Mission Drift and Its Corrections
Occasionally I will hear complaints that Northwest University has drifted away from its identity as a Bible Institute through the 87 years of our history. Nothing should alarm an institution more than accusations of mission drift, so we should always take such comments seriously. But for a Christian university, mission drift does not imply rigid obedience to the ideas of the founders, but rather a dynamic following of Christ as the Holy Spirit leads. Along the way, many course corrections must occur. No ship leaves port to slavishly follow the navigation plan made in advance. The conditions of seas and climate dictate many course adjustments along the way to the original destination, and sometimes, to an alternative destination that better suits emerging realities.
When Northwest University began in 1934, the intention does not seem to have included more than the founding of a three-year Bible Institute. Many complained bitterly when, after World War II, the institute became an accredited Bible College with a stronger emphasis on general education. While the mission of the college has unquestionably expanded from that time on our path to becoming a highly-ranked regional university, we have kept faith with the founders by maintaining a strong emphasis on the training of ministers. We currently have more students studying for the ministry than we had at any time during the years of Northwest Bible Institute or Northwest Bible College (indeed, before 1966), although most of them now study online in the context of local churches—a technology that did not exist in 1934 but would have fit neatly into the philosophy of practical training that gave birth to the Bible Institute Movement in the late 1800s. While we must have freedom to do more than the founders could imagine out of the dark of the Great Depression, we should never do less than they intended.
Under the leadership of President C.E. Butterfield n 1950, the Board of Directors established a new constitution for our institution and set out the following goals for us, among others:
- Establish and operate elementary, secondary, commercial, liberal arts and graduate schools, and extension courses of study, as the need arises within the denomination;
- Have full power and range as to courses of study, tuition and government;
- Prescribe and from time to time change the courses of study, tuition and method of government;
- Confer academic honors and degrees of all grades;
- Establish, maintain and operate a hospital and/or clinic for students, faculty and other individuals of any age, regardless of ailment--mental or physical.
We have generally succeeded marvelously in fulfilling these aims, even if we have never (to my knowledge) founded elementary or secondary schools. While we have not established a hospital, I feel confident that the Board from 1950 would delight in the Buntain College of Nursing and in our emerging programs: Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master’s in Physician’s Assistant Studies.
In the case of a Christian college, we cannot predict, as the 1950 constitution stated, what “needs [may] arise within the denomination” nor in the broader church. We cannot perfectly predict the changes in the larger society, in technology or in the higher education sphere, nor what sources of funding may dry up or emerge. The course of institutional success requires constant attention to the tiller, with many, many changes both planned and unforeseen.
It matters most that we discern the direction the Spirit of Christ will lead us to pursue. Presidents and even Boards of Directors do not infallibly follow the Will of God, but if they miss God’s leading, they usually have limited opportunities to correct their course. No human institution can avoid missteps and stumbles. The secret to success entails correction and recommitment to the mission of God in Christ. Our Board of Directors has always—and will always—keep the Will of God at the heart of its motivations.
As I reflect on my fourteen years of service at Northwest, I can easily see my own stumbles—usually a word unfitly spoken, a proposal that did not find favor with the institution and thus never saw reality, or a project that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Added to those failures to discern or execute God’s Will, I have not always kept everyone else perfectly moving in the same direction toward the centrality and authority of Christ in our midst. The “herding cats” analogy does feel apt in a community full of PhDs—all of them graced with bright intelligence and long years of professional training in criticism. But at the same time, herding such cats offers the most wonderful challenge I can imagine, and I have every reason to believe in the good faith and best intentions of everyone here—almost a thousand full and part-time employees, some of whom I may never meet. Errors inevitably occur. And with them, corrections.
Preventing mission drift is not an absolute science, but rather a spiritual art. We remain committed, as always, to perfecting the craft.