Jim Powell, in his book “Dirt Matters” describes church culture as “a complex blend of norms, beliefs, attitudes, traditions and practices that define the congregation.” All churches have a predictable way of behaving that is often informed by a combination of factors.
Sometimes a church’s culture is characterized by some institutionalized reaction to a particularly traumatic leadership experience. Some churches are particularly prone to habitual behaviors that might not even be in their best interest, but because it has become second nature, it’s very difficult to change.
Why does this matter? Well, as Larry Wynn (the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s assistant executive director) told a group of our pastors, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker). Pastors can present plans and talk about a vision that is sensible and proper, but if the church culture is mistrustful of leadership, some hard work will have to take place before change takes root.
Here are some thoughts about understanding, and when necessary, morphing church culture.
To the pastor:
Read books and enter into learning experiences about leading change. One of my pastor friends is doing an online cohort with Brian Croft of NAMB. He has been in ministry over 25 years, but he is still committed to learning, adjusting, and leading his church well.
Take others on this journey with you. You’ll never change the culture to a healthier situation without others. Find some faithful, teachable people to invest in and get them in learning situations.
Promote an experimental culture. Keep saying, “What if we tried _____? It’s not unbiblical; it’s just different.” Remember, “When you are tired of saying it people are just starting to hear it.”
Listen to the stories. Ask good questions to build trust and understanding. ”Do not move an ancient boundary marker that your ancestors set in place” (Proverbs 22:28). Make sure you know the “whys” behind the church’s behavioral norms. They may still need to be shifted, but you will better understand the sensitivity involved.
Be prepared to stay and build trust. Thom Rainer says that years 5-7 are usually when a pastor hits his stride. If you are not willing to commit to staying that amount of time, you can’t experience what might have been.
To the congregation:
Recognize the difference between methods and the message. I have never met a real life heretic in one of our pulpits. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but all of the time my experience has been that pastors want to change the delivery system, not the message.
Assign the best motive to your pastor. Assume that he really wants what is best for the Kingdom. This is a healthy starting place. There is something spiritually underdeveloped in the person who always has to push back. Some push back is helpful. Tension is a necessary part of the creative process. But obstruction of Kingdom progress is a wholly different matter.
Look at your actual values versus your aspirational values. Sometimes churches say things like, “We want young families,” but they are totally unwilling to adjust their behaviors to attract young families. And often they are not as accommodating as they could be to a young pastor and his family so that it makes it hard for him to serve them. Work to discover the Biblical values you should be encouraging and then work equally as hard at achieving alignment in your actual behavior.
Embrace an experimental culture. Keep hearing your pastor when he says, “What if we tried _____? It’s not unbiblical; it’s just different.”
Love your pastor and help him have a long tenure. God may call him away, but he shouldn’t leave because the church has made staying there unbearable. Be courageous enough to deal with ungodly trouble makers who make life miserable for pastors. God is going to hold us accountable for these kinds of things one day (Rom. 14:10-12).
‘Work on the ministry’
Hal Seed said, “We not only have to work in the ministry, but we have to work on the ministry.” I remind myself of this about once a week. It’s absolutely true. A huge part of “working on the ministry” is to understand that church culture holds a critical place in leading change.