Recently I became a volleyball parent. My youngest has started playing volleyball, and with this season I find myself on Saturday at random gyms for daylong tournaments. In just a short time, I’m learning that there is a volleyball culture. The players’ possess apparel and use equipment uniquely designed for volleyball. Apparently, it’s important to have a collective team cheer for the various ways you can score. Also, at the end of a match and game, there’s etiquette to changing sides. The volleyball culture extends beyond the court to parents cheering in the stands and potluck lunches.
The church is no different as it also has a culture, and it’s unique to each specific church. Culture can be an underestimated and rarely evaluated element of your church, yet it’s vital to the church mission. The wrong culture can impact the best vision and strategy as it is more about who you are, than what you do. Whether a new family or regular attender walk into your church and environments, culture is what they sense, feel and hear. Which makes identifying and evaluating your culture very difficult.
5 Keys to Evaluating Your Church’s Culture and 1 Random Thought
Don’t rely on your own observations and evaluations. If you have been a part of your church for a while, you’ll be biased to your current culture. You’ve already invested so much personally in creating the current culture. You’re also blind to what outsiders will sense. If you are new in your position of leadership, you may clearly see things from an outside view, but you aren’t aware of all the unique dynamics the insiders know. Gather a team and utilize others to help you identify the ins and outs of your culture. Invite people around the table who can give you both an insider or outsider perspective.
Your Church culture is complex, and identifying the current culture can’t be determined in an afternoon. It is important to give yourself a period of time to observe and gather information before you arrive at any conclusions. How long? Depends on how connected you are to the culture of your church. I arrived at Woodside knowing very little about my new community and church, and realized it would be impossible to come to accurate conclusions in a couple of weeks, so I set out on a six to nine month research and reshaping project.
Ask Questions; Listen; Then Repeat
Not just any question or only questions. Listen! Hear what they are saying and not saying. Ask your questions to leaders, parents, staff and pastors. Ask questions of people that aren’t connected to your ministry or church about your church or ministry. Always follow up with a “Why?” and “How?” The “why and how” will get you to the real source of what’s going on. “Why do you think we are welcoming to families?” “How does that communicate to a single parent?” Push until you get to the issue behind the issue.
You can ask questions in a way that will cast vision and create the culture you as a leader desire. “Do you think that is the best way for a kid/student to learn?” “How does a kid respond when you greet him by name?”
Don’t be afraid of silence! If you ask a question, chances are they have never thought about the question. Let them dwell on it for a while and let them know you are listening and value their opinion. Valuable insight will not come without some work.
Another great tool for gathering information is an online survey, especially connecting with a mass group of people. However, don’t make a survey your only form of information gathering, as they may feel limited to only the questions on the survey. On a survey form, you can’t ask follow-up questions specific to their answers.
You will not be able to connect with everyone. To maximize your influence, focus on shaping the influencers in your culture. People follow influence, not positions of authority. There are people that are positive and negative influencers in your culture, identify both and work to shape both to influence your culture. One of the best things a leader can do is spend time cultivating a relationship with the influencers and allow them to carry your voice.
Early at Woodside, I invited a group of seasoned and new leaders to be part of a “Think Tank” for our kids ministry. I spent about three months meeting every couple of weeks evaluating, discussing and shaping the culture of what would be Woodside Family Ministry. I knew there would be some people that would push back on our future changes and I needed their influence. They had relationships and a louder voice than mine.
Use An Evaluation Tool
My preferred evaluation tool is a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). As a team we will SWOT just about everything: teams, events, programs, and ministries. Two things are important: First, gather your team or a team (see above). Second, check your feelings at the door. This is not a time to defend what you’ve done in the past; it’s about identifying the true outcomes and future opportunities.
Random Thought: Culture Can Drift
Keep in mind: it’s easy for a leader to recognize a need for a cultural shift when things are bad, it’s much more difficult when things are going well. A friend of mine started a church over a decade ago with a culture that primed its growth to a mega church. As we chatted recently, he said the vision for his church had never been more clear and strong. They were continuing to grow and seeing marriages healed, people redeemed, kids and students coming to Christ. However, the culture had drifted far from what he envisioned when he started the church. Things did not change over night, but over time slowly drifted from created culture.