phrases that didn't signify much but sounded good. Then they cobbled their efforts together into a few sentences. Someone pointed out that they had forgotten to include God, so they threw the word in for good measure, tweaked it some more, read it aloud, and pronounced it finished--all within thirty minutes. But did they have a real mission? Apparently not. When they later called us in to rescue them, they were despondent over their lack of common purpose.

Having spent the last decade reading mission statements, we can say with some authority that many missions are neither clear nor simply stated. A client congregation included the word covenant in its mission statement. It's a fine and appropriate word, but when we asked them what it meant, in the context of the life and work of the congregation, they couldn't tell us. After some probing, it turned out they'd heard it was the latest denominational buzzword and included it because it was trendy!

Say what you mean, and say it in standard language. It isn't necessary for people to ooh and ahh over the beauty of the language, but they must be able to understand it.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a friend, "I'm sorry that I didn't have time to write you a short letter." Powerful statements do not need to be long, nor do they need flowery language. Your mission statement should be concise, creative, descriptive, believable, understandable, motivating, achievable--and short. But keep Franklin's point in mind: brevity takes time.

The mission statement of Riverbend Church in Austin, Texas, is an excellent example: "Our mission is to reach out to the bruised, battered, broken, and bored of this world with a message of acceptance and grace from the God who loves them."

This congregation is not only united in its purpose--to reach out--but also clear about the target market. "The bruised, battered, broken, and bored" speaks eloquently to the image of the congregation as a place for souls yearning for transformation.

What is their offer of transformation? It's a message of love and acceptance. It's an offer that can be understood and appreciated by contemporary people who quickly get a sense of what River-bend Church is about.

Key Components of a Mission Statement

Every mission statement has three key components:

1. It defines identity (who you are).

2. It identifies transformation as the primary task (what you do) and often includes for whom.

3. It indicates how you will carry this out.

Let's look at these in relation to the Great Commission:

1. Define identity. The Church has a universality that encompasses everyone (" Go to the people of all nations . . .").

2. Primary task. The primary task of the Church is discipleship-- through the transforming love of God (". . . and make them my disciples . . .").

3. Carry through. How will this be carried out? Through bringing people into the life and work of the congregation (" Baptize them . . . and teach them all that I have taught you").

Note the concise language. The Great Commission is a condensed strategy for building the kingdom of God, and it clearly summarizes who, what, and how.

The mission statement of First United Methodist Church of Salem, Oregon, is: "We are a diverse and inclusive community of faith, seeking to follow the example of Jesus Christ by welcoming all to a walk with Christ, nurturing each other in Christian love, equipping people with a faith that works in real life, and serving God in the church, the community and the world."

By scanning their mission, we can see how they met the three-part criteria:

1. Define identity. How does First Church describe itself? As "a diverse and inclusive community of faith. . . ."

2. Primary task. How will transformation be effected? By "following the example of Jesus Christ. . . ."

3. Carry through. How will they do this? By "welcoming all to a walk with Christ, nurturing each other in Christian love, equipping people with a faith that works in real life, and serving God in the church, the community and the world."

This mission statement is clear and concise, and it tells us how First Church intends to build the kingdom of God.

We'll cover the how-to process of creating your mission statement as part of strategic mapping in Chapter Seven.

Your Vision of Your Future

Michelangelo's monumental David is an example of vision made palpable. Long before Michelangelo ever picked up his chisel and began carving, he had a vision: his thoughts, impressions, and ideas of what the rough marble block before him could become. We don't know how many forms of David were caught inside that marble block, or what form some other sculptor might have released from the same stone. We do know that the David that did emerge was born of Michelangelo's vision: a composite of all his thoughts, feelings, impressions, and ideas.

Seek God's Vision

Vision and mission are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct in an important way. Your mission and your core values are precise statements. Vision, on the other hand, is simple and evocative, and this simplicity can have a profound influence on the behavior of the congregation.

