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Diagnosing and Changing Church Culture

What you need to know about your past to move forward

What do you do when you realize your church talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk? It’s an all-too-common realization, and one I’ve had myself. I agreed with all the church’s stated values, I affirmed their mission, but in reality, those written statements weren’t backed up by any action. And that made ministry effectiveness very difficult.

Three Ways Culture Emerges

One of the key responsibilities of church leaders is to manage the church’s culture, in all its forms, which I discussed in the first part of this article. In order to manage—and even change—the church’s culture, we must understand the three ways that organizational culture emerges.

Founders' Values

The most important source of organizational culture is the beliefs, values, and assumptions of an organization’s founders. How did your church get started? What were the beliefs and values that guided the church and its leadership team, and what were the events that informed those values? These beliefs can be both theological (doctrinal statements, denominational roots, etc.) and operational (what worked).

For example, I know a church has no senior leader and allows all members to have veto power at congregational meetings. This culture is based on the time and place it was founded: a university community in 1971. The church’s culture was born out of the high mistrust of government during that era, especially in academic environments.

Many churches mirror the personality of their founding pastor. Whether the pastor avoided conflict, loved to have fun, or was highly intellectual, the church culture is often based on those values. Because of this, church planters have a critical opportunity and responsibility to lay the foundations of the church’s culture. They must pay special attention to what they communicate through their words and actions, especially about what is acceptable or expected.

Learned Values

The second source of organizational culture is what people in the organization pick up over time as they face challenges. These values come up as people learn the difference between the stated values and what actually happens. As Andy Stanley has said, “What gets rewarded gets repeated.” So even if a church has the espoused value of healthy conflict, yet conflict is regularly ignored or swept under the rug, people in the church will pick up on the underlying—even unstated—value: conflict is not welcome here.

In some churches the conversations that happen in the parking lot are more powerful than the actual leadership meetings. In other churches, sub-ministries may develop their own system of training leaders or handling finances in an effort to be more effective than the methods of the overall church. Both of these are examples of learned values, and they become part of the organizational culture.

Introduced Values

The third source of organizational culture is the beliefs, values, and assumptions brought in by new members and leaders. For instance, hiring people from other churches requires that the church staff assimilates them into the church culture. This is also true for new attenders. They bring with them assumptions and expectations based on their past experiences. Sometimes this can be helpful. For instance, some churches purposely hire a new staff member to challenge the status quo. Other times, the introduced values can cause unwanted conflict.

Prevent, Diagnose, and Change

Regularly examining the three ways organizational culture emerges can help you put preventative measures in place to avoid the drift toward unhealthy or misaligned culture. For example, it’s important to continually reinforce key values to leaders and the congregation.

If you begin to feel that your church or ministry culture has shifted, the easiest thing to do is look at these three ways organizational culture emerges. For instance, if you notice that several new people have brought in their own values that are in conflict with the existing culture, you may spend considerable time assimilating new members. One way that churches do this is through a new member’s class. In these classes or other “on-ramp” events, leaders talk about the church’s history, desired future, and chosen values, and how newcomers can shape that culture.

When you intentionally want to change your church culture, the best place to start is examining espoused values. Are the stated values actual or merely aspirational? Do they only refer to missional values and ideals, or are there examples of operational or behavioral values? Where is there misalignment between espoused values and artifacts? For example, a church might say it values multigenerational ministry, but its worship space and services are clearly designed for just one age group, whether older or younger.

It’s often helpful to bring in an objective third party, such as a consultant, who can ask questions about what is meant by particular values or represented by artifacts. It’s also helpful to pay attention to the words and actions that trigger the strongest emotional response by those within the church. Because the deepest assumptions are rarely articulated, the best place to find them is at “fault lines” where these assumptions come into conflict with one another and elicit powerful emotional responses from those who hold them. (Does this conjure up any memories of congregational meetings for anyone?)

When attempting to change culture, remember the size and power of the iceberg. It’s easy to change visible artifacts, but doing so won’t automatically change values or underlying assumptions. In fact, because organizational culture is so resilient, true change can take 10 years or more depending on the size and age of the church, its leadership structure, and the nature of the organizational misalignment. Understanding and managing church organizational culture is no easy task, but if we want to be effective in ministry, the hard work with well worth the effort.

Angie Ward is a ministry leader and professor. She lives with her pastor-husband, two teenage sons, and one spoiled beagle just outside Indianapolis.

If you missed the first part of this article, read it here.

January14, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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