Translating beliefs into behaviour: how to prevent mission drift

Stephen Judd, former CEO of HammondCare, was shocked to realise that statements of faith were not sufficient to ensure Christian organisations remain true to their Christian mission and vision. Rather what was needed was a way to translate those beliefs into behaviour.

Over 25 years, Judd had led HammondCare into one of the top Christian charities in Australia, building it from 200 staff and $8 million turnover in 1995 to 5000 staff and $400 million turnover when he left in 2020.

A year later, he was awarded an AM for his exceptional leadership that showed Christians can be caring, innovative and entrepreneurial all at once.

“For most of my working life, I believed having statements of faith and values statements was a sufficient sort of approach and that somehow, almost by osmosis, that would produce a Christian-ly organisation.  But they don’t.”

It was while listening to the excruciating Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast by Mark Cosper of Christianity Today, which chronicled the bullying and ungodly behaviours of the leadership of the Seattle-based megachurch, that he realised having Christian beliefs doesn’t necessarily produce behaviour that reflects the mind of Christ.

“I started to realise – you know what? Beliefs and behaviour – there’s not a lot of necessary connection between them, which when we think about it for ourselves personally, is pretty obvious,” he says.

As he writes in a new book, Keeping Faith: How Christian Organisations Can Stay True to the Way of Jesus, co-written with John Swinton and Kara Martin, it’s not that having statements of faith is without value but they are not enough to ensure that organisations act faithfully and do not drift from their Christian origins.

The authors give many examples of organisations that were established by Christians to show God’s love to his creation and to work with God to grow his kingdom, but which are no longer Christian.

“The famous example in Australia is the Benevolent Society, which was originally the New South Wales Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence in these Territories and Neighbouring Islands, but they truncated it for obvious reasons. The St James Ethics Centre, which was started in Sydney with St James [Anglican Church] King Street. They’ve washed the St James even out of it, let alone things Christian in a comparatively short space of time.

“Globally, the YMCA is still trying to work out what it is, and every decade or so they wonder what the C is in YMCA. And there’ll be people in the YMCA movement worldwide that have diametrically opposed views on that score.”

By the same token, all organisations, Christian and secular, have values statements. One company has a values statement that talks about acting with integrity, working collaboratively, being caring and striving for excellence. Which company? Crown Casinos. “That example points to the challenge for us all in actually translating beliefs into behaviour.”

“As soon as you think you are inoculated or secure from it, that’s probably when you’re at most at risk.”

Judd says he was prompted to action by reading an observation by Chris Crane, the former CEO of Opportunity International, that “it’s the exception that an organisation stays true to its mission and that the natural evolutionary thing is of originally Christ-centred organisations to drift.”

Judd says the first key message of this new book is that “mission drift” is not inevitable. “But as soon as you think you are inoculated or secure from it, that’s probably when you’re at most at risk.”

He doesn’t name them, but Judd believes there are many Christian organisations that have little connection between what they say they believe and what they do.

“You have to be intentional about translating belief into behaviour. And the way we’ve suggested you can do that is developing what we call ‘an organisational theology’, which articulates how what is believed is expressed in practice. We’re not saying you should get that off the shelf. The organisational theology of a school is going to be very different to how they articulate it at an overseas aid agency.”

“How often do those of us within Christian organisations appear to be more afraid of losing money than doing something that so obviously advances God’s kingdom?”

One of Judd’s favourite anecdotes in the book raises the thorny issue of stewardship, which Judd believes is much misused in Christian organisations. He quotes the example of a well-resourced Christian organisation that declined to invest its resources in a project for the poor because it was not deemed to be good stewardship. It didn’t meet a financial hurdle, an internal rate of return.

Judd is aware that his position on stewardship may raise eyebrows – given there are many Christian books on the subject – but “where does it actually say in the Bible that stewardship is about what we do with money? And don’t cite back at me the parable of the talents! A lot of people read the parable of the talents and say, ‘Ah, so it’s actually about your rate of return.’ No, Jesus is actually more interested in how faithful we are.

