The mission strategy at ACU: responding to contemporary organisational challenges in mission formation

In response to the challenging financial and socio-cultural environments in which many not-for-profit Catholic institutions and organisations, both large and small, find themselves the crucial question of organisational identity has become the focus of much intense and growing attention. Organisational mission formation and Catholic identity have become imperative areas of focus. While certainly not new knowledge to Christian organisations, mission formation is understood to provide an important platform around which to organise a coherent organisational identity.   [1]

Since identity, both personal or organisational, is recognised ultimately in behavioural embodiment (we perform our identities), a focus on mission becomes a means to ensure a consistent model of organisational action and so is increasingly recognised as a unique platform for supporting a common organisational culture, expressed as service provision and general organisational behaviour. Often mission is codified in a mission statement; many organisations, large and small, invest much effort in ensuring new and ongoing employees know and understand this mission statement, particularly in their onboarding programs. Again, such investment aims for a uniform best practice of service-provision across an organisation.

Often times, however, the processes of mission awareness and formation have been to view such as a kind of ‘content dump’, a ‘here’s what you need to know’. Frequently, this type of content dump takes place using the organisational mission statement and is cursory at best. Anecdotally, along with poor hiring for mission practices, such mission formation does not result in mission alignment (and performance) beyond the formation session. This is because, pedagogically, such mission formation lacks adequate scaffolding in an adult education model, to ensure mission alignment between a personal and professional sense of mission, and the organisation’s presentation of its own mission.

So, like most Catholic institutions, Australian Catholic University, following in the Christian mission tradition from which it arises, emphasises its mission as a crucial organisational expression of its purpose for existence. The ACU mission statement encodes in a clear way, five mission-values. ACU invites all members of the university community to know and understand these five mission dimensions so as to be able to integrate them in their roles within the university.[2] While such mission dimensions and values are finally understood through the lens of the Christian Gospels, it remains that ACU is uniquely both a Catholic and a public university, existing and accountable, in both sectors. Thus, the mission values are understood not just within the horizon of Christian humanism,[3] but must also be available within the horizon of human experience. This requires a mission formation in which Catholic identity is expressed through a process of mission formation in order to create a foundation for Catholic identity mission formation. Crucially, this means that what is initially a Catholic religious identity at the heart of the university, may also be engaged with by a majority of staff and students who do not identify either as Catholic or Christian. Thus, mission alignment through formation is not then simply a possibility for a few but can take place in a significant way among all staff of the university.

Mission alignment, then, is not understood here as synonymous with a requirement of staff to share ACU’s Catholic Faith, although that faith lies at the heart of what makes ACU unique. Rather, mission alignment is result of a conscious participation in ACU’s culture of mission dialogue and collaboration, expressed through participation in the university’s mission values. Specifically, the term ‘mission alignment’ here, refers to a mission literacy in which a member of staff has been supported through mission formation programs to develop a ‘thick’ connected sense of identification between the mission values of the university and their own personally and professionally held values.

Supporting such a sense of mission alignment is the primary aim of mission formation. Such formation demonstrates the close conceptual relationship between mission literacy and alignment. Mission literacy, then, is thus an interrelated component of mission alignment. Such mission alignment is important for staff in the university as it builds an attractive community of purposes sourced in common mission purpose (values)[4]. This in turn supports coherence of common action (service provision) in the university, making possible a whole community intent upon scholarship in service to the identified mission dimension values

The challenges in Catholic mission formation, of course, are large. Like many Australian Catholic organisations Australian Catholic University faces the continuous task of ensuring its staff are mission literate and engaged with the university’s mission through their work professional practices. Employing large numbers of staff, both professional and academic, ACU strives to be a welcoming and inclusive community of scholarship, research and tertiary administration. Ensuring shared missional purpose in all this diversity is an enormous and challenging task.

To respond to these challenges, ACU, through its Catholic Programs portfolio in the Office of the Vice-President of the university, deploys in conjunction with the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, through the Xavier Centre of Theological Formation, an Ignatian based pedagogical process that draws on the spirituality and Ratio Studiorum of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Such a pedagogical process takes seriously that the starting point of the formation of human person (heart and mind) is an exploration of the diversity of personal and professional contexts that call a person into being a member of the university community. This involves an invitational scaffolding process model of mission formation, that starts with an opportunity of exploration of personal and professional purposes, and builds from that exploration, to Catholic mission formation. Likewise, the same metaphor of exploration is employed in relation to Catholic mission formation, as connections between personal and profession mission values and those of the institution are teased into consciousness. This results in the embedding and maintenance of the university’s Catholic identity in through individual values connections. The challenge of this task cannot be underestimated, particularly in the tertiary education sector, given the increasingly difficult cultural terrain of an indifferent through to hostile Australia, and largely religiously disengaged staff.

