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The Root of Ministry Effectiveness

What every church leader should know about organizational culture

The job description was a good fit. Looking over the church’s literature and noticing the symbols around the building, she felt comfortable as she walked into the interview. She agreed wholeheartedly with the values communicated during the interview, plus the vision was inspiring. Impressive, she thought.

But as this newly minted seminary grad set about the work of ministry, she realized that the actual practices of the church didn’t always match stated values. There seemed to be unwritten, unspoken expectations by members of the staff and congregation. Different ministries seemed to operate by different rules.

It wasn’t that the church hid a major sin or intentionally misled this leader during the search. It’s just that this woman experienced the power of organizational culture.

Organizational culture impacts productivity, customer service, operational efficiency, team effectiveness, openness to change, creative flow, and employee fit, satisfaction, and retention. In other words, it’s critical to almost every area of organizational effectiveness.

A church’s organizational culture might be described as the church’s DNA, personality, or simply “the way we do things around here.” It’s a combination of the visible symbols and the invisible values and expectations that are shared by the people within a congregation.

In ministry we often talk about culture in an external sense: the culture “out there” in which we live. But culture is also present within every size and type of organization, including the church. And the culture within organizations is just as powerful as the culture outside of them.

Three Levels of Organizational Culture

The best way to think of organizational culture is to picture a triangle, representing an iceberg. At the top of the iceberg of church organizational culture are artifacts. The middle layer consists of espoused values. At the base of the triangle, hidden below the waterline, are the underlying assumptions.


Artifacts are anything that are externally visible about a church: its architecture, where visitors and staff are supposed to park, the type of music, the location of the pulpit, the style of dress, the bulletin and other printed materials, and more. Basically, it’s anything someone can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch when they visit your church or ministry.

Artifacts give us clues about a church’s organizational culture. The difficult thing about artifacts, however, is that while they’re easy to see, they can be hard to interpret because we bring our own assumptions into the interpretation. For example, someone from a traditional Southern church might view wearing jeans in church as highly disrespectful, while to a churchgoer in Colorado it’s a culturally accepted norm without moral value.

Espoused Values

The second level of church organizational culture is espoused values. As the name implies, these are values that are stated verbally or in writing. Examples include mission statements, lists of core values, and goals. Preachers share espoused values all the time from the pulpit.

There are two things that are important to note about espoused values. One is that they may not reflect a church’s actual values. For example, a church may have the espoused value that staff must demonstrate “proven character and proven ministry,” when in reality talented staff members are allowed to run over people emotionally as long as the job gets done.

The second thing to know about espoused values is that there are actually two kinds: missional values and operational values. Missional values refer, not surprisingly, to the church’s mission or purpose. Almost every church espouses similar missional values; with only slight variation in wording, they typically include worship, fellowship, discipleship, social concern, evangelism, and sacrament.

However, a church’s culture also includes operational values, which are how a church approaches its missional values. Operational values can advance or thwart progress toward missional values. Examples of operational values include how a church handles conflict, how much loyalty is expected from the congregation, how open the church is to outsiders, how much innovation is valued, and whether staff members intentionally empower others to lead. A single church can have dozens of operational values.

Two churches in the same neighborhood could share the espoused, missional value of outreach. But if one church has the hidden operational value of fearing outsiders, the two churches will treat newcomers very differently. This hidden value may come out in unclear signage to help new people navigate the church or in no one welcoming them as they enter the building. Regardless, the message will be clear to visitors.

Underlying Assumptions

At the deepest level of church organizational culture, below the waterline, lie underlying assumptions. These are the real values, and they are linked to very strong emotions. In fact, these assumptions are so deeply rooted and so deeply held, that to act in a way contrary to them seems unthinkable. Because they are assumed at such a deep level, however, they are rarely articulated.

We most commonly see this clashing of assumptions when two families are joined by marriage. In the movie Father of the Bride, the bride and groom come from two very different family backgrounds, values, and assumptions. We laugh at the ensuing conflict, but when it’s our own assumptions running into those of another person or group, it’s not as funny.

In a church context, underlying assumptions and their connected emotions gain even more power because we tend to spiritualize or theologize our own assumptions. That is, we think of them as morally and biblically right or wrong, even when they may just be reflective of different cultural values.

Clearly, church organizational culture is very complex. It is also both adaptive and resilient, able to mutate over time, yet resistant to quick change. Adding even greater complication is the fact that organizations have both a dominant culture and any number of subcultures, each with their own artifacts, values, and assumptions. Youth ministries are the most obvious example of subcultures within the church, but there are also less visible subcultures that develop in groups and ministries, often out of frustrations with the overall system.

Because organizational culture is so important ministry effectiveness, one of the key roles of church leaders is to create, manage, maintain, and change the culture. As you can imagine, that’s not always easy to do.

Read the second part of this article in which Angie Ward looks at the task of managing and even changing the culture of our churches.

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

January11, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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