As you work to discern your vision, keep in mind that it is God's vision for you that you seek. "I reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams" (Numbers 12: 6, NIV). We believe that God speaks to us, and that we each perceive God's voice in different ways. Some hear it as an interior voice speaking to them; others feel it in persistent hunches, and gentle nudges. What you are looking for is what God has in mind for your congregation. True vision comes from beyond you and is always larger than life, yet is within you and is part of your congregational life. You must be captured by a vision of God's greatness, or you can never have a full and complete picture of your work. To paraphrase Proverbs 29: 18, where there is no vision, ministry perishes. Without a vision, you and your congregation can find yourselves going nowhere fast.

Vision causes you to answer these questions: "Are we doing this for our own glory?" "Are we missing something God is trying to tell us?" "Are we in danger of becoming proud and forgetting that whatever we are, or have accomplished, is through God's grace?" Vision begins with your spirituality, not with your work; it is from this spiritual encounter with God that you see the possibilities to which God is calling you. Perhaps, like Isaiah (6: 8), you will respond, "I'll go. Send me!"

What Is a Vision?

Like your mission, your vision reflects your core values. But unlike your mission, your vision can change and be replaced by a new desired state. A vision is a desired future reality, a hoped for result, that captures the heart and mind in such a compelling way that people are willing to commit their resources of time, talent, and treasure to make it a reality. A congregation's vision consists of those thoughts, ideas, and feelings that it really cherishes and brings into reality. It is a powerful mental image of what you want to create. It reflects what you care about most by focusing on what you want to accomplish within the boundaries set by your values and your mission. It is an ever-evolving mosaic of pictures that are the result of successfully implementing your mission.

In fact, all vision statements need further expansion, particularly as a congregation moves in the direction of the dream. As your vision evolves over time, you will want to revisit it periodically to ensure that it adequately reflects your direction; of course, it can be updated as necessary. A vision is about the community's well-being, now and into the future. It answers the question, What will success look like? It is the pursuit of this image that motivates people to work together. Stephen S. Wise summed it up beautifully in these words: "Vision looks inward and becomes duty. Vision looks outward and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upward and becomes faith."

We can also say that a vision paints a picture of the future. We've seen that Jesus painted word pictures of his vision of the kingdom of God. Two other familiar visions are those of the prophet Isaiah (11: 6-9) and Martin Luther King Jr. Both used rich imagery and everyday examples as they painted word pictures so real one can easily visualize them. Isaiah's picture was of a world of peace and harmony; he used traditional images of antagonists who would one day live side by side. King communicated his vision on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. "I have a dream," he said, and he too used rich imagery as he described a time when all people, regardless of race, would be equal. He painted a vision so compelling that America changed as a nation.

Similarly, a congregation uses images and metaphors to paint pictures that are intended to stimulate the imagination and draw the mind into a place filled with expectation, excitement, and wonder. Yet vision is more. It is a process that includes evaluating present conditions, identifying problem areas, and bringing about a general agreement on how to overcome problems and manage change for a better future. The truth is that so long as the congregation is healthy and alive, new paintings that reflect an overarching vision will be produced. Thereafter, specificity is introduced into these pictures of a desired future through goals and objectives.

How a Vision Can Become Reality

Let's look at how the vision process worked at Living Enrichment Center (LEC) in Wilsonville, Oregon, a church founded by senior minister Mary Manin Morrissey in 1974. We've worked with Mary and this congregation, and we tell this story in some detail to portray how a vision can progress from the dream stage to an actual envisioned reality. This is a story of inspiration and faith; above all, it's a story of keeping focused on the future. Jonathan Swift wrote, "Vision is the art of seeing things invisible."

