Congregational Culture is Crucial

Detail of Congregation 2, a sculpture by Ledelle Moe
Detail of Congregation 2, sculpture by Ledelle Moe

by John Wimberly

Too many congregations are obsessed with finding the right pastor or creating the right programs, when we should be focused on congregational culture. Every Sunday, I make a point of reading “Corner Office” on page two of The New York Times business section. It is a fascinating column in which chief executive officers of businesses and non-profits are interviewed about where they learned key leadership insights, how they hire and what else makes a difference in building a successful organization. Most CEOs stress the importance of organizational culture. Week after week, they stress that we can hire the best people and have the best strategic plans, but if our organization’s culture is dysfunctional, our chances of success are greatly diminished.

Recently “Corner Office” interviewed Jessica Herrin, the founder and CEO of Stella and Dot Family Brands. Herrin said, “You have to commit to caring for the culture more than the quarter (profits).” Discussing what she seeks when hiring, the Herrin stressed characteristics related to organizational culture. “It’s really about, do you care about the mission, do you have a fierce work ethic, are you a good person who other people enjoy being around, and you do care about winning as a company?… You’ve got to find people have the mental wiring to see opportunities more than focus on obstacles… You need passion to levitate over the obstacles you will face.”

Questions about Culture

If we accept the wisdom of these CEOs, we should be asking ourselves questions different from those congregations typically ask. Key questions include:

  • Is our congregational culture opportunistic or does it focus on all the obstacles it faces as it seeks to serve God?
  • Do we have and reward a “fierce work ethic” in our congregation’s culture or do we tolerate—even elevate—mediocrity?
  • Do we put unpleasant people in powerful positions in the congregation, making other people less likely to serve with them?
  • Are we passionate about ministry or is our energy scattered into a long list of competing organizational and personal priorities?

Instead of focusing on questions like these, most congregational governing boards spend a huge amount of time going over budgets line by line. They cross-examine committees about their recommendations. They talk endlessly about facilities issues.

What about culture? When was the last time our session/vestry/council talked about how our congregational culture rewards high performance by a committees, teams and staff? When did we last talk about the personality traits we want from our lay and clergy leaders? Have we spent time discussing our risk tolerance as a culture and considering ways to increase openness to risk–in the ways we see risk-taking in great faith leaders throughout history? How does our culture welcome people with different ideas, backgrounds or ethnicities?

Culture and Money

Jesus told us that our financial priorities reveal much about our values. They also reveal much about congregational cultures. Many congregations have a significant amount of money in the bank. Do we see our savings/endowment/rainy day fund as an opportunity or something to protect come hell or high water? The answer to that question is usually rooted deep in the congregation’s culture.

An opportunistic culture sees money as something to be spent wisely to seize strategic openings that can lead to new ways to serve God, members and the community. An anxious culture clings to money as if it were life itself. Jesus had something to say about such cultural choices when he told the Parable of the Pounds, condemning the man who clung fearfully to his one pound and praising those who invested their pounds allowing them to return more than they were originally given.

Frankly, I think our vestry/session/council meetings would be better attended and much more passionate if we discussed how to build a faithful, faith-building culture in our congregation rather than budgets and buildings. Who would want to miss a discussion about whether First Church’s culture reflects the teachings on forgiveness that we read in the Bible? Who would not want to chime in on whether or not the congregation’s culture was future or past oriented? Who would miss a conversation about how St. Stephen’s Church could build a culture that “levitate(s) over the obstacles you will face?”

I serve on a number of non-profit boards. Whenever we engage in a strategic planning process, two things happen: 1) people complain, “Oh no, not again.” and 2) everyone is present for the meetings because they want their thoughts to be put in the plan. Thinking strategically, thinking about a congregation’s culture should not be at the fringe of our congregation’s agenda. They should be the heart of what leaders, lay and clergy, do. May the New Year of 2016 bring more strategically-focused attention on the culture of the congregations where we live, move and have our being.

[box]Mobilizing Congregations , by John WimberlyJohn Wimberly is the author of the new Alban book Mobilizing Congregations: How Teams Can Motivate Members and Get Things DoneHe consults with congregations on issues such as the creation and implementation of strategic plans, congregational growth and the empowering use of endowments. John served congregations for 38 years, thirty of them at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. His quest for continuing personal, spiritual and professional growth led John to complete a PhD in systematic theology and an Executive MBA program.[/box]