Organisational mission drift is almost a law of nature.

Any organisation, left unattended, seems inevitably to become untethered from its original purpose. The causes of this untethering are legion: bloated with non-mission critical activities, weighed down in risk-averse red tape, increased inward focus, or unclarity on what the mission actually is. Whatever the cause, organisations need to fight to stay on mission.

For any organisation to lose sight of its mission is regrettable. But if the organization’s mission has something to do with the person and mission of Jesus, it’s not just regrettable; it’s tragic. And yet it happens. All. The. Time.

Organisation drift from Jesus

In their new book Keeping Faith: How Organisations can Stay True to the Way of Jesus, Judd, Swinton, and Martin address this vital topic. And they address it in a way that, as far as I am aware, is unique. Combining real theological horse-power with substantial experience in senior organisation leadership, they chart a way forward which is at once biblical grounded and practically tested. A bit like combining salt and caramel, their proposal makes you wonder why it hasn’t been done before.

The authors each bring distinctive experience and expertise to the project. Stephen Judd is the former CEO of Hammondcare, a large and historic not-for-profit health care provider. John Swinton is a Scottish theologian and major contributor to the theology of disability movement. And Kara Martin is an author and lecturer with special interest in the intersection of faith and work. It’s quite the team.

It’s not a book on mission drift in general, but the drift of Christian organisations from the person and mission of Jesus in particular. And its substantive proposal is for Christian organisations to develop an “organisational theology.”

Keeping Faith: How Christian Organisations Can Stay True to the Way of Jesus

Keeping Faith: How Christian Organisations Can Stay True to the Way of Jesus

Acorn Press. 159.

We all can think of organisations that were established by Christians that are no longer recognisably Christian. In Keeping Faith, the authors outline the key components of organisational faithfulness – that is, what is needed for Christian organisations to stay true to the way of Jesus. They argue that the old reliance on statements of faith, or a set of Christian values, is insufficient. What is needed is a robust organisational theology that inhabits the enterprise’s structures, management, business policies, practices and relationships and is tailored to the purpose of the organisation.

Acorn Press. 159.

The Problem With the Alternatives

Christian organisations, they argue, risk developing a tepid form of functional “deism”—the belief that God sets the world in motion but otherwise leaves the world and us alone to do the rest. This leaves Christian organisations to be guided (more or less) by Christian values, but otherwise to just get on with it in largely secular and instrumental ways.

Christianity, however, is not a moral system but a person. Values alone, abstracted from the person and work of Jesus, don’t make an organisation Christian. And God is not an absentee landlord. He continues to be active in every sphere of life, something our organisational practices should surely reflect.

How then, to keep organisations genuinely Christian?

A signed statement of faith might be the obvious solution. If organisations required their office bearers and staff to sign off on the Apostles’ Creed or an even more tradition-specific confession, perhaps this would stop the decline into Jesus-free functional deism?

It certainly might help. But church history and recent moral leadership failures of Christians indicate this is no silver bullet. The number of historical and contemporary Christian leaders who could sign off on even the most baroque statements of faith, and yet lead organisations astray, ought to give us pause.

Abstract values risk functional deism. Statements of faith end up collecting dust in unopened draws. What, then, should we employ? For these authors, the proposal is that we develop an organisational theology.

Abstract values risk functional deism. Statements of faith end up collecting dust in unopened draws.

An Organisational Theology

Organisational theology “is concerned with the ways in which an organisation participates in God’s ongoing mission.” (15) It is an articulated and implemented set of practices and commitments aimed at keeping the organisation faithful to the ways of Jesus.

In so doing, an organisational theology puts theology where it does its best work—in the nitty-gritty. It affects the actual circumstances of the organisation’s decision-making, hiring, direction setting, and interpersonal relating patterns. When we don’t involve theology in our practices and decision-making, we don’t end up with no theology, only bad theology. Which is why we need to work hard to implement it.

When we don’t involve theology in our practices and decision-making, we don’t end up with no theology, only bad theology.

Two personal highlights were the author’s organisational theology on forgiveness and risk-management.

Christian organisations risk two extremes when it comes to forgiveness. Either they can leave their theology at the door and operate in purely corporate terms, with grace and forgiveness out of view. Or, Christian organisations can apply a syrupy, high-fructose form of grace and forgiveness in which performances are not managed, accountabilities not kept, and unmet goals ignored. This book instead outlines a robust and distinctively Christian understanding of grace and forgiveness. And it shows how that would work in the actual practices of an organisation.

The topics of risk and stewardship are also dealt with deftly. When organisations are concerned to keep faithful to Jesus (which is good) they can often become excessively risk-averse (which is bad). But “faithfulness” is not a synonym for “cautious.” Indeed, faithfulness to Jesus will often involve courage and risk-taking. The authors use the Church Missionary Society as a terrific real-world example of a genuinely theological approach to risk-management.

The book does not offer a paint-by-numbers approach. If you, like me occasionally appreciate being told where to apply which colour, you will need to look elsewhere. This book offers a framing and gives some judicious examples of practical case studies. Whether it translates into any organisation for which you have responsibility will depend on the leaderships’ ability to implement.

The list of once-Christian organisations now adrift from their heritage is sobering. And the traditional fixes (a focus on “values” or a statement of faith) are incomplete solutions. An organisational theology is a rich and practical way forward.

Keeping Faith would repay the attention of leaders, board members, staff, and office-bearers of organisations that want to embed faithfulness to Jesus into their life and future. Highly recommended.

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