How Shadow Missions Derail the Church: Bishop Schnase's Guest Blog

by | Oct 5, 2015 | 0 comments

Bishop Schnase, your book Just Say Yes! addresses how to unleash people for ministry.  It’s an empowering and inspiring read.   In it, you write about “unspoken shadow missions that actually drive behaviors or limit alternatives more than the stated mission and adopted values.”  The local church pastors I mentor definitely encounter shadow missions in their churches.  Do you believe the UMC as a whole has a shadow mission?  Does it impact or hinder local churches?  If so, what can be done to set local churches free?
Many churches operate with explicit vision statements that define their distinctive role and identity—Leading People to an Active Faith in Christ, or Building an Outwardly-Focused Christian Community in the Life of Grace. Others adopt the denominational mission or rely on a common language to shape congregational behavior—Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World, or Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.
However, churches sometimes operate with unspoken purposes that actually drive behaviors more than the stated mission and adopted values. The logo uses missional language to motivate but leaders actually rely on maintenance language to make decisions.
In effect, an unspoken shadow mission says that our true priority is to fulfill one or more of the following:   Preserve the building. Keep everyone happy. Don’t offend the choir. Maintain a family feel. Don’t ask for money. Protect the endowment.
Most shadow missions are driven by fear—fear of conflict, of upsetting someone, of financial stress, of loss, of change. Energies are redirected toward security and survival, leaving little space for creative initiative. The answer is No to anything that challenges or threatens the shadow mission, even if an initiative has great potential for changing lives or reaching people. A shadow mission is like a magnet set beside a compass, an unseen force that draws us off course from our true mission.
Your question about shadow missions in the denomination and the effect these have on congregations is provocative and worth exploring. Several possibilities come to mind, but I will offer only two.
First, a significant shadow mission in the UMC is the constant pressure to preserve the status quo, to maintain current systems, and to require everyone to do things the same way as everyone else without regard to local context. The United Methodist Church has built systems and developed deep-running expectations that mandate extraordinary uniformity of operations at the local church, conference, and general church levels.
A conference that colors outside the lines is seen as problematic. For instance, if a conference experiments with a better way to offer Course of Study, or explores new expressions of campus ministries, or adopts non-traditional approaches toward camping in order to reach more young people, or rethinks its apportionment formula, or endeavors to improve supervision and intervention processes for clergy, then the conference is viewed as creating a problem to be solved by general agencies, the judicial council, and by other conferences.  Instead of encouraging innovation and imagination, we pour inordinate energy and resources into controlling outliers, even when the experiments are wonderfully effective at expanding ministry, increasing effectiveness, and extending our mission.
An innate institutional conservatism pervades the denomination. I’m not talking about theological or political conservatism so much as a fundamental resistance to adaptive change. A conference or congregation that takes an alternative pathway, even a successful one, is seen as rocking the boat. In response, more rules and restrictions are embedded into the system. Everyone agrees that our conference operations, our General Conference processes, our seminaries, our clergy credentialing methods, and our financial systems are not working well in today’s environment, but the innate institutional conservatism makes it nearly impossible to effect major change.
A second shadow mission is our seemingly unalterable allegiance to a structural connectionalism rather than to a more fluid, adaptive missional connectionalism.   We confuse our connectional roots and identity (which were missional and worth preserving) with the particular expression of connectionalism that has emerged in the last 50 years.   The Council of Bishops, the Judicial Council, GCFA, the general agencies, the concept of annual conferences as business sessions and of General Conference as a legislative session—we behave as if these have always been with us and must continue in their current forms if we are to remain connectional. In fact, none of these existed until a few decades ago or in the earliest expressions of Methodism when we operated with a more missional connectionalism.   In our origins, every expression of connectionalism was intended to multiply impact and extend the mission—the creation of circuits, use of laity, conferring annually to reinforce identity. John Wesley did not establish chapels and preaching houses and societies so that one day he could preside over a conference; he formed a conference in order to multiply the impact of chapels and preaching houses and societies.
The combination of these two shadow missions—to protect the status quo and to maintain the current structural connectionalism–keeps us from learning and experimenting and innovating. These shadow missions preserve prerogative, focus us on survival, foster denial, and permit avoidance tactics. In a time of diminishing resources, these shadow missions feed competitiveness, conflict, and territoriality as each part of the church maneuvers for support.   These shadow missions imbue creative people with a sense of helplessness, the feeling that nothing can be done. Monolithic intransigence makes us ever more irrelevant and ill-equipped for meeting the overwhelming human needs we face in our society and around the world.
Simply naming a shadow mission does not free us of its power, but it’s a first step.   We need to foster more innovation, imagination, and experimentation rather than continue to insist on uniformity and control.
In Just Say Yes, I mention the idea of “dancing on the edge of our authority,” a concept borrowed from Marty Linsky. If we only operate within the authority given us and according to the expectations of the organization, we will never lead the change that is necessary. The community will fail to adapt to the changing environment and will slowly die. Complacency and stagnation wins. We have to exceed our authority in order to lead the organization toward places it will never ask us to go.
On the other hand, if we don’t give proper attention to the existing expectations and fail to do the work the organization has authorized us to do, we’ll be rejected. We must meet the fundamental expectations so that we don’t lose trust, disconnect, and become leaders without followers. Managing expectations involves maintaining and improving existing systems, and this is important work. Leaders tend to be rewarded for caring for the organization and working for “what is” rather than for stimulating change and focusing on “what is not yet.”
“Dancing on the edge of our authority” involves meeting enough of the existing expectations to stay connected and to foster trust while also pushing the organization to boldly take initiatives that fulfill the mission.
This leads to your last question: How do we set local churches free?
Conferences get just as stuck as congregations do. Conferences need to unleash churches for ministry just as churches need to unleash people. This means less centralized control so that churches can start churches, experiment with second sites, initiate conversations about adopting sister congregations, and establish campus ministries. With a missional focus and high expectations, we can practice a guided autonomy that permits and encourages congregations to take more initiative, to dance on the edge of their authority, and to practice greater innovation.   When we set congregations free, we encourage healthy churches to take responsible risks consistent with their mission to relieve suffering, proclaim justice, and meet human need across the globe. We stop trying to squeeze everyone into the same mold.   We practice ministry as an improvisational art, just as Wesley and the early Methodists did with their bold experiments. This does not mean that anything goes; Christ-centeredness, excellence, fruitfulness, and accountability must be expected. The book Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences gives countless examples of how Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry works at the conference level.
Robert Schnase serves as Bishop of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, and is the author of the bestselling books Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Five Practices of Fruitful Living, Practicing Extravagant Generosity, and Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences. His latest book, Just Say Yes: Unleashing People for Ministry, is written for people whose passion has been simmering for years, who yearn to be told Yes! Schnase examines the systems and attitudes that restrain and control ministry. He demonstrates practical ways church leaders can rethink fundamental assumptions about organizations and leadership.
Downloadable resources are now available to help local congregations unleash people for ministry, including supplemental videos, invitational postcards, a leader retreat guide and a 7-session devotional guide. Visit

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