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(To protect confidentiality, I have changed the names in this story.)

It started like many good things do: By accident.
On a cold night, Donna and several members of her suburban church showed up at a homeless shelter in an oft-overlooked Philadelphia neighborhood. The shelter, housed in a church basement, epitomized what’s best about urban churches in this country. The founder, Sally*, did her Good Samaritanism with little fanfare. She relentlessly loved the vulnerable on her block, serving up warm food and insatiable cheer to the men and women who walked through the basement doors. Today, however, her life’s work has been sterilized.
Donna and her friends’ volunteerism started so right. When they discovered the basement shelter, they fell in love with both the cause and the leader.
“Sally was a wonderful Christian woman,” Donna said to me as she reminisced. “After five months of serving there, Sally shared with me that we needed to start something for the children.”
And they did. Sally’s vision collided with Donna’s heart. Donna and her husband became the ringleaders. Together with Sally, they soon raised enough money purchase equipment and hire a preschool teacher. The church volunteers rounded out the staff. In just a few months, they launched a thriving urban preschool to complement the shelter. They showed up consistently, without pay, to serve some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children. They served meals, taught Bible stories, sang Christian songs and prayed with the kids.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof once noted that “the further he travels from the capital city” in countries he visits around the world, “the greater the likelihood the aid workers he meets will be from a religious organization.” The same holds true in the back-alleys and forgotten neighborhoods in our cities. The Onion satirically posted the headline, “Local Church Full Of Brainwashed Idiots Feeds Town’s Poor Every Week.” We might be a little crazy, but at our best, Christians are crazy in ways that surprise our culture. Sally, Donna and their churches showed up where others would not. Compelled by their faith, they served in the selfless way of Jesus.
The influx of children and well-heeled volunteers into Sally’s shelter brought attention to the program. And it soon began growing quickly. Publicity, donations, and needy families flooded the shelter’s doors. Sally’s nonprofit soon experienced what parents call growing pains. Increased exposure meant increased public scrutiny.
“The kitchen needed to meet regulations, understandably,” said Donna. “We needed to have certified food handlers delivering meals. That, essentially, ended the church serving meals. Slowly, our role as a church became more vague.”
As the shelter grew, Sally and Donna’s mission began to fade. The board brought on wealthy benefactors who had deep pockets but a very different vision for the shelter. Month by month, the founding fire dimmed. Bureaucracy supplanted soul. Neutrality replaced conviction. Soon, just a façade of Sally’s mission remained.
“The board brought in a new executive director to replace Sally, the wonderful woman who had run the program for so long,” Donna lamented. “She was a professional social worker, but she didn’t understand the mission.”
Soon, Donna and her church began to feel like they were no longer welcome.
“When we would come from the church, there were no opportunities for us to serve. We set it up overtly Christian. It was there. And it’s no longer there.”
Over the course of just a few years, Sally’s nonprofit experienced Mission Drift. What began as a vibrant partnership between a suburban church and an urban ministry is today a sterile human services agency that scarcely resembles its founding. No Christian staff. No Bible stories. No Sally and no Donna.
“We are no longer involved there,” shared Donna.
Sally and Donna grew their organization from scratch. And today, the agency is highly professional, yet lacks the fervor and tenderness—the Christlikeness—it was founded upon.

Mission Drift

I mourn with Sally and Donna. They lost something they cared about deeply. And I mourn for the families and children they used to serve. Because with the new professional management, the neighborhood ultimately loses. Our communities need vibrant faith-based organizations. I believe the shelter’s secularization hurts all of us, even those who do not share Sally and Donna’s beliefs.
There are dire societal consequences for the widespread drift within faith-based nonprofits. In How Children Succeed, bestselling author, Paul Tough, writes about the “hidden power of character.” He posits a compelling case for why America’s nonprofits need to concern themselves less with cognitive skills and more on the softer skills like grit, curiosity, perseverance and self-control. He argues not as a Christian, but as a scholar who has seen what helps at-risk children thrive.
When Sally’s shelter new leaders abandoned Bible lessons on character, ditched their church volunteers and ceased to pray with the students, they stripped the preschool of its most precious asset. What happened at the shelter is what a friend likened to “the selling off of the family heirlooms.” The shelter might have full coffers today, but it’s traded away what mattered most.

Mission Drift is prevalent, but not inevitable. To share the stories of hope, and help the faith-based organizations you love stay true to their founding mission, please consider joining the Mission Drift launch team (the book releases on February 18). Simply email me or leave a comment below to help us spread the word. Below, I’ve posted the newly released video teaser for the book.