Your Church's Culture
Dr. James Emery White
- 2018 Jan 04
The latest edition of the Harvard Business Review spotlights “The Culture Factor.” No, not the culture at large but organizational culture.
“Strategy and culture are among the primary levers at top leaders’ disposal in their never-ending quest to maintain organizational viability and effectiveness,” the lead article begins. “Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.”
And what is organizational “culture”?
“Culture is the tacit social order of an organization. It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organizations capacity to thrive.”
Oh how I wish more church leaders understood this. And, even more, how to create a positive, biblical culture, and then how to protect it.
Here are some thoughts that might serve:
First, create a culture for your church. Have the mission painted as a clear target on the wall. Let there be no doubt what gets rewarded and valued, and what is held in contempt. Establish core values. Determine how you will relate to one another in community. The goal is to have an innate sense of “this is us” and “this is not us.”
For example, at Meck it is a part of our culture that lost people matter to God and reaching out to them is integral to our mission. It is deeply embedded that we are to relate lovingly to each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and quickly deal with offense and conflict. On any endeavor, when we are 5% away from turning good to great, we give that last 5% because excellence honors God. We are ruthless about having no “sacred cows,” so we ruthlessly evaluate methodology in light of our mission. Such things are the heartbeat of our culture.
Simply put, you create a culture through what you value, what you model and what you teach.
Here’s an example of culture creation, indicative of what takes place scores of times each week. Following a staff meeting, a woman on our staff came to my office to express that I had offended her with something I had said. She felt that an off-hand remark I had made demeaned her investment in a particular ministry.
She was right. I made the remark without even thinking about her selfless role in the endeavor. I could only apologize, tell her I truly didn’t mean to intimate that about her, and then ask for her forgiveness.
She graciously accepted it and said, “Okay, we’re done!”
A day or two later I felt a prompting to email her and tell her how proud I was of her for how she handled it. She didn’t let it fester or go underground. She came immediately to me to express her concern in a spirit of community, giving me the benefit of the doubt for the heart behind my ill-chosen words. I told her that this was what Matthew 18:15 was all about, and she had modeled it beautifully. She wrote back and thanked me because she so wanted to do such things right.
Because that’s who we are. It’s the culture we’ve worked so hard to create.
Second, you must protect that culture. I’m stunned by how many leaders work so hard at creating a culture and then do so little to protect it. It’s akin to a father or mother giving of themselves selflessly to their family, fostering love and intimacy, but then doing nothing to guard their online exposure or peer friendships.
So how do you protect a church’s culture?
Most of it is common sense, just not commonly implemented. First and foremost, you protect the entry into that culture. I don’t mean your front door of outreach as much as the interior rooms where family dwells. Do you have a membership process where you go over the culture in such a way that it ends, in essence, by saying: “This is who we are. We would love to have you join us. But if you can’t sign off on this culture, then this isn’t the church for you. Don’t join if you can’t be a part of the culture.” There was a running joke in the early years of Meck that our membership class felt like I was trying to talk people out of joining more than into joining.
And if you think membership is key to protecting your culture, that’s nothing compared to how you staff. Whether you are adding your church’s 2nd staff person or 72nd, that person will have disproportionate influence. If they are not on board culturally, you have just dealt a deathblow to who you are trying to be. This is why we hire almost entirely from within—people who are currently members at Meck and, of late, those who have participated in our Leadership Development Program (a 100-member cohort that goes through a one-year intensive investment on vision, values and mission, leadership, personal spiritual formation and theology).
There is so much more to protecting your culture – who speaks, the resources you highlight, the books you promote (or don’t) – but you get the dynamic at play.
The point, again, is that the church is a family, which means that its leaders are to lead parentally (cf. I Timothy 3). If you are a parent, you know that few things matter more to healthy family life than the culture you create and then protect.
The church is a family, too.
James Emery White
Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2018.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.
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