Breathing Exercises

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Mission … Accomplished

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I have a well-known disregard for vision statements and mission statements. When the senior pastor at the church where I recently worked decided that we needed a mission statement, I understood his reasons, but I didn’t want to be on the committee, didn’t want to make a mission statement, and tried to get out of the discussion. No luck. The pastor put me on the team, said I needed to be there.

There was plenty of good conversation, and a measure of inspiration. We listened well, to each other and also for God’s still small voice, and came up with a reasonable mission statement for our community at the time. (Regarding definitions, vision statements are different from mission statements and also from values and objectives … but I’m not always sure how, because I’ve heard all these things described in too many different and overlapping ways, so don’t look to me for clarifying definitions.)

But when, after several months of meetings, we got to the point of crafting the actual Mission Statement, I got restless. What I would have liked at that point was for each of the team members to craft a statement that expressed the things that we’d discovered, but in their own words. There would have been a messy beauty (to my eyes!) in bringing ten versions of the Mission to our church. They all would have expressed the essential things, but in a diversity of ways that would have been electrifying to the diverse population that our team represented. I know that that isn’t how it works (nor did it then), but I think it might have been a powerful experiment.

he got vision

Clipart classic: I have vision! See my binoculars and bowler hat! I'm in the water!

Fast forward to today. As I do all the normal thinking about the new project I’m a part of, every week brings another moment when someone is asking about The Vision. I struggle to answer, explaining that my conviction is that vision for our project has to come out of the shared life of the community and in shared communion with God, not from one guy. But even on the day when our shared life begins to produce shared perspective (I won’t say ‘vision’ here), I will not be the one advocating for short memorable statements. I know some good organizations (and good people) are served by short, meaningful statements, and this new community may one day find a value in them that I can’t yet see.

What bothers me so much about vision and mission statements? I know they have a value to much of the population. I know “Vision” is important – clarity of foresight, ability to articulate intent, etc. But my suspicion has always been that vision/mission statements are a product of an impatient, technology-obsessed culture. Here’s my cheap theory: vision/mission statements are like videos of a family vacation. Huh, how exactly is that?, you say.

Consider the vacation video. Ask a parent about their recent vacation, and if their answer is to show you a video of their family walking around the Famous Place, then I’m willing to bet that the person who held the camera will have very little actual memory of the moment, and neither will you after 5 minutes. Oh, you’ll see some stuff, but you will not be impressed. That’s a fact. The video captured it, but the videographer probably didn’t experience it, and neither will you. Every beautiful or important place on earth has its pilgrims and some of these are determined to experience the grandeur through a tiny LCD screen.

If on the other hand, you ask someone about their vacation and their response is to tell you stories of what it was like to walk through the Famous Place, to touch the stone, to breath the air, to sip the popular local beverage on the square, then you will be much more moved by the experience, even if their memory is less precise than the images a camera could capture.

A vision/mission statement is accurate and packaged for quick delivery (in, I suppose, the proverbial elevator). They are precise in the same way a picture is, and, like a picture, prove you’ve actually made a journey, of one kind or another. But sharing a short, packaged statement, like sharing a video or slide show, can’t really bring a person along quite like the story you could tell about what it’s like to breath the air in the place you’ve been, or in the place you dream of going.

Wouldn’t having both be beneficial? The story of the journey and the technically precise record of it to refer to forever? Maybe. But like the videographer’s vacation, how well can you tell a story about a place if you were focused on capturing the perfect image (or expression) of it?

I have heard that literacy has done irreparable damage in societies that once relied on oral history. … Sure the ability to write things down preserved some of their stories forever and made them easier to share, but it also released people from having to remember them. The result? The end of memory, in one sense: people lose the ability to remember. I think photography and videography has the same effect … why pay attention to your surroundings when you can just capture an image? And how could you pay attention anyways when you’re concerned with the technical aspects of operating your device?

Is it possible that mission statements have a similar effect? Can a short, precise, intentional statement release people from the need to remember, to think, even to dream? The real danger is that they also reduce our ability to remember, to think, or to dream.

I recently spent a couple hours with a friend over a pint of a popular local beverage, talking about work, his and mine. He’s a CEO who’s logged plenty of time in front of venture capitalists who, I imagine, don’t have time for stories–they want to hear clear vision expressed succinctly. This friend of mine asked me The Question, and I tried to explain what I dream about, where I expect vision to arise from, and why I was reticent to boil down what-I-saw-when-I-looked-ahead into a single sentence. Then I half-heartedly admitted I could probably generate a pithy statement that summed up all I had said, and gave it a shot. His response was a bit of a surprise to me: he said that the pithy version “did absolutely nothing for him”, but that he was moved deeply by the story I told about the process.

Maybe in a setting where a group of people is motivated by progress, profit, and growth, you need to communicate with a kind of hyper efficiency. But when a group is motivated by a dream of shared stories about God, relationships, and love, room has to be made for a kind of inefficiency … where we listen to, and respect, the perspectives of many people who’ve wrestled with God. I’m not ruling out that a good short statement can sum up an idea, just as a great image can capture a moment. But even as we come closer to knowing who we are and what we’re here for, I will always want to hear people reflect on those things by telling the story in their own words, not by reciting an easily memorized phrase divined by a few people.

Richard Avedon, the great portrait photographer, once said that every photograph is fiction … a frozen moment of a life abruptly stolen out of it’s vital context. Killed, in essence. His photos were haunting and beautiful. But they were no longer about the people who’d given their images to the camera. They had gone on living and were no longer bound to the two dimensional image that had been captured. I think mission statements are like that: if you sell a piece of plastic, maybe you can sum that story up in a few words. But if your business is life, be careful lest you kill the thing you’re observing through the violence of capturing it.

Written by dmaddalena

2011/04/02 at 11:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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