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Parish Mission and Primary Task



My assumption is that every parish church starts with the same mission. The Prayer Book puts it this way: “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” So, the mission of my parish is to join in God’s work of restoring people to unity; especially to do that within its own life and in the communities it engages. There is no need to write something called a “mission statement.” It actually may help us get the right orientation for ministry if we see the mission as something we receive and participate in rather than make up in a committee. 

The mission of holy unity is carried within the life and ministry of the parish, in its worship, study, and action, in the social life of the community and in all the work done around spiritual growth. It also helps if the leadership and a critical mass of members consciously and intentionally carry the mission in themselves, their life and work. The organic life of the Body will carry that mission forward even if the people of a congregation are unaware. But it allows for a partnership and fuller life when there is some degree of awareness. I think that’s why some leaders try to engage parishes in creating a mission statement. They hope that the process will internalize the mission; that it will help place the mission onto their hearts and minds. There may also be a hope that the process will increase a sense of ownership and therefore commitment to the mission. There’s some truth to that—involvement in the creation process is part of what increases ownership. Two problems with it are 1) seeing mission as something we create can also undercut people’s engagement with and understanding of the church’s mission; and 2) a parish’s sense of direction is either there or not there; most parishes with mission statements still lack any real direction.  Many without statements are clear about who they are, where they are going, and what they are doing.

Ways of approaching this that may help are:

1. Assume that the parish already has a mission and is to some extent living that mission.

2. Concentrate on shaping a healthy parish culture with great liturgy, a strong social life, and an effective adult formation strategy. This hard and long-term work creates a mission-focused parish by its being and doing, by its identity, integrity and direction, rather than by statements or plans.  If you have a plan but do not have the stuff of mission in the very ways of the parish, there is the danger that you will live an illusion.

3. Teach the church’s mission in a manner that internalizes it in people’s awareness and living. Make the Prayer Book’s statement the starting place for the parish’s understanding of its purpose. Have people memorize it. Repeat it frequently. Also, work with people in educational settings in ways that help them connect the words to the day-by-day substance of their lives. Help them explore how God’s work of Holy Unity touches and is expressed in their lives.

4. If you want a mission statement that has the fingerprints of members on it try a process that makes the Prayer Book’s statement a “given.”  Make that the first sentence of your statement. Then have people identify the particular emphasis and character by which this parish lives that mission in its life and in its world. That may turn the process into a truly strategic exercise that will help guide the parish’s use of resources.

Having said all the above I want to add a caution about how the church has decided to express the mission. I wonder if it is based in an excessive concern for harmony; whether it ends up having unforeseen consequences such as conflict avoidance, excessive homogenization in parish life, and the punishment of differences. Have we taken what is a polarity and suppressed one of the poles? Of course, it’s not that the catechism definition of mission caused these things. Rather it’s that we drafted the statement out of a culture that doesn’t handle power and conflict well, that doesn’t understand that trust is something to develop and not just something to notice in its absence, and that God’s will is about both individual growth and community life.

John Macquarrie wrote, “…our belief is that the whole process only makes sense in so far as, in the risk and the struggle of creation, that which is is advancing into fuller potentialities of being and is overcoming the forces that tend toward dissolution; and that continually a richer and more fully diversified unity is built up.  ...The end, we have seen reason to believe, would be a commonwealth of free, responsible beings united in love; and this great end is possible only if finite existents are preserved in some kind of individual identity. Here again, we may emphasize that the highest love is not the drive toward union, but rather letting-be."


Primary Task  

Now I want to use a term from organization development – “primary task.”  The primary task is the most important and essential process an organization uses in fulfilling its mission. For example, for years Loren Mead and others have been proposing that the primary task of a diocese is congregational development. I think that’s correct. I think the diocese also has at least two important secondary tasks: 1) engaging the society and culture of the geographic region that makes up the diocese, including issues of justice, compassion and evangelization that are regional in nature; and 2) participation in the wider church by its connection with other dioceses, the national church, the Anglican Communion and ecumenical bodies.

A diocese may do many worthwhile things, but it has failed if it doesn’t nurture the health and faithfulness of its parishes.

Being clear about the organization’s primary task is essential if we are to focus resources in the service of mission. Some people in the business community talk about “stacking resources toward success.” That has to do with placing your human, material and financial resources in service of the primary things you are trying to accomplish. Primary task clarity allows us to stack our resources.

