Is Your Church Driven by a Shadow Mission?


Some congregations adopt purpose statements that are widely known and frequently repeated, such as “Connected with God, Growing in Faith, Serving with Love,” or “Honoring God through Worship, Witness, and Service.” A mission statement, an expression of common practices, or a logo can communicate priorities, reinforce identity, and provide focus. Mission statements give direction to staff and volunteers about what matters most.

Most shadow missions are driven by fear — fear of conflict, of upsetting someone, of financial catastrophe, of losing a facility, of changing a way of life.

However, many congregations operate with unspoken shadow missions that actually drive behaviors or limit alternatives more than the stated mission and adopted values. The logo uses missional language to motivate, but leaders use maintenance language to make decisions. For instance, everyone may agree that the congregation’s purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In actual practice, one or more of the following shadow missions may guide decisions, operating as a subscript to every conversation. In effect, an unspoken shadow mission says that our purpose and priority is to fulfill the following:

  • Preserve the building.
  • Keep everyone happy.
  • Maintain the organ.
  • Protect the pastor.
  • Get rid of the pastor.
  • Never upset the secretary.
  • Don’t offend the choir.
  • Never ask for money.
  • Protect the endowment.
  • Maintain a family feel.
  • Never increase the budget.
  • Avoid disagreement.
  • Focus on current members.
  • Survive at all costs.

Most of these shadow missions are driven by fear — fear of conflict, of upsetting someone, of financial catastrophe, of losing a facility, of changing a way of life. Under the threat of conflict, division, or financial stress, all energies are redirected to security and survival, leaving little space for creativity or initiative.

In one city, three mainline congregations were built on Main Street more than a hundred years ago. Like most downtown congregations, they all experienced decline over a fifty-year period. Fifteen years ago, one of the congregations developed a second site to offer a different worship style. It has attracted young families and thrived. Another of the congregations sold their downtown property and relocated to where the population was growing. This congregation expanded its outreach, grew exponentially, and became a multicultural congregation known for its outward focus and mission.

The third congregation struggled to maintain their facility and saw their average age increase while attendance slowly declined. A consultant met with leaders to discuss the church’s future and helped leaders to distinguish their stated mission from their shadow mission. Members realized that for three generations, the unspoken dual shadow mission was “preserve the building at any cost” and “maintain traditional worship with no changes.” The shadow mission had caused them to reject any serious attempts to consider additional worship services or alternative sites even when newcomers and younger members were requesting them.

A shadow mission may begin as an appropriate initiative that serves the mission of the church but then turns negative because of a lost sense of proportion. For instance, one congregation was determined to build a fellowship hall and gym to expand its ministry and accommodate more outreach. The initiative derived from their desire to serve youth. The congregation spent months building consensus, voting, and agreeing to plans, and then months more planning a capital funds campaign. People contributed for three years, but the church did not receive enough money to proceed. So they planned a second pledge campaign.

Years passed since the original plans were adopted, the church continued slowly to decline, many of the original contributors passed away, and the church experienced a change of pastors twice. Nevertheless, leaders pressed for the new building with a relentless passion. All energies were obsessively directed at completing the task, even though the project would smother the congregation in debt. Ten years from the original planning, the project was finished, leaving the congregation committed to several more years of payments.

Rather than energizing leaders and multiplying ministries, the completion of the fellowship hall and gym marked the beginning of what the current pastor calls “the doldrums.” People were weary, staff members were burned out, leaders backed away from further responsibilities, and volunteers lost their motivation. The congregation had been so focused on the tangible goal of completing the building that when they finally completed it, no one knew what to do next. Building the gym had become an end in itself, larger and more compelling than the mission of the church.

Everything had been done so that the gym would be built; long lost was the idea that the gym was planned so that the church could reach more people. If the energies of the church are poured into projects so that something other than the mission statement of the church is fulfilled, then the congregation may be driven by a shadow mission.

This article is excerpted from Robert Schnase’s most recent book, Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2015), and used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury or Amazon.

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About Author

Robert Schnase became Bishop of the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning September 1, 2016, after serving as Bishop of the Missouri Conference. He has written many books, most recently, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Revised and Updated (Abingdon Press, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.