Ratifying the family constitution


Branson, Mo., residents Dee and Doug Goodwin, surrounded by their children, produced a family mission statement and constitution, which they will use to guide them through the year.

The New York Times
Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2006 at 10:27 p.m.
At the beginning of each new year, Doug and Dee Goodwin of Branson, Mo., perform what has become an important annual ritual for them. One evening, after the kids are asleep, they open the hard-covered notebook that Doug Goodwin receives from his mother each Christmas to write what the Goodwins call their family mission statement and constitution.
The current Goodwin constitution begins, "As a family who love each other, we will," and it goes on to list a dozen promises like "listen to each other intently," "support each other in everything good" and "make eating meals together a priority."
"I see this as the gun that kind of starts the race each year," said Doug Goodwin, 42, the executive director of a summer camp. "I look at our mission statement and constitution as the year goes by, and a lot of what I do during the year is directly related to what's written there."
Defining values Even the slimmest and most successful people feel the need to realign the way they live now and then. But psychologists, self-help gurus and even financial advisers have noticed that an increasing number of people are taking their resolutions to another level by writing mission statements, which have long been a staple of the corporate world.
"My sense is that most companies in the United States now have some kind of declaration of this type," said Jeffrey Abrahams, the author of "The Mission Statement Book: 301 Corporate Mission Statements From America's Top Companies." "What's fascinating is that this is spreading to families, especially in the past five years."
More and more, Abrahams said, people are yearning to define their values in a society where many of the key institutions that used to provide them - family, churches, political leaders - seem to be in flux or under siege. "Things are changing so quickly, and in the race to keep up with that change many people feel they are losing a sense of who they are," he said. A personal mission statement can give them "a way to define who they are and a beacon to stay on that course," he added.
Business models There are no statistics on who is creating personal or family mission statements, but they seem especially popular among consumers of self-help literature, families that run businesses together, religious families and very wealthy families with large inheritances. Dozens of Web sites offer advice on how to write a mission statement. The most influential book that promotes them, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," by Stephen R. Covey, has sold in excess of 16 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1989.
"I've been hearing more and more about personal mission statements lately," said the Rev. Douglas M. Ronsheim, the executive director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, a nationwide network of some 3,000 mental health professionals with religious affiliations. "I see this as part of a larger trend toward taking models from the business world and applying them to personal issues."
Too simple? But can a distillation of business goals, often written to seem the least offensive to all, be adapted to the complexities of family life? Scott Adams, the author of the comic strip "Dilbert," has repeatedly skewered workplace mission statements for being banal and poorly written. He once defined the corporate mission statement as, "a long awkward sentence that demonstrates management's inability to think clearly."
Even Abrahams, whose book advocates mission statements for businesses, said they are too simple to express the richness and complexity people aim for in their personal lives. "I don't want to be reduced to a mission statement," he added.
Requires a committment The art of writing a personal mission statement, advocates say, is similar to the art of writing a constitution for a country. It must be precise enough to address real problems, while remaining general enough to cover unforeseen eventualities. And everyone involved must be committed to following it. Mission statements can be as short as haiku or as long as novellas and may contain anything from poetry to promises to feed the pet canary.
As even their supporters admit, personal mission statements can be saccharine and cliched to the point of meaninglessness. For instance, one family that posted its mission statement on the Internet promised to focus on such uncontroversial values as "love, inclusion, understanding, appreciation, acceptance and fun."
"A mission statement without specifics is just platitudinous," Covey cautioned.
People in family-run companies say mission statements help keep personal squabbles from interfering with company practices. "We'd never planned to get involved in business together," Kim Ciccarelli Kantor, 47, said of her four siblings who work in the family's financial services firm in Naples, and Rochester, N.Y. "And we needed to find a way to be straight with each other."
Their family mission statement contains 22 specific points that create a framework for how they will distribute profits, promote one another and make big decisions. One line reads: "There may be times when family disagreements interfere with the proper functioning of the business. We agree to discuss differences and resolve issues by majority vote."
Recently the siblings had to decide on a new location for the Florida office. There was no consensus on the best option. So they voted and comfortably made a decision that might have caused hard feelings.
Mission statements are also popular among heirs of wealthy families whose income is doled out through the generations. "It's a growing trend," said Dwight Cass, the editor in chief of Worth, a magazine aimed at the affluent, "because it seems to be a solution for a range of issues that families of this type face."
For instance, Cass said, once an inheritance has been spread out to four generations, relatives who may not know one another must find a way to work together, agree on priorities for investment and philanthropy, and define who may join the family foundation or who stands to inherit.
A top counselor to such people, Lee Hausner of IFF Advisors in Irvine, Calif., recalled a recent argument that one extended family had while writing its mission statement. Some members wanted to include support of Jewish charities, but others had married non-Jews and wanted "Jewish" replaced with "religious."
Hausner, who charges about $6,000 a day to help families write their statements, said the family in question managed to find acceptable language and everyone went away happy. "It's the process of this that is as important as the mission statement," she said. "Everyone gets heard and everyone learns that they can do things together."
Although they are associated with business, mission statements are also popular for those seeking to reach spiritual goals. The Goodwins, who are Christian, have a mission statement that reads like a prayer: "As children of the King, we agree to please, praise, pursue and proclaim our King."
The Rev. Ted Cunningham, the Goodwin family's pastor at the Woodland Hills Community Church in Branson, said he regularly urged his congregation of about 1,000 to write mission statements. About 10 percent have done so in the past few years, he added.
But some say mixing business with religion is not always a good idea. "I think we have to be careful when we co-opt the language of business to talk about religion," Ronsheim said. "If we do, we run the risk of losing sight of our traditional religious values." Referring to Exodus, he said, "We were given a 10-part mission statement at one time, and that seems to suffice."
Keeping them revelant One way that people stay focused on their mission statements is by revising them. Phyllis Koch-Sheras and her husband, Peter Sheras, are psychologists in Charlottesville, Va., who founded Couples Coaching Couples, a grass-roots group with about 200 members nationwide. They teach partners to create proclamations, which are recited together daily as a kind of mantra and changed every few months to keep them relevant.
"The idea is to program your brain with something positive," said Koch-Sheras, who along with her husband has written countless proclamations over the past 15 years.
Like political constitutions, many family mission statements are amended to keep up with change. The Rivos of Miami Beach began writing statements about a decade ago, when Dr. Marc Rivo, 50, was trying to decide whether to keep a government job in Washington or set up a medical practice elsewhere.
That original statement was wrapped up with the concerns of Rivo and his wife, Karen, 50, who was at home with their two daughters. As time passed Jessica, now 18, and Julie, now 15, became more involved.
Each September the family creates a rough draft, which is then revised until everyone is happy with it. Often this can take months. In the past the daughters made sure to include ice skating, ballet and bat mitzvahs as priorities; now their emphasis is choosing the right college.
The Rivos took a little longer than usual to produce a final statement this year, in part because the daughters have grown less interested. "When we were little, this really helped us get our priorities straight," Jessica said. "But we're teenagers, and we have personal goals now that are separate from the family."

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