Not Very Sexy

Michael Metzger

Starbucks doesn’t have a sexy mission—which is why it’s successful.

Successful companies make a distinction between mission and purpose. Mission is what an organization does. Starbucks sells coffee. Not very sexy. Purpose is why a company exists. For Starbucks, it’s experiencing the third place. Sexy. Faith communities often conflate the two, however, creating a mish-mash that makes it hard to measure success.

Starbucks’ purpose gets its punch from a book written by Ray Oldenburg, titled The Great, Good Place. In the 1980s, Oldenburg recognized how few Americans experienced community anymore. In researching cities such as Milwaukee, he saw how people used to experience it in three settings—home, workplace, and a local pub or coffeehouse. Oldenburg coined the phrase “third place” to describe how a coffeehouse could be the third setting for community.1 This became Starbucks’ purpose, which sounds sexier than its mission, selling coffee. But Starbucks doesn’t conflate the two. It assembles evidence in both—quantitative or qualitative—to track progress. Here’s why.

In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein writes that whatever an organization most often measures becomes its real mission.2 For example, in the recent auto bailouts, Washington, GM, and the unions defined success as saving jobs. Will Durant founded GM to sell cars. That was the original mission, even though it doesn’t sound very sexy. By changing how it measures success, GM also changed its mission. This is called mission drift, an indicator of organizational decline.

The decline is due to a progression. Schein says mission creates organizational culture and culture determines the means an organization uses to achieve its mission. The progression is measure, mission, means. When saving jobs became GM’s measure of success, it became the mission, creating a culture where bailouts are considered the best means of sustaining the organization. Mission drift is why right measurements matter.

In the faith community, the problem of incorrect measurements plays out a little differently. Mission is tactical; purpose is transcendent. Faith communities are drawn to transcendence, so they tend to conflate mission and purpose into one sweeping statement. Often cobbled together by committee, these proclamations sound like they’re straight out of Proust (Marcel Proust’s longest sentence was said to be 958 words: “Their honor precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable…”). Granted, mixing mission and purpose has sex appeal. But it masks the problem of not quantitatively measuring the tactical, or mission, which is not very sexy.

When God sent the Jews into Babylonian exile, he gave them an unsexy mission: assist Babylonian institutions. In Daniel 1, king Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel and give them this mission: “serve in the king’s court.” Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were to assist Babylonian institutions. Doesn’t sound sexy, does it? It wasn’t. But they could measure it.

The sizzle is in purpose, found in Jeremiah 29:7: “as Babylon flourishes, so shall you.” Loving God and neighbor by promoting flourishing sounds sexy, doesn’t it? Purpose is inspiring—and how a purpose statement should sound. But it doesn’t lend itself to measuring as easily as mission. That’s why successful companies such as Starbucks make a distinction between mission and purpose. Faith communities generally don’t.

In not quantitatively measuring the mission of assisting institutions, most faith communities default to measuring attendance. This creates a culture where showing up on Sunday matters the most. Culture then determines the means used to achieve the mission of showing up, such as pouring resources into a service that keeps ‘em coming back. By measuring attendance, the real mission of the church has drifted from assisting institutions to bigger is better. When attendance falls off, faith communities resort to special pleading or passing the plate, indicative of organizational decline.

There is no doubt that measuring success can be problematic. “Not everything that counts can be counted,” Albert Einstein rightly noted, “and not everything that can be counted counts.”3 There is an element of mystery in the service of God and faithfulness counts as much as fruitfulness. It’s not entirely muddled however. It can be measured. The faith community can count whether it is assisting local institutions in lowering crime rates, out of wedlock birthrates, divorce rates, or the annual number of abortions performed. It can assess whether it is assisting local institutions in raising reading levels, work that my wife Kathy does as a reading specialist. The school administration is serious about its mission. It is continually finding ways to measure success and stay on mission.

In his monograph to Good to Great, Jim Collins says the not-for-profit social sector typically fails to measure success in meaningful ways. His solution is for institutions to hold themselves accountable for progress in mission and purpose. “What matters is that you rigorously assemble evidence—quantitative or qualitative—to track your progress.”4 This isn’t difficult. Any church can create two statements, one for mission and another for purpose. A mission of assisting local institutions won’t sound very sexy but will lend itself more readily to meaningful measurements than transcendent aims such as flourishing and renewing the city. The church needs both, just as Starbucks distinguishes between mission and purpose, measuring both. It just recognizes there’s nothing wrong with having a mission that’s not very sexy.