For the first ten years, fifty was a good Sunday attendance for LEC. On some Sundays, Mary and her husband were the only members of the congregation. But as they began clarifying their purpose, attendance started to climb, and they moved from location to location to accommodate the growing congregation. By 1984, attendance was more than one hundred. Then it moved up to five hundred, and way up to twelve hundred. At that level, it was clear that they needed a permanent site, and planning began. Then Mary heard God say to her, "Don't build the building now; build people now." Finding a new location wasn't as important as knowing how God would unfold their next step, so after Easter 1991 they began a visioning process. They started with the transformational core of their mission: "healing lives and building dreams." How could they carry it out? What would this look like? They needed a format, so they used a storyboarding process.

They wrote the current year (1991) at one end of the storyboard and 1994 at the opposite end. This became their frame of reference as they began envisioning "pictures" of how they wanted their church to look and what they wanted it to be. All pictures were to be in the first person, so to speak, as though they were a reality now, following the promise of Jesus in Mark 11: 24: "Everything you ask for in prayer will be yours, if you only have faith."

It was exciting as people's pictures came into focus: "I see people coming from all over to attend services." "I see a wonderful sanctuary surrounded by acres of trees." "I see us working together in fun and fellowship." "I see a wonderful space for the children, and there's an outdoor play area, too." Others saw "spacious parking," "luscious, landscaped gardens," and "a large statue of Jesus with out-stretched arms." The children were included in the process, and from their vision perspective they saw a swimming pool in their ideal church. That gave people pause; a swimming pool?

They next turned their attention to that wide-open space on the storyboard between the two dates of Easter 1991 and Easter 1994. How would they get from where they were now to where they wanted to be in the future? Using four-by-six index cards, they named and listed every possible obstacle they could think of: finding land, hiring an architect, creating plans, raising money, getting permits, choosing furniture and carpeting. Later on, they would work on the specifics of these challenges, but for the purpose of this process they arranged their cards in order of accomplishment on the time line and created a storyboard for their dream. It was kept on display so the congregation could keep the dream before their eyes.

Did they know how they were going to reach their goal? Not at all. They had no land and little money. "What we did have," Mary says, "was our knowledge that the mind is a tool of vision, so we created a collective vision in our minds. Paul wrote, 'We live by faith, not by what we see. ' Faith means stepping out and taking one step at a time." In October 1991, the members of the congregation were asked to write vision statements for their spiritual home. All the statements were collected and read publicly. Among them:

We have a beautiful spiritual home, a campus with landscaping that reflects God's beauty, trees, flowers . . . meditation gardens with benches and resting places, and statues of holy people. . . .

Our spiritual home is large enough to serve our congregation with room for expansion. . . .

The sanctuary is a simple and yet elegant place in which to worship. . . .

We enjoy natural light streaming in to bless all in attendance. . . .

As the church's children are of high priority, we invest in lavish youth facilities and children's play areas. . . .

We have surplus parking for all the people who attend services, classes, support groups, and seminars. . . .

We have a kitchen large enough to meet the fellowship and special event needs of this dynamic congregation. . . .

The facilities are ecologically sound and environmentally pleasing.

The written statements were then crafted into a cohesive vision. Now that they had given specificity to their dream, they focused, in faith, and with only $100,000 in the building fund--not enough even for a down payment on a piece of property--they stepped out in faith and the search began. The power of vision is compelling; people came forward, new ideas were presented, and a site was located. It was a large rehabilitation center, located in Wilsonville, a suburb of Portland, built by the state at a cost of $8 million and up for sale. The congregation was able to work the asking price down from $4 million to $3 million, but they still needed $1 million to be able to move in. In just four months, two thousand visionary people pledged the $1 million, and the miracle happened: the congregation was able to move into its own home.

Did the specifics of their vision become a reality? You decide for yourself. The ninety-five-acre campus is surrounded by tall trees. There are nature trails winding through the trees. A large bronze statue of Jesus with outstretched arms, modeled after the Christ of the Andes, welcomes all people. The 97,000-square-foot building, large enough to serve four thousand people, houses a seven-hundred-seat sanctuary. There are lots of classrooms, play areas, a spacious bookstore, and a large industrial kitchen. Remember the kids' far-fetched vision? On site, there is an indoor swimming pool that's nearly Olympic size! The Sunday Children's Celebration attracts 250 kids. The campus has a retreat center available to church and civic groups, with cabins for overnight stays. There are beautifully landscaped gardens, there's a pond, a youth building, and plenty of parking. In keeping with their vision, the facilities are ecologically and environmentally sound. From a handful of people in the pastor's living room, they have become a "full-service" congregation operating seven days a week and ministering to thousands.

