Since Peter Greer and Chris Horst wrote their inspirational book Mission Drift in 2014, Christian organizations have rightly focused on ways to remain true to their mission for the long term. Greer and Horst coined the term “Mission True” to denote organizations whose missions are truly their North Star. Inherent in the title of the book, and articulated throughout the chapters, is the assumption that organizations will default to drifting away from their mission—unless they intentionality guard that mission.
As I’ve traveled around North America talking with Christian school leaders, I’ve found that the language of “mission drift” has been widely adopted. While in different stages of implementation, many schools are working on developing the practices that Greer and Horst recommend—like proactively shaping their culture, hiring for heart and character, having a board of trustees that is laser-focused on the mission, cultivating mission-centered donorship, establishing mission-preserving rituals and practices, and staying connected to the local church as an anchor for their gospel-centered missions. Protecting against mission drift through these and related practices is essential for faith-based ministries and organizations. But guarding against mission drift isn’t enough.
More Than Preventing Drift
Four years after writing Mission Drift, the authors explained in their next book, Rooting for Rivals, that being “Mission True” takes more than protecting against drift:
- We’ve realized since writing Mission Drift that even if we get our own proverbial house in order, our broader mission will fail miserably if we stop there. We’ve come to believe that no matter how many guardrails we put in place or how many bylaws we draft to fend off drift, faith-based organizations cannot be Mission True unless they exist for a purpose beyond their own organizational borders. (22)
The problem with only protecting against mission drift is that organizations can become myopic—in other words, so focused on their own mission that they become disconnected from the larger Christian mission, both of the Great Commission to go make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor as self (Matthew 22:37). Once disconnected from this greater mission, organizations can become dangerously self-centered and even come to view others with a similar mission not as co-laborers in Christ, but as rivals.
As Greer and Horst explain, “Rooting for Rivals is an invitation to reject territorialism in pursuit of a higher, more compelling mission” (23). In short, Mission Drift and Rooting for Rivals should be read together; if we’ve only read one, we’re only getting half the picture of what it means to both preserve and ultimately fulfill our organizations’ God-given missions.
Considerations for Christian Schools
The implications for education are considerable, given that schools are often known more for competing—versus collaborating—with other schools. To shift from an organization-centric view to a larger sector-level view will be a challenge, but we already have evidence in the research that there are definite benefits when Christian schools collaborate well with others.
From communities of practice (Wenger 2000) to professional learning communities (DuFour and Eaker 1998) to networked improvement communities (NICs) (Bryk et al. 2015), much has already been documented about the benefits of inter-school collaborative approaches in education. Interestingly, research has clearly demonstrated the importance of kingdom-minded collaboration for students. ACSI’s Flourishing Schools Research found that at schools where leaders prioritized engaging the community—which includes other schools—alumni were more than twice as likely to report that they were continuing to walk with God (Swaner, Marshall, and Tesar 2019).
We may not fully understand why cooperation and partnership with those outside the school has a lasting positive impact on students, but here’s a hunch: when school leaders look beyond themselves and their own campuses to engage and serve others, opportunities result for students to see more of the gospel “in action.” As Greer and Horst explain, “We are not just building organizations…. We are participating in an eternal Kingdom. We are members of a community not marked by organizational boundaries but by the blood of our Savior… by self-sacrifice and love for those who could never repay Him” (20-21). Leaders who collaborate create opportunities to live out (versus merely protect) their missions in front of their students and school community. Theirs becomes a faith that is not just taught but also caught.
While collaboration does not come easily, Christian schools are already well-positioned to lead the way because of their shared faith and shared sense of mission. But expanding that sense of mission to encompass other schools and organizations will require intentionality. To this end, below are some action steps for you and your leadership team to consider.
- READ: If you’ve read only one of the two books discussed—either Mission Drift or Rooting for Rivals—read the other! If you’ve already read both, reflect on how they complement each other when it comes to fulfilling your school’s God-given mission.
- REFLECT: Consider gathering a group of leaders at your school (administrators as well as board members) and reflect on whether you are more collaborative or competitive with other schools. Be sure to consider how authentic any collaboration you do really is—for example if you already meet with other school leaders, how often is it to do meaningful work together?
- ASSESS: Make a list of the barriers in your school’s context, culture, or history that keep you from collaborating or partnering with other schools as you might wish. Identify whether those barriers are real, perceived, or imagined. Determine who needs to be involved to overcome those barriers to collaboration, as well as how you can build capacity for people to engage in this work (release time, travel budget, etc.).
- ACT: Set two or three concrete goals and related action steps for the coming six to 12 months. This might include leveraging existing networks or working intentionally to create new networks of schools and leaders.
In the field of independent schooling, resources can seem scarce and competition for students and donors can sometimes become fierce. But by bearing the name of Christ, Christian schools have a higher calling to model the kingdom of God in action. In fact, as Jesus states in Matthew 6:33, it’s actually in seeking that higher mission first that “all these things will be added to you.” Greer and Horst point out, “Because of how deeply entrenched we are in the cultural values of winning, competition, and ownership, we regularly lose sight of how radical our organizations would be if we were truly to seek first the Kingdom of God” (22). Let’s radically re-imagine our schools and organizations to seek first the kingdom and pursue our God-given mission—together.
- Greer, P., and C. Horst. 2014. Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
- —2018. Rooting for Rivals: How Collaboration and Generosity Increase the Impact of Leaders, Charities, and Churches. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
- Swaner, L., C.A. Marshall, and S.A. Tesar. 2019. Flourishing Schools: Research on Christian School Culture and Community. Colorado Springs, CO: Association of Christian Schools International.
About the Author
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and co-author or editor of multiple books on Christian education, including Flourishing Together: A Christian Vision for Students, Educators, and Schools and MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education. She can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @LynnSwaner1.