I’m a huge fan of creating a set of core values. I did this for myself  40 plus years ago and words cannot express how helpful and transformative these values have been over the years. These values guide how I spend my time and my resources on. It aids me in deciding what to say yes or no to. Having a set of values for your family, your group, your organization or your church is invaluable. Cary Nieuwhof shares some very helpful and practical ideas on go to go about the process of creating and sustaining CORE VALUES!

Guest Post by Carey Nieuwhof

There’s a good chance that your church or organization  has core value statements. But whether they actually mean something to your staff, leaders, and members may be up for question. And let’s face it, many core value statements sound so generic that they’re meaningless, if not also ironic. Rather famously, integrity, respect and excellence were three of corporate fraudster Enron’s values before the energy company collapsed after it was discovered that their top executives laundered money, engaged in insider trading and embezzled tens of millions of dollars. The company’s executives were sentenced to decades in prison. Pulling generic values that have nothing to do with reality is a useless exercise.

But accurate and aspirational core values can be a powerful way for your church to advance its mission. Well-chosen and well-written core values are essential to  because they encode a set of accurate, aspirational, memorable, and, most importantly, actionable values for your people to live by. By writing down and encoding your core value statements into your culture, you can easily train and equip your staff, volunteers, and people to do ministry and make decisions that embody your ministry. Culture and values are an effective and free growth strategy that many churches simply overlook.… on the other hand, if your values aren’t actionable, no one will have guidance about how to handle day-to-day situations. That leaves your culture up to chance, which tends to go sideways, even toxic, quickly.

Now before you say, “Well, we have our doctrinal statement, and that states what shapes our values.” I know you value scripture and prayer. So does every church. That doesn’t make you different. And it doesn’t create your culture, either. But here’s what will: crafting a custom set of value statements that are both accurate (they describe who you are and how you engage in ministry and leadership) and aspirational (they give you something you can continue to grow into).

Step 1: Start with who embodies your values.

So when it comes to writing your core values, where do you start? Too many church leaders get stuck staring at a blinking cursor or blank whiteboard when they attempt to write their core values. There are a lot of words in the English language… and you have to choose just a few of them to define you. Furthermore, how do you avoid meaningless platitudes like “Value Excellence,” which sound great but practically mean nothing? On the first off-site day that I led my (at the time) church plant through, I had a spontaneous thought that ended up moving our team forward immensely. Rather than start with what we valued, I decided to start with who embodied the best of our church culture. Let me explain. I went to the whiteboard and asked, “Of all the people who attend our church, who best embodies what we’re about and WANT to be about in the future?” Immediately, names started coming to all of us. I wrote them down.

Your church or organization  has these people too: They are amazing. They are all you want to see in a church member and more. Then I asked a simple question: “Why? What is about them that makes them the embodiment of our mission, vision, and strategy?” (You’ll come back to those answers in Step 2.) But before we move on, I also created a second list.

Next, we made a list of people who, honestly, didn’t embody our mission, vision, and values, or to put it more positively, “Who are the people we would need to really encourage to get them in line with our real mission?” And we asked the same question: “Why? What is it about them that makes them the opposite of what we want to accomplish?” We actually wrote their names down (and then I burned the list). I know that’s dangerous. Maybe it’s even sinful. But it’s true. And it was SO clarifying. Figuring out who you value helps you discover what you value. It’s the best shortcut and clarifying exercise I know of for drafting your core values.

Step 2: Isolate the unique principles.

Figuring out why some people embodied our mission, vision, and strategy and why some didn’t was a breakthrough for us. It helped us get to the values that we, frankly, valued. When I asked our team why the people who best embodied what we’re about and WANT to be about in the future were their top choices, the team started saying things like:

  • Because they serve so selflessly.
  • Because it’s not about them.
  • Because they are so generous.
  • Because they are always considerate of other people.
  • Because they make it happen.
  • Because they are all about our common mission, vision, and strategy.

Those were the first clues as to what our cultural values were. “Make it Happen” made it to the list of final values a year later. We just love people who are willing to do what it takes no matter the obstacle, and we didn’t want to lose that value as we grew. Similarly, when I asked our team why the people who didn’t embody our mission, vision, and strategies didn’t make it on the list, our team started saying things like:

  • Because it’s always about them.
  • Because they criticize but don’t contribute.
  • Because they don’t actually value unchurched people.
  • Because they want to be served, rather than serve.

Again, that helped us understand what our values were.

Try it.

On a sheet of paper, write the names of five people who embody what your church is all about and what you WANT it to be about. And then write down why.  Do the same for people who AREN’T what your church is all about, and again, write down why.

You will learn a ton about what you value and your ideal church culture. Then burn the lists and save the principles.

For a few hours each month, we chiseled away at the principles we unearthed that day until a year later, after a lot of debate, discussion, and prayer, we had our final values.

Step 3: Create memorable language (that’s prescriptive AND descriptive).

It’s one thing to know what your values are as an organization. It’s another to phrase them in a way that’s memorable and exportable. In our case, we decided to create a two-word phrase for each value (i.e., “Battle Mediocrity”) followed by a question (i.e., “Am I allowing what is good to stand in the way of being great?”). Having two-word phrases allows the values to slip into everyday language, and the question makes the application personal. We also wanted the values to be both prescriptive and descriptive of our church. In other words, we want it to be accurate enough that people say, “For sure, that’s you…” But aspirational enough that it keeps us motivated to keep getting better.

Core Value Statement Examples (The Good… and The Bad)

So, now that you know what they are and how to create them, here are a few examples… both good and bad.

Ineffective Core Value Statements

  1. Excellence: We pursue everything we do with excellence.
  2. Humility: We want to be humble in all things.
  3. Kindness: We treat other people nicely.

You might be asking why these are examples of ineffective (bad) value statements. Great question. After all, who’s going to argue with excellence, compassion and kindness? The challenges are twofold. First, they’re a little too generic, and second, they aren’t specific enough. How do you know if you’ve hit excellence? Can you get good at humility, and if you do, does that still mean you’re humble? What does nice even mean? Kind on the outside, not so nice on the inside? I’m certainly not attacking the ideas of doing great work, maintaining a humble attitude, or treating people kindly. But the expression of these values is neither memorable nor ‘doable’. It would be hard to see whether you can accomplish them or not.

Effective Core Value Statements

So, let’s take these three ideas and restate them in a fresh way that perhaps has more specificity and some replicability. One formula I’ve found effective starts with a more uniquely phrased imperative followed by a personal question everyone in the organization can ask themselves (so they know whether they’re hitting the mark or not).

  1. Battle Mediocrity: Am I allowing what is good to stand in the way of what could be great?
  2. Take the Low Place: Am I willing to serve, or do I expect to be served?
  3. Choose Trust: Am I believing the best or assuming the worst?

Battle Mediocrity is an alternative to excellence. Excellence can bring diminishing returns (it sets a bar that can never be reached), so instead, you could opt to Battle Mediocrity. The question challenges people to do what is great and makes mediocrity (which is all around us in the church and the world) the enemy that we need to fight. Similarly, taking the low place is an expression of the humility virtue, but done in a way that it’s clearer and actionable. We’re people who serve, not people who expect to be served. And finally, choosing trust takes how we treat others to a whole new level. The question also gives everyone something to ask themselves every time they want to question someone’s motives or behavior. You can nuance these expressions, but this gives you an idea of how specific, memorable language can elevate a core principle to something that lives in the hearts and minds of everyone on the team

To sum it up, capturing your organization’s values is helpful because it allows you to reproduce them and export them as you grow. If your culture is healthy, it will become one of your greatest assets.