Since my first hearing of the term “Shadow Mission” I have been struck with how relevant this discovery has been for coaching individuals and congregations. John Ortberg, the Senior Minister of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, spoke about such a mission at The Leadership Summit in Chicago a few years ago. This concept resonates strongly with me because I have experienced this “alternative mission” both in my personal life and in the life of congregations I have served. I am grateful for Ortberg’s framing of such an important dynamic.

Just about everyone on the face of the earth is familiar with the push for organizations to have a concise, concrete, and clarifying mission statement. Mission statements are plastered on the walls of coffee shops, auto repair establishments, and board rooms of the largest businesses in the world. Our car broke down a few years ago in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The radiator in our 150,000 mile Volvo sprung a leak on the busiest street in the central business district. The closest radiator repair shop was in Sevierville, just a few miles away but through hundreds of stop lights (it seemed!). I was grateful to find a place that would take our ailing Swedish automobile on such short notice. When I walked into the waiting room of the repair shop I was met with a mission statement painted in large red lettering on the wall, “ King’s Radiator Shop , A Great Place to Take a Leak!” Perhaps more of a slogan than a mission statement, but you can’t miss the point! It’s been almost 17 years since our visit to Gatlinburg and I have never forgotten King’s Radiator.

If you don’t have a mission statement these days you may as well shutter up your establishment no matter the particular genre. Certainly the Church has been an avid consumer of this notion. I know pastors and staff members who have lost jobs because they could not settle on the “right” mission statement for a congregation.

It’s not easy to establish a meaningful mission statement in a congregation. It takes a great deal of conversation, synthesization, prayer, and discernment. Plain and simple it’s just hard work. Developing a mission and vision statement for churches is of utmost importance, however, the most difficult challenge facing a church on mission is knowing the difference between “the mission” and the “shadow mission”.

Countless numbers of churches have produced outstanding mission/ vision statements over the last several years. These statements appear on the website, the church sign in front of the buildings, on bulletin covers, coffee mugs, church publications, wrist bands and even bottle openers! While the entire congregation may be well aware of the stated mission, the behavior of the congregation may demonstrate something entirely different from the formal stated agenda. This diversion is not always easy to detect because as Ortberg says,

“A shadow mission is an authentic mission that has been derailed, often in imperceptible ways. Part of what makes the shadow mission so tempting is that it’s usually so closely related to our gifts and passions. It’s not 180 degrees off track; its just 10 degrees off track.”

For instance, let’s say the mission of First Church is “ To Love God, Love People, and Make Disciples”.

First Church can point to numerous sermon series aimed at reinforcing this mission, classes that support discipleship teaching, various mission outreach projects which demonstrate the love of God for people who need help, and a vigorous engaging small group initiative dedicated to practicing the love of Christ from one to another. If someone were to visit the church they would see success written all over the place; the numbers are up, people are joining every month, and the sanctuary is pleasantly filled every Sunday. Everything is good, right? Wrong.

What we have been slow to learn is that success in church life as we typically measure it can mask a myriad of dysfunctional behaviors.  The dysfunction is the result of living out the “shadow mission” instead of the “authentic God given mission.”

First Church may be doing many things well, but it has an underlying set of mission objectives that no-one wants to admit or talk about. What might those objectives look like?

In the midst of doing many things well, one of the unspoken missions might be to do things well with only a “certain” segment of the population; in this case with the “most” successful kinds of people. “Our” kind of people. Another is peace at all costs. In this case healthy conflict is discouraged and labeled as “poor manners” so honest conversations or daring conversations are never held, thus real progress is thwarted. The church may advertise the “Love of God for All People” but certain kinds of people do not feel welcome at First Church. The “shadow mission” alters the meaning and truth of the stated mission and ultimately dilutes the original purpose intended. The list goes on…

“Shadow missions” ultimately exhaust us. Typically they are prone to create an internal focus over an external focus. Whatever success may be happening in the present can be undermined long term by being just 10 degrees off course.

The worst byproduct of straying off the “authentic mission path” is ultimately the loss of meaning and real joy which can only come when we know our “true” path and stay the course.

Know your shadow side!

Randy Ashcraft
Randy Ashcraft has served as a Senior Minister in congregations across the United States for over 30 years. He currently serves as Pastor in Residence at the Virginia Baptist Mission Board specializing in Ministerial Health and Wellness, and Contemplative Spirituality. He is a certified Thomas Concept instructor and received his training in coaching through the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Texas Christian University where he received a Doctor of Ministry degree with an emphasis in transitional leadership. Randy and Ann are the principals at REDclay Concepts, a leadership and coaching organization focused on strategic planning, non profit board development, and executive coaching. REDclay works primarily in the health care field with clients such as Bon Secours and Inova Health Care System of Northern Virginia. Randy also works as a Congregational Engagement consultant for Bon Secours, Richmond. He currently serves on the Duke Divinity School Baptist House Board and is a member of Metro Ministers, a peer learning community promoting ministerial excellence. Randy is married to Ann, and resides in Richmond, Va. He is a coach for CHC.