How many times have you listened to a tragic news story and heard someone proclaim, “I thought such a thing could never happen here” or “I never thought he could do such a thing, he seemed like such a nice person” or some variation of shattered expectations? Shattered expectations arise from naiveté regarding the nature of sin and complacency about people and the world around us. The uncomfortable truth is that violence and tragedy can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including in our Christian schools.
While violence is a real threat to our schools, we face a far more lethal, subtle, and pernicious danger. This danger arises not from the government, not from violent prone individuals or even from disgruntled employees or parents. This danger arises from within. The biggest threat we face is one that is mostly hidden until it is too late. I am referring to the threat of the small compromises made for good reasons.
The First Steps of Drift and Decline are Small
We are repeatedly warned that pride comes before a fall. The first step to that fall is assuming that we can’t or won’t fall.
Sin is dreadfully deceitful. More often than not, sin starts small, almost innocuously. Murder seldom begins with a knife thrust into a chest and adultery rarely starts by jumping in bed. Instead, most sin starts with the first look, the first feelings of anger and hate and then proceeds to grow, entangle, and eventually to kill. James warns:
“… desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:13ff)
Sin is like the first cancer cell. It starts small, unseen, and unfelt. Eventually, it grows and multiplies, and if not destroyed, it kills.
Mission drift works the same way. It starts with small baby steps. As the journey continues, the steps grow faster and longer, and before long, the organization has drifted far from its founding mission and values.
Where Drift and Decline Begin
Mission drift begins with small steps: compromising immutable principles, compromises in hiring, and adding courses on campus or online that are not taught by believers.
1. Compromising immutable principles
Compromise is essential in human relationships. It is impossible to sustain healthy and effective relationships or institutions without the art and skill of compromise. A healthy marriage, a growing business, a fruitful church, and governance at all levels require compromise. Without compromise, everyone scatters into his or her tribe and the machinery of leadership and governance grind to a stop. Sound familiar?
To build healthy and vibrant, innovative 21st-century Christian schools we must never compromise immutable principles but we should and must compromise on policies, practices, programs, preferences, personality styles, and traditions. Unfortunately, we tend to confuse principles with our preferences, practices, programs, and policies. They are not the same. There are relatively few immutable principles.
Principles are timeless and immutable. They are not subject to change based on one’s time and place in history, on new leadership, circumstances, personality, and preferences, or for any other reason. For the Christian school, immutable principles would include fidelity to God’s word, biblical integration in every subject and program, hiring only Christian staff with mature and maturing Christian character, and faithfulness to the school’s role in preparing young people to glorify and serve God and to love God and to love their neighbors. Most anything else may be subject to change. For example, a school may elect to enroll the children of non-believers or restrict enrollment only to the children of believers depending on what school leadership believes the Lord has called that school to do at a given time and place in its history. A school may decide to comprehensively integrate learning technology into is curriculum or choose not to do so. Dress codes, policies, rules, regulations, programs, and more may and should be updated from time to time to ensure that the school is compelling and relevant in accomplishing its mission in serving contemporary students, families, and the culture.
I have created a simple formula to guide my thinking concerning principles and practices:
Immutable Principles + Innovative Practices = Faithfulness and Fruitfulness.
When we are uncompromising on immutable principles, we are faithful. When we are innovative in our practices, we will be more fruitful. Leaders must never compromise principles but must always seek to innovate on everything else.