“How often do those of us within Christian organisations appear to be more afraid of losing money than doing something that so obviously advances God’s kingdom? My observation is that God honours faithfulness and doesn’t honour fear.”

He sees many examples where Christian people sign up to a beliefs statement and then jettison it as they go into an executive or board meeting.

“There’s a complete dissonance between what they’re thinking about there and what they actually just said they believe in.

“There’s no clear connection. And so in the book, we say you’ve got to actually make sure that your beliefs are embedded in the outlook and disposition of the company, the practices and behaviours of the company, and not just in an overarching airy-fairy sort of way, but more particularly in all of those things that we talk about.”

“Too often Christian organisations are nice to you, nice to you, nice to you, then you’re gone.”

One of the things Judd and his co-authors talk about is the need to have a theology of risk.

“Now that shocks some people. I’ll put my hand up and say HammondCare’s risk management policy – at least when I was there – was almost indistinguishable from that of a bank or mining company,” he says.

Recognising that the theology of risk will be different for a pension fund and a mission agency, he singles out the risk statement of the Church Missionary Society of Australia as the best he has come across. It states: “Our understanding and management of risk is based on a theology of the sovereign God deploying his witnesses in a risky world, until Jesus returns.”

“It’s brilliant!” Judd enthuses. “It is probably the best risk statement that embeds what that organisation is about, that I’ve seen.

“And it wasn’t done by some floppy Arts student like me. It was actually crafted by a former partner at KPMG, Geoff Girvan, the treasurer of CMS Australia.”

In the book, Judd and his co-authors unpack the organisational implications of sin, judgment, grace, faith, hope, trust, forgiveness and redemption.

He says too often Christian organisations are “nice to you, nice to you, nice to you, then you’re gone.” Instead of getting rid of people, he says, it’s better to put in the hard work of coaching people to improve their performance.

“There can be a dishonesty there. I don’t think it’s necessarily a plea, but our observation is that it’s important for Christian organisations to be honest in how they deal, not just with their staff, but externally as well.

“HR documents and the HR practices are a bit light on when it comes to redemption or forgiveness or confession. They’re pretty good with judgment! But you can’t say these documents are demonstrably reflective of the mind of Christ.

“That’s not to say that suddenly we should all be meek and mild in our working with people who are underperforming within the organisation. You are what you tolerate. But there does need to be greater honesty there in saying, ‘You know what, Mary … You know what, Fred, you’re underperforming. This is not working out. So what are we going to do about it?’

“We’re saying that the truth we believe has to be lived out. And we call that organisational faithfulness.”

“Don’t be afraid of being countercultural … Be upfront about who you are and what you believe.”

Judd believes it crucial that Christian organisations be upfront about who they are and why they exist.

“Don’t be afraid of being countercultural … Be upfront about who you are and what you believe. I think where people get into strife is where over time they have gone Jesus-lite and then suddenly they want to pull it back – that’s hard. So it needs an organisational theology that will indicate how what they believe is embedded in what they do.

“Different organisations have to do that in different ways. A pension fund is going to have a different approach to some of the things we talked about, compared to a homeless service, compared to a hospital, etc.”

One of the more contentious things the book suggests is not to co-design organisational theologies.

“Now that’s terribly countercultural. Co-design is where you get everyone into a workshop to craft whatever it is you are crafting. But if you want an organisational theology to shape how you work with each other, how you work with government and other stakeholders, you need that to be based on informed theological belief, not highly-disparate opinions.

“To do that we suggest that you actually have strong input from sound, theologically-educated people, either facilitating or in the room. Why do we say that? If you don’t, you’ll get the lowest common denominator. And Jesus will be replaced with God so no-one is offended. And you’ll rinse out any sort of belief of note.”

Stephen Judd will be speaking about Keeping Faith at a breakfast hosted by Christian Ministry Advancement in Sydney at Sofitel Wentworth on Friday 17 March at 7am.

Keeping Faith will also be discussed at Ridley College, 120 The Avenue Parkville, Melbourne, on Monday 27 March 7.30-9.10 pm.

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Keeping Faith

Stephen Judd, John Swinton, Kara Martin

Available from Koorong

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