1 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day (New York, NY: Marlowe & Co., 1999).
2 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition (New York, NY: Wiley Publishers, 2004)
3 Cited by Scott Thorpe, How to Think Like Einstein: Simple Ways to Break the Rules and Discover Your Hidden Genius (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000), p. 3.
4 Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great (Boulder:, 2003)


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  1. Nice job Mike.

    There is good overlap here with your post “Speaking in Tongues” a couple weeks ago. The confusion between mission and purpose supports the equation “Church = 1 hour on Sunday morning”. This adds to the number of Christian Exiles – those who reject the equation and its implications.

    Of course to reject the equation is not to reject Christ or His church. It is disappointing how often this difference is also conflated by church institutions.

  2. Really great post Mike.

    Your application of Jer. 29:7 begs us as believers to emerse ourselves in the work of redeeming and transforming the culture around us… and when we do, we are fulfilled as well. Thanks for your encouragement.

  3. Way to go, Metz! What’s the quote (and I’m going to mangle it) ‘Find out what counts and then score, early and often!’ I hadn’t thought of the associated problems in quite this way, but I see the problem now. . . .

    Question: beyond recognizing the difference between mission and purpose, what’s the solution? It seems to me that there’s a continuing mission and purpose drift, based on our inherent desire to justify our existence by ‘scoring early and often’ based on ‘what counts’. It’s the problem of law, today, too, insofar as our laws tell us explicitly ‘what counts’!

    Interesting. Thanks!

  4. Hi Mike:
    Your blog is one of the few I read (along with Byron Borger). I learn something from you every time. Just wondering this time if you would SUCCINCTLY distinguish now between 3 things:

    1. Mission
    2. VIsion
    3. Purpose


    PS: Great to see you recently.

  5. Marble:

    You summarize the problem well and pose several hard questions. I’ll mull it but for the time being, it makes sense for institutions such as the church to take more seriously Schein’s research. Every individual and institution assesses (measures) their success. Too often, statements such as: “We had over 1,000 in church this morning!” signifies success – regardless of what is published in the bulletin or posted on the walls. The key is observing unedited remarks. In other words, without thinking twice, what do members in a faith community usually cite as signifiers of success? I most often hear comments about the pastor’s sermon, the size of the congregation, the number of missionaries, the size of the building, or the number of home groups, or cells. Every one of these can be beneficial but are generally inconsequential if the mission is assisting local institutions.

  6. Excellent piece, Mike! I can’t help but draw parallels to Simon Sinek’s TED talk on, “the power of why.”

    What is a purpose driven church, if the driving force behind the purpose is the financial stability of the church? Somewhere along my journey, I was taught (in church, ironically) that “we” are the church.
    1 Cor. 12:13 – by one Spirit we are all baptized into One Body, or “Ekklesia.” (Greek – “to call”) Ek (Greek – “out”) Kuriakee (Latin – “the dedicated ones”) Somewhere along the way, the mission not only drifted, but shifted to the buildings we congregate in. Instead of focusing our efforts on better serving the community (flourishing), we instead focus on finding a church that best meets our needs. “My church has the best childcare.” “My church has the best central air unit” etc…. This is not to say the church does not encourage and enable flourishing in our community, but it’s difficult to overlook all of the me-centric, self-serving progams that churches design. It is said their sole purpose is to equip “us” to serve others better, but the efforts rarely expand beyond “us.”

    Imagine if those programs and messages really worked? If the Body of Christ, the “Church” within the church felt fully equiped to “go out” and “serve.” The mission would be fulfilled, needy communities would feel the impact, and the Body of Christ would rightfully get the credit. Ironically, this would be devastating to church organizations themselves, as attendance would diminish, and there would be no branding beyond the Body of Christ to back the success of the church organization.