2. Hiring: “Eat the whole enchilada, or go somewhere else.”
Not hiring those who buy into our whole mission is the principle that we are in danger of compromising and that most often leads to mission drift. Leaders set the pace and missional direction for the organization. All staff implements its mission and values. When we compromise in our hiring, we compromise the mission, the raison d'être for the school’s existence. In their excellent book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, Peter Greer and Chris Horst warn:
As much attention as technical competency receives, screening for culture and mission should receive even more. Mission True organizations we interviewed tended to have a “hire slow and fire fast” mentality and grasped the consequences of having the wrong person representing the mission. They also seemed to have a diverse selection committee and always included “mission fit” as a key part of the interview process. “Close enough” just isn’t “good enough” for Mission True organizations, said Phil Smith, who has served as CEO and chairman of several publicly traded companies. “It is not your enemies you have to worry about, it is your supporters and employees who ‘almost’ have the vision. Eat the whole enchilada, or go somewhere else.”[emphasis added]
One of the primary reasons for Mission Drift is that people join your organization who are very excited about portions of your vision, but are either opposed to or don’t care about the rest of it,” noted Phil Smith. The drift at Big Idea (Veggie Tales), Harvard, and ChildFund was connected to their people. As shared earlier, Derek Bok, president at Harvard from 1971–1991, wrote a letter to Harvard’s board and key supporters about the university’s departure from its roots. Among other reasons, he described the hiring philosophy change. “The practice of looking at the personal character of candidates for faculty appointment fell into disuse,” Bok wrote. “Intellect and technical proficiency had decisively triumphed as the preeminent goals of the professoriat.” Harvard’s leaders cared more about credentials than Christian character. These staff members liked Harvard’s intellectual rigor but didn’t buy into the full mission. They “almost” had the vision. And those hiring decisions, compounded over time, led Harvard to a place where they could no longer turn back to the values of their founding. 1
Mission drift starts small—one hire, one baby step, and then another. To avoid mission drift, only hire those who are willing to “Eat the whole enchilada” of the school’s mission.
3. Adding programs taught by non-believers
Closely related to hiring is the offering of external or auxiliary programs not taught by Christians. I believe using non-Christian textbooks and other resources is fine. By common grace, truth is truth no matter who says it or who publishes it. Sadly, some Christian curriculum is pedagogically sub-par. Moreover, the “biblical integration” by such curriculum is often not biblical; it is more ideological and political than biblical.
The issue here is not so much the curriculum used but who is using it. A Christian curriculum taught by a theologically weak Christian teacher is still not providing a robust Christian education in which God’s word is intelligently, thoughtfully, creatively, and effectively integrated. On the other hand, a highly gifted and theologically astute teacher can use non-Christian curriculum to significant effect in helping students discern truth from error and in spotting worldview presuppositions and learning how to think through them.
However, the same cannot be said about using non-Christians to teach units or whole subjects. For example, when a Christian school uses online courses not taught by Christian instructors, I believe they have compromised their mission in that course. It is a baby step to mission drift. It is not possible for a non-Christian to teach Christianly. The same would apply to dual-credit classes taught by non-Christian professors (dual-credit courses approved by and taught by the Christian school’s teachers and accepted by a college or university is not a compromise and offer a great value to parents). There is no difference between hiring a building level non-Christian to teach in the Christian school and hiring a non-Christian online teacher. Neither is capable of teaching Christianly and therefore are undermining the school’s mission. As Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Online or offline, unbelievers cannot gather students to Jesus nor can they integrate biblical truth into the curriculum. Therefore, non-Christian teachers scatter our students away from Jesus and his truth. According to Jesus, there is no neutral ground.
Drifting to Shipwreck
Paul warned Timothy of shipwrecked souls:
“This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith…”
Souls are not the only things that can be shipwrecked. Schools can also be shipwrecked. Our schools can drift and crash upon the rocks of small compromises. Mission drift begins when school leaders assume that “their” school could never drift and when immutable principles are compromised. Hiring staff who are not willing to eat the whole enchilada or allowing non-believers to teach dual credit or online courses are steps to drift and decline.
Remember the haunting words of Harvard’s former president, Derek Bok and never let this happen under your watch:
“ Intellect and technical proficiency had decisively triumphed as the preeminent goals of the professoriat.” Harvard’s leaders cared more about credentials than Christian character. These staff members liked Harvard’s intellectual rigor but didn’t buy into the full mission. They “almost” had the vision. And those hiring decisions, compounded over time, led Harvard to a place where they could no longer turn back to the values of their founding.”
Never let this happen to you and your school. Guard the immutable principles, especially when it comes to hiring and whom you allow to teach dual credit or online courses. Remember, the uncomfortable truth is that mission drift can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including in our Christian schools when we make small compromises for good reasons.
Greer, P., & Horst, C. (2014). Mission Drift. Baker Books.