Carefully, all mission formation programs of the university are being brought into accorded this Ignatian pedagogical strategy, summarised in three points directly below. This pedagogy is also the basis of the mission formation units of the newly launched Graduate Certificate in Mission and Culture.

Adopting an Ignatian mission formation reflective process:

  1. Reflecting on relationships with self: personal preferences, meaning and purpose of work (vocation), self and world understandings (worldview)
  2. Reflecting on the mission of the university and its Catholic identity, building relationship connections with the mission of the university and other personnel through the agency of shared values arising from that shared mission
  3. Reflecting on what these relationships demand of individuals and individual roles as part of the identity of this university community, to enact the identity of ACU as a mission community of shared values

These components of the process can be translated into indicators of impact within each unit across the university. Practically, this strategy of Ignatian pedagogy is what could be termed an Ignatian-narrative approach to mission literacy for mission alignment and Catholic mission identity formation. In this way, mission formation itself becomes the foundation for Catholic identity mission formation. In turn this supports deepening personal and professional mission literacy (with Catholic missional identity) leading to opportunities to experience mission alignment. Such alignment is the achievement of scaffolding conversations (mission formation programs academic and professional development) between identity and action in the process of what narrative psychologists term re-authoring.[5]

The processes of re-authoring understand that every human person is an active participant author in their own life narratives. In the communities in which a person lives and works, there is constant co-construction of these narratives with others. In this way, no single story can capture the complexity of human experience. There are always events that fall outside any story. Reauthoring questions (scaffolding found in the mission formation programs themselves) build on these outlying or forgotten events, values, feelings and thoughts to help develop and live out alternative or renewed stories closer to individual preferences and purposes for professional and personal lives. It is in providing opportunities through mission formation, that the mission formation programs of ACU support the reflective processes in which members of staff come to know in renewed ways, their connections to personal and professional values. Through that process of Ignatian reflection, they are then invited to come to know connections to the university’s missional values.

There may be four stages identified in this Ignatian pedagogical reflection:

  • Stage 1: Reflection questions and input designed to situate the human person within their context through connecting them to values-connected life narratives and vision
  • Stage 2: Reflection questions and narratives of the values of the organisation or group to which they belong
  • Stage 3: Reflection questions and narratives on the connection points
  • Stage 4: The undertakings that flow for renewed mission centered professional action in the organisation.

This described pedagogical process of mission formation and Catholic organisational identity formation is exemplified in the Graduate Certificate in Mission and Culture. Australian Catholic University, through its Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, under the banner of the Xavier Centre for Theological Formation, launched and conducted during June, the first unit of the Graduate Certificate in Mission and Culture (GCMC), The Mission Imperative: Engaging with Organisational Culture. Chosen by the Diocese of Maitland Newcastle to be a foundational Catholic mission and identity literacy renewal tool, the four-day intensive took place by the sea in Newcastle, attended by 28 leaders from the diocese’s many and varied apostolic works, including diocesan administration, spiritual ministries, welfare, education and health. Designed as the primary internal mission formation program for the academic and professional staff of ACU, the GCMC addresses the conceptual challenges for Christian mission in pluralist cultural settings through the pedagogical process described above. Initial responses to this first unit have been very positive with informal feedback indicating the time well spent in generating a community sharing in the mission of Jesus Christ and God’s Church.

The Catholic mission formation strategy with its underlying pedagogy described above, particularly meditates on the ways in which mission in general, and Catholic mission in particular, provide for Christian organisations the key cohering narrative of identity-values of the organisation. In this way, mission formation designed as such ensures a common values base of Catholic identity leading to a common understanding of best practice service provision, be it administration, education, health or welfare. In Christian organisations, mission is everyone’s core business as it furnishes all work in the organisation with its ultimate meaning and purpose. In this way, the GCMC and the mission formation pedagogy at ACU, provide opportunities for the generation of mission literacy leading to Catholic identity formation and so, individual and organisational mission alignment.

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[1] The document is prepared as a working draft in preparation for a larger project to be published.

[2] The ACU Mission Statement: Within the Catholic intellectual tradition and acting in Truth and Love, Australian Catholic University is committed to the pursuit of knowledge, the dignity of the human person and the common good.

[3] Educating to fraternal humanism: Building a “civilization of love” 50 Years after Populorum progression. Congregation for Catholic Education (for Educational Institutions) April 16th 2017.

[4] The importance of these common values connections cannot be underestimated. See John C. Haughey SJ Where is Knowing Going? The Horizons of the Knowing Subject. Washington DC: George Town University Press, 2010.

[5] See Re-authoring conversations in Michael White’s Maps of Narrative Practice. Norton, 2010.


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