What is the primary thing that a parish church does toward fulfilling the mission? What is it that a parish is especially suited for, organically created for?   My view is that the parish church’s primary task is the renewal of baptismal identity and purpose in those related to the parish. The baptismal and Eucharistic community is about Glory, giving glory to God in liturgy and in human lives that are “real lives,” fully alive lives. The parish is a community and a place in which people share in the Glory of God. All of which is to say that the primary task of a parish is worship – it is adoration, reverence, devotion, and love.

The primary process is what I’m describing as the Renewal – Apostolate Cycle, the first model in this book. In Eucharist and Office, in equipping and education, in the routine exchanges of parish life, the task is to renew people in their baptismal identity and purpose, so that they have “real lives,” so that they worship in all that they are and do. A parish may also have a number of secondary tasks. They could be seen as parallel tasks to those of a diocese (being part of something larger than itself and engagement and ministry with a community or communities outside itself).


Questions: Practice and Theory  

If the mission and the primary task are in some sense “given,” then what else is needed as the parish establishes its own way of being and doing? What else is needed to provide direction and focus to energies and resources?

I believe it’s useful to begin with questions that center our attention on a few significant areas of work. For example:

  1. What three things will we do this year to improve how we manage the routine business of parish life?
  2. What three things will we do this year to improve how we form people, offer ourselves in worship, incorporate new members, or live together as a community?
  3. Given our current circumstances, what will make the most difference if we pay attention to it now?


It can even be more useful when we root that practical starting place in a broader model. The next step is both discernment and action planning. For example:

  • What three things can we do this year to enhance the way this parish helps people in the Renewal – Apostolate Cycle?
  • In what area of the Christian Life are we strongest (worship- - doctrine – action)? How might we develop that further, build upon it, grow in it?
  • Where in our life together can we be more stable? What needs to change, be done differently? How might we better listen to one another? Who do we need to listen to that we have failed to listen to?


I’d urge parishes to stay with these practical and more immediate questions instead of spending time creating mission statements. The process of developing mission statements can serve as a learning tool. It can be a way of having people look at what the church, especially this parish, exists for. It’s the kind of discussion that for many people would be too abstract if they weren’t going to produce something (in this case the statement). The problem is that we usually end up with a very broad statement that mirrors what’s in the Prayer Book catechism (as it should) and isn’t specific enough to be used in focusing resources. It also takes up all the time and energy people are usually willing to give to such thinking. Mission statement processes are often just a poor stewardship of our time together.

Concentrate on the practical and immediate needs and possibilities. To the extent a parish is already a healthy, apostolic community, it will arrive at faithful answers. To the extent the parish is less than healthy and apostolic, the activity of creating a mission statement is not likely to have much impact on that condition.


Mission, Primary Task, Ways of Being and Doing

In summary, it may be useful for a parish to see a distinction among, and the interdependence of, three elements: 1) mission, 2) primary task, and 3) the ways of being and doing that take shape in parish culture and direction. The mission is “given” and is the whole church’s participation in God’s mission to restore all things to unity. Most parishes carry out that mission in relationship to their members and the extended community that the members, or the parish as a community, touch in daily life. The primary task is the parish’s participation in people’s movement between renewal in baptismal identity and purpose and apostolic living in daily life. A parish’s sacramental and social life is the foundation for that cycle. It is the unique way in which a parish enters into and expresses the church’s mission.

The most important and basic way in which parishes incarnate the mission and primary task is in the parish’s culture. In organization development language, culture is the mix of “ways of doing and being,” espoused values, and deeper underlying assumptions about why things work as they do in life and about the nature of things about God, humanity, the church, and so on. Culture includes all the practices of liturgy, community life and decision-making. It also includes formal and informal statements the parish draws upon to say what it cares about, what it values.

At the deepest level of organizational culture is the parish’s grounding in the assumptions of orthodox faith and practice. This isn’t dealt with by bold proclamations of orthodoxy (beware of such parishes). These deeper assumptions are shaped by, and expressed in, the parish’s ways of liturgy, social exchange, and apostolic practice – is the parish known as a community of prayer, mutual listening and love, hospitality and compassion; in this community do men and women grow in Christ?

 From Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, Robert a Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008


Related resources

Power from the Center - Sermon August 2011

  Bulletin insert with "Power from the Center"