Happily, as we have just seen, a vision assists in seeing beyond today by producing a clear view of a new reality a congregation can create, and a process of how the reality will unfold. The paradox is that though vision draws us toward the future, its unfolding is experienced in the present.

So what is your dream, your vision, your picture of the future?

The Pastor as Vision Caster and Vision Bearer

The values, mission, and vision of the congregation must be consistently lifted up by the chief vision caster, the individual most responsible for articulating the spiritual DNA of the congregation: the pastor. As a vision caster, the pastor constantly reminds the congregants of who they are, what they believe in, and what God is calling them to become. The pastor is also a vision bearer, one who models the values that will make the vision--the dream of the future--a reality, and who creates unity of purpose by articulating them over and over in messages and sermons, and by painting the picture of the desired future.

For a pastor, vision casting has the potential to be a powerful aspect of communication. The great preacher Henry Ward Beecher once said, "The ability to convert visions to things is the secret of success." Vision expands the ability to see and acknowledge what is going on around you and in you. If the vision is to take hold and make a difference in your congregation's ministry, and ultimately in the lives of people, it must be heard, understood, and embraced by as many as possible. The importance of communicating cannot be overemphasized. Without buy-in and help from all relevant parties, chances of successful vision casting are slim. This is why the pastor's role is so important.

It's Tough to Cast a Vision When . . .

We often meet dispirited pastors who feel that they've somehow done something wrong because not many people are involved in the work of ministry, or because more haven't caught the vision of what the congregation can truly become. It's tough being a vision caster when the pastor ends up with responsibility for most aspects of ministry--from making all the pastoral calls to getting to the church early and brewing coffee for Sunday fellowship; from being responsible for greeting all the newcomers to being sensitive to the nurturing needs of existing congregants; from teaching the Bible class to vacuuming the carpet. Is this what vision casting is about, they ask?

Our advice to those pastors is not to be too hard on themselves. It's taken congregations decades to solidify the hierarchical top-down model where the pastor alone engages in ministry while congregants are largely passive. It's not possible, in a matter of a few months (or perhaps even years), to completely reverse this process. What can be done, however, is to make sure that the pastor and key lay-leaders have done some basic work of clarifying the congregation's spiritual identity--its DNA. Once this is done, the pastor is the primary vision caster who lifts up the dream of renewal and growth.

Success will come, but it's one day at a time. Remember, the congregation got to where it is one step at a time. It will move into the future the same way, one step at a time. Some prefer to stay put, stay secure. This is the time for pastor and leaders to begin listening when people say, "We can't do that," and work to transform and heal those can't-do-its to can-do-its. The pastor's crucial role, then, is to lift up the dream of a renewed future, even when congregants can't see where the future may take them.

As vision caster and vision bearer, there is no more effective rule a pastor can remember than that suggested by the German poet Goethe: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it." Why not begin it now?

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Table of Contents


The Authors.


Introduction: The Possibilities for Renewal and Growth.

Part One: Your Congregation's Spiritual Code.

1. Your Congregation's Spiritual DNA: Your Unique Identity.

2. Cracking Your Spiritual Code: Growing into Who You Are.

Part Two: Using "WelNES" Systems to Renew and Grow Your Congregation.

3. Come Right In: Your Welcoming System.

4. We're Here to Care: Your Nurturing System.

5. Yes, You Can: Your Empowering System.

6. How May We Help You? Your Serving System.

Part Three: The Strategic Mapping Process.

7. Creating Your Strategic Map to Take You Where You Want to Go.




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