are the Gideons crazy or brilliant?

The Issue of Mission vs. Method and Its Limits

Have you ever heard of Gideon Bibles? Of course you have. They’re famous. This nonprofit has given away about two billion of them, and hotel placement is only one slice of the distribution pie. These good people (members of the organization are “Gideons”) have troves of inspiring stories about how these free Bibles have helped needy people be encouraged, inspired, instructed, helped, blessed, and (especially) converted.

So I was shocked to read the following in a recent article in Christianity Today: “The 122-year-old-ministry is changing. Over the past three years, Gideons has reduced its spending on Scripture production by about $10 million per year.” Their executive director says it is “refocusing and rebalancing” the ministry. Evidently the Gideons are thinking about mission and method. Its mission is to “win people to Christ.” Scripture distribution has just been their most prominent (but not only) method. Rebalancing? Maybe less will go to handing out Gideon Bibles and more to things like evangelism training in local churches.

It's a standard thing in the nonprofit world to say that mission is primary and method is secondary. Drop your method if there’s a better way to achieve your mission. Be ruthless on this. Don’t be married to your methods. Only be married to your mission.

But here’s an example that makes me think twice about all that. What if your method is tightly welded to your identity? What if you have developed and refined your method over decades so that you’re better at it than anyone else? What if your members and donors have, for all their lives, never thought of any disconnect between your mission and your method? What if you have vehemently promoted and defended your method, year in and year out, whenever anyone anywhere doubted it even a tiny bit? What if there’s a method that you are very good at – should you swap it out for a method that you think you might also be good at?

Yeah, this one is making me think that there are times when the path of wisdom calls for holding firm both to your mission and to a method. Update the method. Improve it. Refine it. But don’t turn your back on it.

love, joy, peace … Michael Michael is a freelance consultant to nonprofits, with an emphasis on research. Contact him for a free, one-hour consultation.

Vol. 1 No. 19

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