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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

16 Aug '12

Church culture trumps everything!

Posted by T.J. Addington in church culture, church health, organizational culture
I had an interesting conversation with a pastor recently who said to me, "Church culture trumps everything including Scripture and my preaching." He pastors a church that has been around for many years and his comment reflects the truth that the longer a church is in existence, the stronger its culture - for good or bad.

Most church cultures are not intentional but rather the influence of its founders, pastors, history, power dynamics, and a host of other factors. The culture usually includes some deeply held values (not the ones written down) that dictate how it operates. In one church I attended, for instance, one of the deeply held values and practices was not to resolve conflict but rather to ignore issues and hope they went away. It was part of the culture and didn't work out too well!

Church cultures can be exegeted and understood. In my book, High Impact Church Boards I suggest a number of questions to explore that can help you understand your congregation's genetic code.

  • What do you know about the founding of your church? How do you think the motives and attitudes present in the church's founding - positive or negative - affect the church today?
  • What was the philosophy of those who started your congregation? Is it the same today, or has there been a significant shift in mission, vision, or ministry philosophy? How did this shift happen?
  • How do people in the church navigate disagreements? Would you give your congregation high or low marks for handling conflict? Do you see patterns here?
  • Are you aware of any significant unresolved issues within your congregation? What are they, and why do you think they have not been resolved?
  • How would you evaluate the unity of your leadership board? Does your board have a history of unity and love, even when faced with differences, or is there a history of conflict and broken relationships?
  • If your congregation faced significant periods of conflict in the past, what do you know about these periods? Is it possible to see trends in either the causes or how the conflict was handled?
  • When you consider leadership, now or historically, who has the major influence? Does the church board allow any individual (elected leaders or nonelected persons of influence) veto power over decisions made by the board or congregation? How has the power and influence structure of the church changed over the years?
  • Think about the major changes the congregation has made, whether related to ministry philosophy, location, ministries or staff. Does the congregation respond to suggested changes easily, with great resistance - or somewhere in between?
  • Are there any subjects, people or situations related to the ministry of your church that are off-limits for discussion? If so, why do you think these "elephants in the room" cannot be named? (High Impact Church Boards, pp. 81-82).
Once one understands the dynamics that made the church what it is in terms of culture, it is possible to craft a preferred culture that is intentional, rather than accidental. Every organization has a culture. The question is whether it was intentionally designed or "just is" as an aggregate of many factors in the past. If you are a church leader, are you able to define the culture of your church and the influences behind that culture? 

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of the companion book, Leading From the Sandbox describe a paradigm for designing an intentional, healthy, God honoring church or organizational culture and how to make it a reality. While existing cultures are deeply embedded, as my pastor friend suggested, it is possible to change and modify church cultures with intentionality in the process. Not only is it possible but necessary if the church is going to be everything God designed it to be.