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.