Times of crisis and change often present organizations an opportunity to revisit their mission. Our current climate of pandemic and cultural conflict is just such a time. How ought our mission statement help us stay on mission and our mission drive our actions through these challenges?
In his comprehensive text on strategic planning, John Bryson provides six questions that a mission statement should help answer. These questions can be particularly helpful for Christian school leaders in evaluating the effectiveness of their institution’s mission statement.
I’ve considered these questions in my own context as an administrator at Cairn University, a Christian University in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The university is over 100 years old, previously holding other names known by their abbreviations—PCB, PBU. As you can imagine, its mission statement has evolved over all those years. The university’s current statement communicates a broadened mission:
Cairn University exists to educate students to serve Christ in the church, society and the world as biblically minded, well-educated and professionally competent men and women of character.
Let’s analyze this mission statement using Bryson’s questions.
- Who are we? We are a university. It is important to point that out. Like every other organization, our mission statement should say who we are because that will drive everything else and it will differentiate us. That descriptor also communicates the first thing about us to others. Bryson says that naming who we are must come before saying what we do: “Too many organizations make a fundamental mistake when they assume they are what they do” (p. 139).
What are you saying about who you are by the language and priorities in your mission statement? What are we not saying that is assumed but could use some clarity?
- What are the basic social and political needs we exist to meet or social problems we exist to address? Cairn answers this question in its mission statement when it says what type of student they will produce. The assumption is that there is a need for biblically minded, well-educated and professionally competent men and women of character. Bryson notes that in this part of the statement, “the organization can be seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself” (p. 142). This compelling point can keep all of our organizations on mission.
As a school leader, do you make the claim to do anything important and are you clear about it?
- What do we do to respond to these needs or problems? This is a valuable question because it forces organizations to “check in” as to what extent they are meeting needs or solving problems. At Cairn, we educate students. That’s what universities do. We do not have other objectives like some universities, such as being a preeminent research institution. It may make sense for some universities to have a broader statement about how they respond to needs or problems. But our focus is singular. Bryson notes that this process forces organizations to stay in touch with the outside world to monitor how they are doing. Apart from this accountability, organizations may have language that can’t really be measured by outside standards. We can run into problems if we use unclear language (e.g. “to grow minds” instead of “educate”).
Language used by Christian schools should be clear and measurable. How would those looking from the outside rate us in these areas?
- How should we respond to key stakeholders? Students are our key stakeholders. For my colleagues and me, the way we will interact with them is the way we will educate them—to be biblically minded, well-educated and professionally competent. These are the things we will deliver to our students in the process of educating.
Students and parents are two of your main stakeholders. How are you responding to them?
- What are our philosophical values and culture? We educate students for a purpose. That united purpose, at Cairn, is to serve Christ in the church, society and the world. All students should serve in all three arenas. This is our culture. This is why we do what we do.
A Christian school should have philosophical underpinnings within the mission statement. Why do you do what you do? What drives your actions?
- What makes us distinct or unique? Some of Cairn’s distinctives may not be particular to us—but unique in the sense that only some universities fit into this niche. “Biblically minded”—this is unique to Christian colleges. Serving in the three arenas—this is unique to only some Christian colleges. Singularly focused–this is unique to only some Christian and secular colleges.
Distinctions don’t have to differentiate you from everyone—that potentiality could result in you just being plain old weird. Instead, what differentiates you from some in one way and others another way?
Bryson concludes with an important reminder: “[T]he world has become increasingly competitive and [those who] can’t point to some distinct contribution they make may lose out” (p. 143). That call to articulate a distinct contribution is a good reminder for Christian school leaders in any context.
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.