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A church’s culture is the atmosphere in which the church functions

By Ronald E. Keener

‘The strongest force in an organization is not vision or strategy – it is the culture which holds all the other components.’

When it comes to a church, what is a church’s culture? Samuel R. Chand says “culture is the strongest force in any organization. The best way to understand culture is the statement: ‘This is how we do things here.’”

Consultant Sam Chand has written Cracking Your Church’s Culture: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspiration (Jossey-Bass, 2010, a Leadership Network publication), and says, “It is the atmosphere in which the church functions. It is the prevalent attitude. It is the collage of spoken and unspoken messages.”

“The strongest force in an organization is not vision or strategy — it is the culture which holds all the other components,” says Chand. Every leader at some time or the other has asked the same question: “Why is it that we are not where I know we should be as a church?” Now, you know the answer — it’s your church’s culture.

He recently gave an interview to Church Executive:

Say I’m new to a church. Should I be able to pick up on its culture sitting in the pew?

Absolutely! You can go to a new church and sniff culture! Have you ever been to a new place and said to yourself (or others!), “Something’s not right.” Without knowing what it is you just smelled culture. Think about the different cultures in different restaurants, schools, churches and even homes.

Is there such a thing as a healthy culture and an unhealthy culture, or is culture just something you have for good or bad?

There is no such thing as good or bad culture, because culture is about groups of people. But it is about healthy or unhealthy.

What are a few ingredients of an unhealthy culture?

Lack of communication. Turf. Fear. Super controlled. No freedom. Lack of leadership development. Silos. Suspicion. Slow decision making leading to denial by delay.

How important is the personality of the pastor to a healthy culture?

Extremely important. Culture is created from the top and sustained at other levels of the church.

So where do culture and vision intersect, and how can vision be stymied by a poor culture? Culture trumps vision, you say?

Culture is the most crucial component of the church. If a good steak is the vision, then the plate on which it is served is the culture. If the plate is dirty then the steak (vision) is devalued.

You quote a pharmaceutical executive [Dick Clark] as saying: “The fact is, culture eats strategy for lunch. You can have a good strategy in place, but if you don’t have the culture and the enabling systems, the [negative] culture of the organization will defeat the strategy.” How so?

If you were to receive a kidney as a transplant, but your body is unhealthy, it will reject the kidney. That is why churches need to become highly intentional about creating a sustainable healthy culture; it is the soul of the organization.

What are those “enabling systems” in the church context?

Let me answer this by a few questions:

  • Who’s celebrated and for what?
  • Who’s invited to meetings and how are they conducted?
  • How is failure handled?
  • How is responsiveness and execution rewarded or lack of it punished?

What difference does vocabulary make in defining a church’s culture?

Culture is transmitted via words we use. For example, a “can-do” organization will use the word “challenge” rather than the word “problem.” Both words communicate different cultural messages. “Problem” is a dead end while “challenge” is something we can overcome.

How does trust factor into a healthy culture?

Trust is the adhesive that holds an organization together. Lack of trust is seen in how inner groups get formed, leaders are tentative and nonparticipation. We give our best effort and go above and beyond the call of duty in a trusting environment.

You say, “The culture of a team is shaped by the dominant person,” not necessarily the senior pastor. What’s to be done if this person is the problem?

The dominant person could very well be a “non-positional” person. If this person is the problem then their influence has to be minimized, marginalized, quarantined or ultimately removed. There is a different strategy for each of these transitional phases.

How can a team use your book to study its own culture or that of the church and evaluate its health?

Over a thousand churches world-wide have taken my free diagnostic test and survey at www.freeculturesurvey.com as well as read and dissect the book together. Leaders who have read this book are buying it by the boxes for all their leaders and other pastor friends. It is being viewed as a seminal work in this very amorphous area of church culture.

Have you a success story to share of a church that has overcome its negative culture and moved onward and upward?

A megachurch with a weekend attendance of 10,000± was organized and governed on a “control and command” model by one person on the executive team. It squelched teamwork and creativity. Fear was pervasive. During a 10-month period the culture was totally shifted with strong inner collaborations and team celebrations. This came at a price: Nothing worth achieving is free or easy.

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Elements of a church’s culture

Sam Chand says he has discovered seven words to describe the elements of church culture derived from the word CULTURE itself for easier understanding. These seven key words are:

C Control

U Understanding

L Leadership

T Trust

U Unafraid

R Responsive

E Execution

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2 Comments for “A church’s culture is the atmosphere in which the church functions”

  1. Dr. Chand really speaks to the core issues concerning any church or business culture, we need as leaders to really embrace and understand the power of culture and learn the language of that culture to influence and lead change. We must drive out fear out of organizations. Quality and Leadership guru Edwards Demming stated in order to sustain any lasting change in continuous improvement you “must” drive fear out of your culture! Trust is absolutely the key to creating a culture of truth.

  2. Awesome article about the importance of culture in an organization. Dr. Chand’s leadership wisdom and insight is a huge help to any organization serious about fulfilling their vision and making a difference in life!

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