    This is what separates an institution like Starbuck’s from an institution like church. Starbucks began as a great coffee shop that provided a “third place.” Now, it’s a great gathering place that happens to sell great coffee. I know this because one can get great coffee or tea elsewhere (for less money) but so many flock to Starbucks. Starbuck’s is about more than coffee. I would think the church organization would need a different approach. It simply cannot continue to operate like a business. Jesus said to Peter, “upon this rock I will build my church.” If you look at the church like a business, Jesus becomes both the mission and the purpose. A product in which we consume. But aren’t we the Mission, and He the Purpose?

  7. Hi Mike,

    You’ve given us some more great thought-food.

    Often you apply better business practices to how the faith community should run its organizations. Do you have a hierarchical system for who should be pushing for these changes? If the business model applies, should we not just have pastors, but CEOs or Presidents? Should every church in a denomination behave as a chain restaurant, taking it’s orders from the head denominational office?

    The reason I ask is because I have met a number of pastors with good intentions for helping their communities, but they fail miserably in planning and executing these ideas. They have precious few of the qualities most associate with good business leaders, who are able to keep meetings on track by pointing back to the main goal(Mission), offering viable solutions for change (Vision), and inspiring confidence in the necessity of what the business is doing(Purpose). What hope do we have of changing culture if the leadership who should be forefront in bringing about this change don’t seem to have been properly equipped to do so?

  8. Okay, let me parse this out a bit more. You are exactly right that clergy are not trained in assisting institutions. The problem is primarily with our educational approach… and educational institutions are famously resistant to innovation, since it disrupts the present approach taken by academicians (the only approach they know) and threatens their livelihood.

    Hence, the system is perfectly suited to create pastors who are most adept at postulating principles in religious settings, such as “faith and work” or how “work glorifies God.” I have no problems with the ideas, but they don’t translate well in the wider world. Pastors have so little hands-on experience in commerce or the clothing industry, or in media, and so on that it’s almost impossible to imagine them assisting local institutions in flourishing.

    Thus, with no realistic ways to measure success, you see meetings that are poorly run, with few viable and actionable solutions that will work in the wider world.

    it’s not a pretty picture.

  9. Had a friend ask me about GM’s recent success (improved sales).

    Here is my reply (a bit lengthy).

    As John Adams said, facts are stubborn things. The fact that GM was on a unsustainable course for decades finally caught up to the company. They had to make some moves, and yes, GM is making some good moves. It is a large institution with huge resources to draw upon. Profit-sharing checks for their hourly workers is a good move. So the goal is not “just” to save jobs, but it has been the overriding concern for too long, including the bailouts.

    As for success, any institution is likely to do well with an infusion of $61 billion. The problem with bailouts is they mask market forces. Markets are ruthlessly efficient. You and I are paying $7500 for every Chevy Volt that is sold. The government and GM are essentially admitting they are selling a car that the market cannot sustain – thus, we are back to an unsustainable course in the case of the Volt. That’s the “drift” – when a company must spread costs among taxpayers to sustain the business model. Welcome to Sweden.

    The “drift” is also apparent in the +$25 billion that remains to be returned to the taxpayers. Not only is there no ROI for taxpayers, looking at GM’s stock price, you and I will take a considerable hit. In the past, markets ruled and Packard for example went out of business. Hundreds of car companies went belly-up. Today, we deem these institutions too big to fail. Workers are entitled to keep their jobs, so when companies are not competitive (or as competitive as they once were), taxpayers bail them out to keep them running and jobs going. This is the death knell for a company or country – it just takes time to become fully apparent.

    GM might rebound over the long haul. But markets were deprived of $61 billion that could been invested elsewhere – or put in taxpayers’ and profitable corporations’ pockets. The beauty of withholding income – what the government does – is that it makes it very difficult to feel loss. Few recent college graduates, for example, feel the level of wages they could have been earning had the housing market not tanked. For most of them, it simply “is what it is.” The long-term prognosis for this myopia is not good.

  10. You say:
    Mission: what you do
    Vision: how you imagine it coming about
    Purpose: why you do it

    I work with NGOs and teach them:
    Mission/Purpose: why you exist/what you do
    Vision: what you’re aiming to do (a preferred future) by doing what you do in alignment with why you exist
    strategy: how you’re going to accomplish that vision

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